Commercial fisher Damien Bell jokes about working in one of the shallowest productive estuaries in Australia.

Key points:

  • Damien Bell is one of only six professional fishermen left working WA’s Peel-Harvey estuary
  • In World War II, there were 150 commercial fishers in the area
  • The fishery’s sustainability certification was the first for a combined application from the commercial and recreational sectors

Photo of blue swimmer crab, Mandurah, Western Australia

You can tell the sex of a Mandurah blue swimmer crab by its colour. The males are blue and the females are brown.(

ABC: Robert Koenig-Luck


But his reasons for getting a crabbing and sea mullet licence in the Peel-Harvey estuary south of Perth 15 years ago were deadly serious.

While working as a manager at a pearl farm in eastern Indonesia, a supply vessel he was travelling in capsized and sunk in the dead of night, drowning four crewmates.

They were transporting supplies between Sorong in West Papua and Waigeo Island when the 18-metre vessel overturned in a two-metre swell at about midnight.

With fellow expat David Schonell and four Indonesian survivors, he spent 12 hours at sea before being rescued by West Papuan villagers in dugout canoes.

Life-changing accident

It was a life and death situation, but looking back now he sees the humour in the event.

Mr Schonell salvaged from the wreckage a dive bag which had his toiletries inside. He blew up condoms to fashion a makeshift flotation device. And the local crew members made the most of his hair shampoo.

Photo of Damien Bell on a boat with a fellow Indonesian pearl farmer

Fisherman Damien Bell pearl farming in eastern Indonesia.(



“Near sunrise I get a smell of shampoo. I look down the line and one of the Indonesians is washing his hair and then pass[ing] it down the line for the next Indonesian to wash his hair,” Mr Bell said. 

“All four of them, as the Sun’s coming up, are washing their hair, and they’re like, ‘No, I’m not going to let a bit of fresh shampoo go to waste.'”

Mr Bell is one of only six professionals left in the estuary which dominates Mandurah. In World War II, there were 150 commercial fishers in the town, but environmental issues and pressure from the recreational fishing sector have dramatically reduced the fishery.

A world-first sustainability initiative

In 2016 Mr Bell was a driving force in the fishery attaining independent sustainability certification from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).

“We knew what we did was sustainable, but the world now needs proof, so having an independent body investigate us, look at us, go through us, and then we could prove through them that what we do is sustainable, we were happy to open ourselves up to investigation,” Mr Bell said.

Photo of a blue swimmer crab being measured for legal size

Blue swimmer crabs are measured for size and are thrown back in the water if they are too small.(

ABC: Robert Koenig-Luck


“A lot of fishermen don’t like being looked at, but we knew we had to [do to avoid the potential alternatives] and a prime example of that was Port Phillip Bay, with the fishermen being removed from there.

“So we want to stay here. We’re happy being fresh, local and sustainable and supplying the consumer in the Perth area. But we needed to prove to everyone that what we did was right, and that’s why we chose MSC.”

The MSC certification was the first ever for a combined application from commercial and recreational fisheries.

Photo of Damien Bell and his father Aiden Bell in front of his fishing boat.

Damien’s father Aiden Bell, who was bought out of the fishery last year, drives the catch 300km to Perth to sell. (

ABC: Robert Koenig-Luck


Photo of Damien Bell fishing with his son Alex Bell.

Since the pandemic hit, there has been a massive resurgence of people wanting fresh Australian seafood.(

ABC: Robert Koenig-Luck


Andrew Rowland, the chief executive officer of Recfishwest, WA’s peak recreational fishing body, said the joint application had since been through multiple scientific assessments and was a good example of commercial and recreational sectors working towards a common goal.

“The MSC is the world’s best practice and standard, and it’s really helped us, I guess, identify the information and the data that we need to make good decisions,” Dr Rowland said.

“We know that the estuary down there is under all sorts of other pressures — climate change, land usage around the estuary.

“Estuaries in Western Australia, with the drying climate, are really the canary in the coal mine. Generally, what ends up happening with fisheries inside estuaries is [it’s] the poor old fishermen, both the recreational and the commercial sector, that the screws get tightened on, and we lose the benefits.”

Mr Bell said it made sense to work with Recfishwest on the MSC application.

Photo of the ocean with pelicans at the Peel-Harvey Estuary, Western Australia.

The Peel-Harvey estuary, where only six professional fishers still work.(

ABC: Robert Koenig-Luck


“I didn’t realise it was something special. It just made sense to me to make sure that if we’re looked at, they have to be looked at too, they have to be assessed as well.

“How can you get something done when you only do half the job?”

Watch this story on ABC TV’s Landline at 12:30pm on Sunday, or on iview

Posted , updated 

‘I didn’t realise it was going to be a world first’: How one man’s determination saved his WA fishery
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