Fears seismic testing is rocking lobster industry’s recovery efforts

Fishers in a south-west Victorian coastal town underpinned by a multi-million-dollar fishing industry are worried that decades of offshore seismic testing by gas and oil companies are significantly harming the marine environment they rely on.

Apollo Bay community leaders are adding their voices to broader concerns about the effect seismic testing has on marine life, which is being investigated by scientists and forms the basis of an ongoing Senate inquiry.

Since the 1960s, more than 150 seismic surveys have been undertaken offshore in the Otway Basin in Victoria’s south-west and in the Gippsland Basin in the state’s east, using a method that blasts soundwaves through the ocean floor.

Colac Otway Shire recently voted to oppose further seismic testing for oil and gas in the Otway Basin, citing concern about the potential effects on southern rock lobsters and advocating for fishers to be fairly compensated.

Studies partly funded by a French company surveying for oil and gas in Gippsland showed some species of fish almost disappeared from testing areas over a six-month period.

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Seismic surveys worry fishermen over marine life impacts

‘Blasting the hell out of the water’

Markus Nolle, co-director of the Apollo Bay Fisherman’s Cooperative and president of the Victorian Rock Lobster Association, said the industry’s efforts to help lobster populations recover from over-fishing were being thwarted by seismic testing.

“We’re investing in responsible fishing and at the same time they’re pulling the rug out from under our feet,” he said.

“What the oil and gas industry says is that in the great scheme of things, it doesn’t matter.

“Well, it does matter, and we’re investing as an industry in trying to rebuild the stock.”

A man standing in front of the sea.
Markus Nolle wants oil and gas companies to stop using seismic testing in the Otway Basin.(Supplied)

Mr Nolle said less-intrusive testing methods should be developed and used rather than the “blunt instrument” of a seismic blast.

“In this modern day and age, there are other techniques they could use to do underwater exploration,” he said.

“But if as an industry they’re not incentivised to develop and commercialise the new technologies, they’ll just keep using the cheap and cheerful and dirty system, which is seismic testing.

“We’d rather they didn’t do it, but if they’re going to do it, then at least provide some compensation.”

Depending on the location, companies must apply for permits through the state or federal government and lodge an environment plan to the offshore energy regulator, the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA).

A street in Apollo Bay in the off-season.
Fishing and tourism are major industries in Apollo Bay, situated along the Great Ocean Road.(ABC South West Vic: Emma Nobel)

Signals found to damage sensory organs

University of Tasmania researcher Ryan Day has been involved in studies examining the effects of seismic testing on southern rock lobsters, focusing on egg production in females, blood and immune responses and the impact on sensory organs.

He said there was no evidence female lobsters’ eggs were affected by seismic airgun signals, but other significant effects on the lobsters had been observed.

“Most notably, the amount of blood cells they had went up in the short term, which suggests there was some sort of immune challenge they were responding to, and over the long term it decreased significantly,” Dr Day said.

“It left them vulnerable to any sort of infection they might have come across.”

Two southern rock lobsters underwater.
Southern rock lobsters live in coastal waters across Australia and New Zealand.(Supplied: Ryan Day)

“The last experiment we did we looked at their sensory structure, which is equivalent to the human inner ear in that it detects gravity, gives them a sense of balance and helps them detect motion.

Dr Day said more work needed to be done to understand how seismic testing affected species in the wild and whether testing could be conducted in way that reduced the potential negative impact on marine species, including the southern rock lobster.

‘Surveying only when impacts acceptable’

Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association chief executive Andrew McConville said seismic surveying was “the most reliable form of initial exploration for oil and gas” and was “essential in identifying geological features beneath the surface”.

“Comprehensive industry mitigation practices and legislative controls ensure seismic acquisition is conducted only when it has been satisfactorily demonstrated that any associated potential impacts are acceptable.”

A map showing the Otway Basin in Victoria's south-west.
The 500km-long Otway Basin has served as a significant gas-producing region.(Supplied: Geoscience Australia)

Mr McConville said there was no evidence oil and gas seismic surveying impacted on the ongoing viability of Australian fisheries or marine ecosystems.

“However, fish can react to sound [man-made or natural] and the presence of exploration vessels may disrupt standard fishing practices, as is the case with other marine vessels,” he said.

“Explorers should implement a consistent compensation process to formally manage claims by commercial fishing stakeholders for direct impacts of operations, such as the costs due to relocation and loss of catch as a consequence of survey activities.”

The Senate inquiry had been due to deliver its report this year, however, it has been delayed until 2021.