Where have all the fish gone?

Fisherman at Palleranda beach.
A lone fisherman at Pallarenda Beach, not far from the expansion site.

Dredging, dumping, and shipping all have an impact on the size and health of fish stocks. Even the Port cannot escape this fact. In the AEIS it is acknowledged that, under their 2016 plan, there is (a largely increased) risk of:

  • Loss of fisheries habitat associated with reclamation and dredging activities resulting in reduced fisheries production.
  • Displacement of economic species due to construction related disturbance resulting in reduced fisheries production.
  • Increased potential for hydrocarbon or other contaminant spill from vessels or on-site facilities, potentially leading to direct effects to economic species or their prey (during both construction and operation).
  • Increased potential marine pest introductions.

And it gets worse. There would also be a risk of plumes of suspended or re-suspended dredged sediment causing loss of seagrass, and subsequent reduction in the abundance of economic species supported by the Cleveland Bay Fish Habitat Area –  an area just one kilometre south-east of the new 152 hectare reclamation work that is proposed as part of the Port expansion, and one that is supposed to be protected!

The (then) State Department of National Parks, Sports and Recreation, described the Cleveland Bay Fish Habitat Area as providing:

  • Protection of valuable commercial, recreational and Indigenous fisheries resources; wetlands buffer zone from industrial and residential development; protection of remaining undisturbed habitat.
  • Extensive seagrass beds dominated by Halodule and Halophila; mangrove-lined estuaries, 21 mangrove species dominated by Rhizophora stylosa, Ceriops australis and Avicennia marina; intertidal mud and sand flats; intertidal marshes and saltpan; nursery habitats for highly productive and valuable commercial fisheries.
  • Commercial, recreational and Indigenous fisheries resources; banana and tiger prawns, mud crabs, barramundi, mullet, shark and threadfin salmon; and an area
  • Surrounded by National Parks, RAMSAR wetlands and World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef Marine Park; important area for fisheries and fish habitat research.

Underwater noise is another major problem for fish (and megafauna). It is associated with both the construction phase of any port work and with the increase in the number and size of ships using the port.

NQCC addressed the issue of underwater noise in relation to fish in its submission to the EIS. It noted, amongst other things:

  • Underwater noise is an issue of real concern for the world’s oceans. The Commonwealth Fisheries Association has listed seismic noise as a Key Threatening Process for tuna and other species; seismic companies in WA are concerned about all kinds of noise impact on fisheries; and southern Australian fishermen have recently registered long-range seismic noise as a Key Threatening Process, with good data backed by CSIRO.
  • The impact of shipping noise on fish (as well as on dugongs, dolphins, whales, turtles etc) is increasingly under review.
  • It is known that adult fish such as all the cods (coral trout family) and tuna (Spanish mackerel) rely on sound communication at spawning and are at risk from rising sound levels. Fish further inshore and in more turbid waters are understood to be particularly affected.
  • Commercial fishermen, mainly Cairns-based, have been attempting to have the impact of noise on fisheries recognised for decades. No spawning means reduced fish numbers, yet, to date, only the level of fishing activity has been advanced as the reason for reduced catches.

The response in the AEIS was cursory. The Port committed to developing a Marine Megafauna [not fish] Management Plan to manage noise impacts to fauna, with some mitigation techniques that could be employed ‘if feasible and practical’.

The Port acknowledged in its AEIS, Section 8, Marine Ecology (pdf), page 13, that “[P]roject activities during the construction phase could … interfere with larval fish settlement behaviour”. However, “because there was no distinct breeding season for all fish species”, it noted that “there are no practical measures that can mitigate this impact.”