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Reef rescue a business and science pact

Updated: Jul 20, 2021

A man wearing a wetsuit stands on the back of a boat.
John Minehan, Photo: brad Collis

Survival skills take diverse forms for Victorian fisher John Minehan, from joining research projects and creating new seafood industries, to consolidating workplace safety.

One of John Minehan’s earliest memories is of sitting astride his dad’s shoulders in the surf off Mallacoota; father and son at one with the sea; its power, beauty and bounty. It was inevitable that John would follow in the footsteps of his father, Mike, to become a diver and fisher, so powerful was his childhood bond with this world.

His boyhood reads like a Tim Winton novel; youthful rights of passage honed by the challenges and knowledge that comes to people who learn, often hazardously, the ways of the sea and the life within it.“It was a beach life. I grew up surfing, fishing, diving … and aside from a brief side-step into university (studying IT) that’s the way it has continued,” he says, reflecting on the influences that have made maintaining the health of his marine backyard a professional passion.

John’s father was a pioneer of the Mallacoota abalone industry in the 1960s, establishing it as the economic mainstay of the Victorian township that lies just south of the border with NSW; tourism

weighed in later.

Joining the fray

John has continued his father’s legacy, often finding himself along the way leading efforts to secure continued access to the abalone resource against both environmental and regulatory challenges.

For more than a decade he has been on the committee of the Victorian Eastern Zone Abalone Industry Association and in recent years he has been heavily involved with Fisheries Research and Development Corporation (FRDC)-backed research into the loss of abalone habitat caused by an explosion in sea urchin numbers.

The “why” of the urchin explosion is still being researched, but the consequence has been a denuding of underwater reefs and the kelp forests that abalone and other species need to survive.

The main problem species is Centrostephanus rodgersii, the Long-spined Sea Urchin.

“Just being in the water, as I have been, over the past 20 years I’ve witnessed the steady loss of our kelp forests – we estimate we’ve lost 50 per cent in Victorian waters over this period,” John says.

The urchin invasion has caused abalone habitat to shrink, and the abalone fishery along with it. Cuts to the Total Allowable Commercial Catch (TACC) in the Eastern Zone are a stark measure of the impact. The long term average harvest of 480 tonnes has been reduced by more than a quarter, to a TACC of 352.5 tonnes this year because of the reduced fishable area.

The problem, however, has not gone unnoticed, with extensive research along Australia’s south-eastern coastlines, in NSW, Victoria and Tasmania. The research has focused on the extent of the damage being caused by the sea urchins what happens if you can control their populations.

Protecting reefs

The good news is that reef ecosystems can recover if the urchins are removed, or controlled.

“In a project with Fisheries Victoria we removed urchins from one particular reef to test the science and we did see the reef recover. So we have now extended this exercise to several other reefs; removing about one and a half million urchins to date and restoring a tremendous area of marine habitat back to a healthy state.”John Minehan

And the urchins have their own potential in seafood markets, where their roe, or uni, is considered a delicacy. So hand-in-glove with this Marine Reef Restoration Project has been a program to take some commercial advantage of the issue.

“So where sea urchins being removed are of a viable quality – in other words, where they haven’t started to starve because they have eaten an area out – we harvest for market.”John Minehan

This effort by the fishers has been supported by FRDC research, as well as funds from the Victorian Government’s Biodiversity 2037 Plan, which was created to stop the decline of native plants and animals and natural habitats.

The Marine Reef Restoration Project has been a successful confluence of science and business, although for fishers like John it’s also personal.

“We are part of this environment so a lot of what we are doing comes very much from a strong sense of stewardship and responsibility,” he says.

“We witnessed firsthand the destruction that occurred, and it was distressing. It’s beautiful working 10, 15, 20 metres down in a kelp forest. You become very familiar with it and the knowledge you build over years of working in this environment makes you very comfortable in a place that would be hazardous for many other people. It becomes very special.” John Minehan

Diver safety

In addition to the roles John has played in protecting the abalone industry and helping to develop a sea urchin industry, he has also lead efforts to establish a new safety management plan for abalone diving.

When the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) was formed in 1990, new national laws and regulations governing marine operations were introduced.

“We had to process a whole lot of new paperwork to obtain a safe operator’s ticket to keep operating, but there was a lack of relevant support documentation,” he says. And his requests to the Victorian Abalone industry Committee for a formal plan led the committee to suggest that he might take on the job – to come up with a document that was suitable for the industry and that would meet AMSA compliance requirements.

“There was a draft document, but it was not user friendly and didn’t fully meet AMSA’s requirements. We needed something simpler and more tailored to our industry. So it started out, really, as self-interest because I was simply looking for useable documentation for myself and then discovered everyone was looking for the same thing.”

John says in the process he realised that the knowledge required around issues such as risk assessment and safety was already well enshrined in professional practice.

“From my father’s day to the present there have been enormous improvements in safety and they have mostly been driven by the industry itself. So putting together the safety management plan for AMSA was really just about compiling existing best practice already tried and proven by the industry.

“The plan, in the end, became a chance to validate proven industry standards for practices and equipment and to show how this supported AMSA’s requirements.”

However, John also has a pragmatic view of regulations: “It’s a guide,” he says.

“In our industry safety always comes back to individual operators and their professionalism. But we are a small community, so it doesn’t take much for people to keep each other in mind and to contribute to improve standards. It’s ongoing because, like the management of our fisheries, it’s all about self-preservation.”

This story appears in the December 2018 issue of the FRDC's Fish magazine, Vol 26 No 4

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