Soaked through with seawater, fishermen clamber around their bobbing vessel tied up at a jetty.

Key points:

  • King Island fishers says seismic testing 15 years ago damaged lobster stocks
  • A Senate report recommends further research on marine life damage from seismic testing
  • ConocoPhillips Australia wants to conduct testing in Bass Strait next month and says it will adopt methods to minimise impact

They lift the boat’s wooden floorboards to reveal a cage hidden below deck.

Inside there are hundreds of rock lobsters.

Pulling the cage up onto the deck, they tip it on its side and the creatures creep out from behind the bars, trying to escape back into the choppy waves below.

But before they have the chance, a gloved hand grabs them and places them into a plastic box that will then be weighed and sent off to market.

This is a regular workday for Wayne Coombe, who has been fishing in waters around King Island, north-west of Tasmania in Bass Strait, for the past 24 years.

Mr Coombe casts his mind back about 15 years when seismic testing was conducted off the island’s south west.

“Lobsters just disappeared, they didn’t crawl, they were not there.”

A fisherman stands next to a pile of lobster pots.

Wayne Coombe has seen firsthand the impact seismic testing has on lobster fishing.(

ABC News: Sarah Abbott

)

Concerns about future testing plans

Gas giant ConocoPhillips is hoping to conduct seismic testing in mid-August at the Otway Basin to the west of King Island to assess its natural gas reservoirs.

To conduct the tests, airguns release large blasts of low-frequency sound down to the sea floor.

As the sound bounces back, it is used to create a map of areas of potential undersea reserves.

Although the lobsters have returned in healthy numbers since the last test, Mr Coombe is worried about what the planned testing could mean for the area’s fishing industry.

“I don’t think the scientists I spoke to would be happy to put a wetsuit on and a breathing apparatus and go for a swim with our next generation of fish while they’re doing a seismic survey,” he said.

Last month a Senate committee tabled a report on seismic surveys with 19 recommendations, including the need for further research into the damage to marine life by seismic testing.

A man wearing goggles holds a specimen jar in a scientific laboratory.

Dr Ryan Day has researched the impact of seismic testing on lobsters.(

ABC News: Andrew Cunningham

)

Ryan Day, a research fellow at the University of Tasmania’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, has studied whether signals produced by the airguns have an effect on marine life.

“If you are looking at individual species, we can say pretty confidently that there is some impact,” Dr Day said.

“There needs to be a lot more research done at a system level to really understand what the broader effects are.”

In his research, Dr Day found lobsters suffered some long-term effects to their immune function, condition, and how they got their energy from food after a seismic survey in the area.

“Lobsters have an organ called a statocyst, and it’s a balance organ that gives them the sense of movement, and it’s very similar to the human inner ear in its function,” he said.

“That organ was damaged following seismic surveys in lobster.

“Along with that, their ability to turn themselves over, if you place them on their back in a bit of water, it took them longer to flip themselves back over normally after that damage.”

Close up of rock lobster being held by gloved hand.

Dr Day’s research found seismic testing had some long-term impacts on lobsters.(

ABC News: Andrew Cunningham

)

Call for moratorium on testing

King Island mayor Julie Arnold wants to see a moratorium on seismic testing in Bass Strait.

A middle-aged woman standing in front of a window wearing a black shirt and red jacket.

King Island mayor Julie Arnold wants seismic testing suspended until further research is done.(

ABC News: Sarah Abbott

)

“Our attitude is that seismic testing should only go ahead if there is actual proof that it will not damage our fisheries,” she said.

“If a large multi-national wants to come into an area, they should do the research first.

Earlier this year, the Senate supported a motion by the Greens calling for the planned seismic testing off King Island to be stopped until ConocoPhillips can prove the work will not harm rock lobster stocks.

The company is waiting for its environmental plan to be accepted by The National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA), which is the national regulator.

Lobster fishermen with yellow tubs and many lobsters lying on ground.

Fishers and environmentalists want ConocoPhillip to guarantee the lobster population won’t be harmed by testing.(

ABC News: Sarah Abbott

)

Gas company says plans informed by science

The Federal Government has recently released 21 commonwealth-owned seabeds for oil and gas exploration, including areas near King Island.

Cr Arnold is worried this will force locals to make a business decision to leave the island at a time when the community is desperate for more families.

“They have millions of dollars tied up in their boat, their quotas, and their lease and licences,” she said.

“So, they look at it and they say, ‘okay, well, we don’t know that the seismic testing will damage it, but it could’.

“Therefore, will I look at — instead of fishing from King Island — maybe fishing from South Australia or maybe fishing from Tasmania?”

Lobster pots in foreground with fishing boat docked nearby.

King Island is home to more than a dozen familes who rely on fishing lobsters.(

ABC News: Sarah Abbott

)

A spokesperson for ConocoPhillips Australia said it was continuing to engage with key stakeholders including the fishing industry.

“As a result of this consultation, a number of controls have been put in place to mitigate and minimise impacts, including reducing the operational area, selecting the time of year to acquire the seismic data that has the least impact on marine species and commercial fishing, and redesigning the seismic survey to remove an area of Giant Crab habitat,” the spokesperson said.

“The research and assessment process that ConocoPhillips Australia identified and detailed in its Environmental Plan, based on input from external experts and scientists, did not indicate a cause-effect pathway that could have a stock-level impact on the sustainability of the fishery.”

But for Mr Coombe, his concerns remain for the 15 fishing families that call the island home.

“The sustainability of our industry is crucial to the economy of this island.”

Wayne has been catching lobsters for 24 years. He’s worried he won’t be able to for much longer
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