‘Your fish isn’t worth your life’

Munmorah State Conservation Area drownings: renewed calls for mandatory lifejackets after 'avoidable' deaths


SAFETY FIRST: Eric Xue, of Sydney, wears a life vest when he fishes at Snapper Point. Picture: Marina Neil

SAFETY FIRST: Eric Xue, of Sydney, wears a life vest when he fishes at Snapper Point. Picture: Marina Neil

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It seems like paradise. But this three-kilometre stretch of water is deadly.

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EVEN on a dull day, the coastline is impressive.

A blowhole entertains tourists, surfers love that the waves are “always a little bit bigger”, families from Sydney are relieved there’s no crowds and rock fishers wait patiently for the next bite.

It seems like paradise.

But, as many visitors the Newcastle Herald spoke to on Thursday weren’t aware, the notorious Munmorah State Conservation Area coastline is actually the Hunter’s deadliest.

And according to state MP Yasmin Catley, it is the most dangerous three-kilometre stretch of water on the east coast.

It is again in the spotlight after a rock fisher from Sydney drowned on Wednesday afternoon.

The woman was swept off the rocks at Snapper Point by a “freak wave” that caught her off guard while her husband picked up a fish shortly after 5pm. Police said the 43-year-old was fully clothed and not wearing a lifejacket.

It is the second drowning since New Year’s Eve after a 30-year-old man got caught in a rip at nearby Frazer beach and could not be revived.

There have been at least 17 deaths since 2008 between Flat Rock, south of Catherine Hill Bay, to Wybung Head.

A handful of fishermen back on the rocks on Thursday a day after a woman was swept to her death at Snapper Point. Picture: Marina Neil

A handful of fishermen back on the rocks on Thursday a day after a woman was swept to her death at Snapper Point. Picture: Marina Neil

The drownings have sparked renewed debate about how to prevent tragedies at the blackspot.

Authorities say inexperience is the common thread between every drowning.

And, as a handful of rock fishers agreed, most were not wearing a life jacket.

“Your fish is not worth your life,” said Eric Xue, of Sydney, who was wearing a life jacket at Snapper Point.

“It should be made a rule: you have to wear a life jacket for rock fishing. It is the second most dangerous sport in Australia, but a lot of people don’t realise. 

“People just come here and think, ‘Oh, here is nice’ and they stand on the edge. They don’t realise the waves can be very huge.” - Eric Xue

According to lifeguards, the swell along the three-kilometre stretch is often larger than any other beach in the Hunter.

Lake Macquarie lifeguard manager Paul Stone said the depth at Frazer Park is between six and 10 metres, creating large rolling waves which hit the rocks with force.

He said those who get swept in the water by surprise struggle to climb back up the steep rock shelf, mobile reception is poor and help is far away.

“It is almost the perfect recipe for disaster,” Mr Stone said on Thursday.

“The ridiculous thing is there are at least a dozen people down there today fishing in areas that are quite dangerous.”

A view of the rock shelf at Snapper Point from above. Picture: Marina Neil

A view of the rock shelf at Snapper Point from above. Picture: Marina Neil

Mr Stone didn’t think lifejackets were the answer, but said rock fishers needed to take more care.

“Often you see people picking the first spot they see,” he said. “They should be watching where they want to swim for 10 or 15 minutes and surveying the water first.”

Lifejackets ‘should be mandatory’: senior cop

Police said “time and time again” inexperience had led to tragedy.

“That is the one constant,” Tuggerah Lakes Chief Inspector Col Lott said.

Chief Inspector Lott said all rock fishers should wear a lifejacket at the notorious fishing spot even if it was not the law.

“It should be mandatory – it’s not currently,” he said.

A coroner recommended mandatory lifejackets and “shock signs” (pictured) in hazard areas like Snapper Point in 2015 after an inquest into the drowning deaths of nine fishermen.

The recommendation came after evidence that warning signs, fences and education about the dangers of rock fishing had not changed the rate of drowning deaths.

'Shock signs' warn fishers of the dangers at Wybung Head. Picture: Marina Neil

'Shock signs' warn fishers of the dangers at Wybung Head. Picture: Marina Neil

The state government responded to the findings with a one-year trial of mandatory lifejackets in Randwick.

A moratorium on issuing fines was extended by another six months to May 31 while the data is “reviewed”.

However, the delay has led critics to accuse the government of “inaction” while the “ugly truth” on the Munmorah coastline is that the drowning on Wednesday was “avoidable”.

Swansea MP Yasmin Catley, whose electorate takes in the deadly coastline, said a “bureaucratic stuff-up” meant the Munmorah State Conservation Area was not included in the trial of mandatory lifejackets.

The government chose Randwick for the trial as it was the worst local government area for drownings in NSW.

However, Ms Catley argued that Munmorah was spread across three local government areas, which had collectively produced more drownings than anywhere else.

“That makes it the deadliest stretch on the eastern seaboard … but they can’t seem to see past the boundaries,” she said. “It makes me extremely frustrated to think the government has come up with pathetic excuses on this while deaths are still occurring.

“How much time do they need to review the data?”

Ms Catley compared the introduction of lifejackets to the debate around the introduction of seat belts.

“In the end it saved lives,” she said. “Anything that keeps you afloat will keep you alive. Lifejackets are the difference between a rescue and retrieval.” 

A spokesman for Emergency Services Minister Troy Grant said the government would “consider” an expansion of mandatory lifejackets after the Randwick data was independently reviewed.

“The evaluation will provide a basis for the Government to consider the potential further roll out of the Rock Fishing Safety Act 2016 (RFSA) to other NSW coastal communities and how that could best be implemented,” Mr Grant’s spokesman said in a statement.

But one fisherman who was not wearing a lifejacket noted: “It should probably already be the law. I’d be wearing one if it was.” 

The Herald, Newcastle

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