As ConocoPhillips searches for gas off Bass Strait island’s west coast, fears grow for the effect on local fisheries
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Last modified on Fri 27 Aug 2021 16.01 EDT
Residents of tiny King Island, in Bass Strait, are objecting to seismic testing off its coast by a US oil and gas company, saying concerns it will affect local fisheries have not been properly addressed.
The energy giant ConocoPhillips was given final approval earlier this month to look for gas in a 4,089 square kilometre area, a little more than 20km off the island’s west coast. Work began this week.
Fishers joined surfers, environmental activists and other local residents of the 1,600-strong island population in a protest against the testing on Thursday. Two commercial fishing vessels, four dinghies and 20 people met on the water, while 100 residents gathered on the wharf.
Among the protesters was Tony “Bear” Alexander, 59, one of 14 commercial fishers based on the island. He said he had joined the rally to fight “for future generations”, and that locals were concerned they would end up with visible oil rigs offshore.
“I’m an old bloke, but if we don’t stand up to them, who will?” he said. “You can see some beautiful sunsets here, and there’s nothing worse than seeing an oil rig in it.”
Tom Allen, Tasmanian campaign manager for the Wilderness Society, on King Island to meet with locals, said it was an “existential” issue for islanders.
“For me it’s about climate change, but for the people of King Island, it’s their livelihood,” Allen said. “They’re angry. They’re really worried. There’s people in the fishing community who are leaving the island.”
Allen said the evidence was clear that oil and gas needed to stay in the ground. The International Energy Agency suggested in May that limiting global heating to 1.5C, a goal set out in the Paris agreement, meant exploration and exploitation of new fossil fuel basins had to stop this year.
The Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (Appea), the industry association for the oil and gas sector, has said the IEA report should be “taken with a grain of salt” as it offered only one path to reaching net zero emissions by mid-century.
ConocoPhillips said it has strictly complied with regulatory requirements imposed by the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (Nopsema), which approved the testing.
Seismic surveys involve sending sound waves into rock layers beneath the sea floor and analysing the time it takes for each wave to bounce back, and the strength of each returning wave, to assess whether oil and gas deposits are present.
Earlier this week ConocoPhillips released instructions for divers that said the low frequency sound waves it released would be in the range of 140 decibels to 148db – equivalent to the sound generated on the deck of an aircraft carrier.
Opponents are concerned about the effect these sound waves will have on marine life. Alexander said the company had told the community the underwater noise could reach 212db.
Fiona McLeod, the company’s general manager of government and external affairs, said its environmental assessment had not found a “cause-effect pathway” that could have a “stock-level impact on the sustainability of the fishery”.
She acknowledged seismic testing could have an impact but said the regulator had determined the risk of the work near King Island can be managed.
“Seismic activities do not operate to a no-impact standard,” she said. “Instead, the acceptable level of risk is determined and permissioned by the regulator Nopsema, taking into account consultation with stakeholders and the information they provide.”
King Island’s mayor, Julie Arnold, said the inability to rule out any impact on the fisheries was at the core of community concern, and the latest protest was evidence of a “groundswell” of opposition to the work.
“People had some optimism that all the work that was done and the explanations we’d given about why we felt this was not the right thing to do would have some cut through,” Arnold said. “They now realise it’s had no cut-through at all.
“Basically, the approvals have been given regardless of the feelings of the people and the businesses that are being affected by this.”
She said the company was under no legal obligation to pay compensation if damage occurred, but it had negotiated an “adjustment protocol” with “the relevant fishing associations”.
Julian Harrington, chief executive of the Tasmanian Seafood Industry Council, said he was concerned about the rock lobster and giant crab catch on King Island, a $20m dollar industry that had already been hit hard through the pandemic and Australia’s trade dispute with China.
“There are a lot of unknowns,” Harrington said.
“It’s been really up and down for 18 months,” he said. “This seismic testing is just another level of frustration and angst that the operators really don’t need on their minds right now.”
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