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Saturday, November 14, 2009

Iluka, New South Wale

The Clarence River Mouth
The townshipof Iluka on the
north side and Yamba on the south

Iluka is home to The Clarence River Fishermens Co-op. They had 70 active commercial fishermen in the year 2000, in February this year there were only 35. Reduced access to fishing grounds, rising operational costs and cheap imports are taking their toll. Commercial fishermen have had to face the cruel reality that the job they love and spent all your life doing, is no longer viable.

Chairman of the Clarence Co-operative explains why the men who want to leave the industry are ham-strung. "Because of the cost of just keeping the boats, it's really difficult to walk away and find other employment that will cover the cost of having the boat sitting there, so you've got to keep working them. They really deteriorate fast just sitting there, they rust up or rot. It costs at least $30,000 a year to maintain a boat and then there is work cover insurance, fuel and repair costs.

Skipper Gordon Farrell trained as a fitter and turner and would like to leave the industry and work around Australia. But that's impossible. His boat has been on the market for months, it was once valued at over $1 million. When he put it on the market, for just over $300,000, he had just one offer of $200,000 so he can't leave, he's got to keep working his boat.

Last year Andrew Hayward, after 13 years as skipper of the Rhondae II, realised he couldn't make a living from prawns anymore. His brother's boat El Sombrero used to sit next to his at the Yamba boat harbour but when he saw his brother's for sale sign, he decided to sell too. No price was set but the brothers hoped they could sell both boats at a reduced price. While waiting for a sale, to cut costs, they only worked one boat and stayed close to shore to save on fuel. One week they went away for 3 nights and returned home out of pocket by $130 each.

Clarence Nationals MP Steve Cansdell told parliament in September this year that a well-designed buy-back and a crack down on illegal professional fishing are needed to secure the future of the industry on the Clarence River. Quoting from a letter he received from a local fisherman he read "We have not had a solid income in months. How long before the government of the day starts to take notice or offers us some help. Do they intend to wait until fishermen start to take their own lives before they offer us any assistance? Steve, we are getting very close to that point".

The government has already spent millions on licence buy-backs in the last few years, namely Sydney Harbour, the south coast around Batemans Bay, Port Stephens and Byron Bay. For those who are left in the Clarence, they are waiting and praying that their time will come soon.

Steve Cansdell also said that one of the most insidious problems associated with the fishing industry is the sale of fish on the black market to shops, clubs and restaurants. The state's illicit seafood market is believed to be worth a fortune but the government refuses to reveal its true value, saying it would only lead to more people becoming involved.

Chinese restaurants can't get enough abalone and pay well for it. Abalone, rock lobsters, mud crabs, oysters, blue eyed cod, tuna, kingfish and snapper are the main targets on the black market in NSW. Sea horses are also being caught illegally and exported to Asia for traditional medicines.

But here's the bottom line - there are so few fisheries inspectors remaining today, there is little chance of ever catching the criminals. There are only three officers patrolling the Port Stephens region from Stockton to the Myall Lakes and two cover the Hunter region, including Lake Macquarie, Newcastle and the Hunter, Williams and Paterson rivers. A third inspector position in the hunter region has remained unfilled for three years.

Organised crime including Bikie gangs, Asian triads, and fishermen, both recreational and professional, are all said to be involved in the very lucrative black market seafood trade, not only in the state of NSW, but right across the country.