Dan Monceaux’s submission in response to Oceanic Victor’s EPBC Act referral
Oceanic Victor Pty Ltd/Tourism and Recreation/waters off Encounter Bay, 600m SE Victor Harbour/South Australia/Oceanic Victor Viewing Platform Proposal, SA
I would like to begin my personal submission by pointing out that this proposal by Oceanic Victor is the first time that any sea-cage aquaculture related operation in South Australia has ever been referred to the EPBC Act. Let me firstly commend the proponents for acknowledging the importance of EPBC referral, given the variety of sensitive receptors present in the vicinity of the proposed action.
The sea cage ranching of southern bluefin tuna is a significant economic activity in South Australia. It is also one that I would argue, receives substantial protection from the State Government and its agencies, which limit the disclosure of many of this industry’s activities, including its pollution profile and environmental monitoring reports.
I would like to support this statement with an example relevant as context to this proposal. The proponents have, for the most part, presented the argument that because PIRSA considers Oceanic Victor’s proposal to be consistent with ‘ecologically sustainable development’ that should be adequate to persuade the EPBC assessors that their proposal should not be a ‘Controlled Action.’ I wish to challenge this.
In 2001, a methodology was developed by the Federal Government to allow seacage aquaculture operators to estimate the pollution burden of their activities on the marine environment (nutrient loading from excess feed and fish faeces). At this time, aquaculture was exempt from what were mandatory reporting requirements of pollution to water for almost all other industrial activities. In 2007, the aquaculture exemption came under review, and the Environment Department recommended that the exemption be removed. South Australia’s Environment Minister at the time, Gail Gago, voted in support of the interests of the aquaculture sector, and against the advice of the Federal Environment Department and members of the conservation sector. As a result of a vote taken by the states’ Environment Ministers, the pollution profile of the aquaculture sector remains obscured from view.
Sea cage aquaculture is the largest industrial contributor of pollution discharges to the marine environment in Spencer Gulf by tonneage. This region is where the bulk of the industry is presently concentrated in South Australia. In 2013 it was reported in the Spencer Gulf Port Link Environmental Impact Statement (pg. 376) that the southern bluefin tuna industry was responsible for approximately 1,946 tonnes of nitrogenous nutrients to the marine environment per annum. Kingfish sea cage aquaculture contributes an additional 734 tonnes annually in the same gulf system. For the sake of comparison, the combined discharges from the gulf’s four major population centres’ wastewater treatment plants totals 53.4 tonnes, representing a population of approximately 62,000 people. The mandatory reporting threshold for nitrogen discharges to water to the National Pollution Industry is ten tonnes per annum- a figure the tuna ranching industry exceeds by over 194 times.
Minister Gago’s decision to vote to support the interests of primary industries, and against the interests of the environment and those who work to preserve it, is in my opinion, indicative of the position of the State government in general, and its attitude towards the aquaculture sector. I am including this example for the purposes of warning the Federal environment department that an assessment report prepared by PIRSA, an enabler and supporter of aquaculture activity, should not be considered to be a genuinely objective assessment and therefore should not be considered exhaustive or adequate for the purposes of Federal conservation assessment.
I understand that until last year, the South Australian EPA only considered the impact of nutrient pollution on seagrass health. This proposal intends to locate a pen above shelfing reef and macroalgae- a substrate and ecological community not (to my knowledge) previously subjected directly to aquaculture effluent elsewhere in South Australia. This proposal is essentially an experiment, and if it is to be approved and undertaken, should occur with strict monitoring in place and public disclosure of the operation’s environmental performance. This is all the more important given that once operational, the lease area surrounding the pen will become an exclusion zone.
Information on the environmental performance of aquaculture operations in South Australia is difficult to obtain, with monitoring reports and other relevant studies frequently held under the auspices of commercial confidentiality. This brings me to this EPBC Referral. Why is it that Attachment 3, referred to in the principle document is not provided for public consideration and comment? Was this withheld at the request of the proponent, PIRSA or the South Australian government? Or was it an administration error?
Regardless, it is my opinion that any new or expanding aquaculture activities in South Australian waters should be referred to the EPBC Act as a matter of standard approval-seeking practise. As this submission will argue, interactions between sea cages and threatened and protected species are common and understood, but poorly documented in South Australia. It is critical to understand that absence of proof and proof of absence are not the same- and a lack of reports made to PIRSA may not be an accurate indication of the frequency, nature or extent of interactions with EPBC Act listed threatened species.
Protected area status & terrestrial considerations
Granite Island is an IUCN Category IV protected area, designated for the primary purpose of maintaining, conserving and restoring species and habitats. It is a protected area managed mainly for conservation through management intervention. The most widely known and celebrated resident on Granite Island is its famous colony of little penguins (Eudyptula minor). The colony has declined dramatically from 1,548 penguins in 2001 to just 38 in 2013. Despite this, the State government has ignored recommendations made in 2011 that the status of the species in South Australia, or at least that of the Gulf St Vincent population be reviewed and considered for listing as ‘Vulnerable’ under state legislation. (Weibken 2011) I realise that this species is not listed under the EPBC Act, but am including it in my response as the population is of significant conservation concern to local residents and environmentalists, and has not been acknowledged by the applicant in their principle referral document.
It is my opinion that the proponent has not given their obligations to safeguard the terrestrial environment on Granite Island due consideration, and the lack of provision of an EPBC Protected Matters Search report or other terrestrial biodiversity data supports my claim.
The proponent intends “to locate the sea-caged pontoon on the site by 1 December 2015 and commence stocking and feeding operations shortly thereafter.” The proponent also provides no alternative timeframes or activities. While it would no doubt be in the commercial interest of Oceanic Victor to start trading in December 2015, should this action be deemed a “Controlled Action” the proponents would be required to prepare relevant studies and management plans, which would likely lead to a delayed commencement of trading. I believe it is misleading for the proponent to suggest that a later start date for their proposal is not possible, as inferred by the proponent in response to section 1.10.
Is it part of a larger action?
In my opinion, the Environment Department should query the proponent’s assertion that the proposed action is not part of a larger action. The proponent has mentioned in this referral and also in a previous approval application to South Australia’s Development Assessment Commission that “part of the proposed site overlaps a proposed Department of Planning, Transport and Infrastrucuture (DPTI) cruise ship anchorage.”
It is my understanding that cruise ship visitation to Encounter Bay, should it proceed, will be an entirely new activity. If the mooring point is established, cruise ships may shuttle passengers by tender nearest landfall at Granite Island. The establishement of this mooring point may be at the request of Oceanic Victor, or may otherwise directly serve their business interests and is therefore deserving of further investigation.
If the current proposal is re-scoped to include customers delivered by tender from a cruise ship mooring point (as part of a larger action) further environmental impacts would need to be considered. These should in my opinion include consideration of the channel/course by which the cruise ships approach the proposed mooring point and the transit of cruise ship passengers to and from Granite Island. Such activity will be an entirely new action for the Encounter Bay area, and may result in further interactions between vessels and threatened species listed under the EPBC Act. Potential impacts include acoustic pollution from motors and potential ship strike (both likely to impact cetaceans), cruise ship effluent disposal (which may influence great white shark visitation and behaviour) and seabed disturbance.
Alternatives to taking the proposed action
The proponent suggests that there are no alternatives to undertaking this action.
This is absurd in my opinion, if the objectives of the operation, and those of the Marine Park in which it is to be located are considered. As the proponent has acknowledged “the Encounter Bay Marine Park Management Plan seeks to provide opportunities for public appreciation, understanding and enjoyment of the marine park; creating and promoting opportunities for sustainable nature-based tourism in the marine park and working co-operatively with Aboriginal communities to conserve country, plans, animals and culture. These objectives will effectively be supported by the proposed activity, as visitors have the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of local marine life through a closer viewing than might otherwise be experienced, all within a safe, controlled and sustainable environment.”
I contest that educational and entertainment opportunities exist for people to engage with the marine environment without the need to enter it and hand-feed captive fish. A permanent structure that does not contain captive animals such as those present at Busselton Jetty, Western Australia and Milford Sound, New Zealand could eliminate the environmental impacts which accompany keeping fish in captivity, the complexity of managing their health and welfare and wild species at risk of entanglement. Structures at Busselton and Milford Sound also do not feature any netting or other entanglement risks which are unique to the infrastructure used by sea cage aquaculture. I would recommend that this be considered by the proponent as an alternative, given the sensitivity of the chosen location (within a habitat protection zone, with a State marine park and in a region frequented by Southern right whale cows and calves).
The proponent states that “the proposed action has been the subject of a comprehensive assessment by the Government of South Australia in accordance with the Aquaculture Act 2001 (SA). This assessment concluded that the proposed action meets the ‘ecological sustainable development’ objectives of the Aquaculture Act 2001.” While this may be true, I wish to repeat the concern I expressed in my submission made earlier this year to PIRSA regarding Oceanic Victor’s proposal. No hydrodynamic modelling studies appear to have been conducted to demonstrate that the circulation and flushing time of the bay is adequate to avoid harm to the environment.
If a habitat protection zone in a South Australian Marine Park allows “activities and uses that do not harm habitats of the functioning of ecosystems” I contest that this activity cannot be safely assumed to meet these criteria, given the lack of hydrodynamic modelling provided by PIRSA or Oceanic Victor in support of this claim. Siting the pen over shelfing reef and macroalgae rather than over typical sandy bottom and sparse seagrass is evidence of further experimentation, with no guarantee of avoiding harm to the benthic habitat or ecology.
Conflict with objectives of marine park zoning
This referral states that “any impacts to biota in the immediate vicinity of the cage structure are expected to recover rapidly when the cage system is moved (to allow for fallowing) or should it be removed at a future date. Further, the report noted that there is not expected to be any impact that extends beyond the lease area to surrounding habitats.” This statement acknowledges that the facility will have an impact on the marine environment, which brings it into conflict with the purposes of a Habitat Protection Zone, within a state-managed Marine Park.
“A similar aquaculture tourism operation has been in operation near Port Lincoln since January 2011, during which time no interactions with protected marine vertebrates, sharks and seabirds have been reported to PIRSA, although they are known to frequent the waters of Port Lincoln.” The absence of proof is not proof of absence. Given the town of Port Lincoln’s economic interest in southern bluefin tuna industry at large, and the State government’s publicly expressed desire to facilitate the expansion of the industry, it is possible that interactions with threatened species have gone unreported.
Possible interactions with EPBC Act listed threatened species
Here are some relevant examples of threatened or protected species interactions, as referred to by the aquaculture industry generally, or at relevant sites in other jurisdictions:
Sea eagle interactions with sea cages:
Great white shark interactions with sea cages:
- http://www.ccpo.odu.edu/~chris/cc/gw.htm & http://triggspot.com/australian-diver-attacks-kills-massive-great-white-shark-waters-mexico/
Pinniped interactions with sea cages
(excerpt from Seal culling in South Australia article from Wikipedia):
“The southern bluefin tuna ranching industry reported increasing interactions with fur seals in the 2010s. Marcus Stehr, son of Hagen Stehr and executive of the Stehr Group told The Advertiser in 2012 that fur seal interactions were costing their southern bluefin tuna ranching aquaculture business “at least $1 million” annually. He stated:
“Seals cost the entire industry millions of dollars every year and we do need support from the State Government to look at how we manage them. In SA we have failed to develop any strategies to manage growing seal numbers and it’s vital that this begins.”
In 2013 Brian Jeffriess told The Advertiser:
“Attacks by seals are a major problem for tuna ranching. They are the largest cause of tuna deaths in the pontoons and frighten the other tuna so they do not eat for days.”
”Kangaroo Island may cull New Zealand fur seals to save penguins”. Retrieved 2015-07-08.
”Fur seals devastating marine eco-system”. Retrieved 2015-07-09.
Southern and Atlantic right whale entanglement incidents (in fishing gear, netting):
- http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/41712/0 (note fishing gear entanglement and ship strike at major threats)
- IUCN’s Red List of threatened species states of Southern right whales that the species is “subject to mortality due to entanglements in fishing gear and collisions with shipping (IWC 2001).”
- http://www.hermanuswhalewatching.com/southern-right-whale-trapped-in-fishing-line/ (note that this article refers to Eubalaena, but possible the North Atlantic right whale, rather than southern).
Finally, I wish to draw your attention to the sighting logs of the SA Whale Centre, which provide some indication of the occurrence of Southern right whales in the vicinity of the proposal’s location. It is also worth noting than an unknown quantity of further sightings are likely to have gone unreported, due to a lack of public awareness surrounding the importance of reporting whale sightings to the SA Whale Centre.
Further incidence of threatened and protected species, including migratory birds such as the Sharp-tailed sand piper and red-necked stint which may be impacted should Oceanic Victor increase the abundance of silver gulls or other scavenger species in the vicinity via the poor management of human garbage. The following link includes species occurrence within a 5km radius around Granite Island. In addition to aforementioned species, records of Australian sea-lions, humpback whales and various petrels and albatrosses are also worth considering in light of their EPBC Act listings.
It is my opinion, that despite the proposed project’s size, the sensitivity of the chosen location, the operation’s experimental nature (relative to benthic habitat and hydrodynamic uncertainties) and high incidence of threatened and protected species should make it a candidate for a “Controlled Action” determination. The proposal may also require re-scoping to include actions involving cruise ships, pending further investigation.
Dan Monceaux is a documentary filmmaker with a keen interest in marine biodoversity and conservation issues. He joined MLSSA in 2013 and served as Secretary from April-December 2014. Dan snorkels and has burning passions for underwater photography and citizen science.