Eighty two shipping containers that are strewn across the sea floor were ticking time bombs that could cost the Hunter’s fishing and tourism industries millions of dollars in lost revenue, industry operators fear.
An insurance industry source said on Friday that the operation to locate and clean-up the thousands of tonnes of marine pollution may result in the largest marine insurance claim in the nation’s history.
The operation stepped up on Friday when the Australian Maritime Safety Authority formally requested the Australian Defence Force provide urgent assistance to map the location of the sunken containers.
Some commercial fishermen have elected to stop fishing off the Hunter and Port Stephens coastline than risk damaging their vessels if they encounter a container.
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Forty-three year industry veteran Murray Ham was repairing damage to his vessel Ellie-K on Friday after his net caught on what he believes was container submerged in about 130 metres of water 20 kilometres off Newcastle.
“It has cost me about $10,000. I don’t have a choice but to go back out there in a few days because I’ve got bills to pay and mouths to feed, ” he said.
“We have had pilchard kills, gas wells and seismic testing but nothing like this.”
Mr Ham was among 20 commercial fishermen from Newcastle and Port Stephens who met yesterday to discuss the potential threat to their industry from the pollution incident.
“It’s like playing Russian Roulette out there at the moment,” Newcastle Commercial Fishermen's Co-op manger Robert Gauta said.
“Some of them have decided it’s not worth taking the risk and are choosing to stay at home and just wear the cost.”
The potential for compensation to cover financial losses was also raised at the meeting.
Mr Ham said much of the information provided about the location containers that were lost from the Liberian-flagged cargo ship YM Efficiency off Port Stephens last Friday had proven to be inaccurate.
“We have been given 14 different locations for where they are meant to be. We know one of them has come ashore but where are the rest of them?,” he said.
“We don’t know what’s in these things, they are like time bombs.”
Aside from the potential threat, Mr Ham said large areas of water were already covered in plastic debris.
“It’s like a sea of plastic out there at the moment and it is heading south,” he said.
“In addition to everything else the whales will be sucking this stuff in.”
Frank Future from Port Stephens-based Imagine Cruises said the pollution could potentially have a disastrous impact on the tourism industry.
“I have seen photos of dead whales from overseas that are full of plastic. It’s a concern,” he said.
“I’m also concerned about marine life getting tangled in the pollution. The stuff I saw the other day was like cling wrap. I’d hate to see an animal caught in that.”
Federal Paterson MP Meryl Swanson and state Port Stephens MP Kate Washington have called for the incident to be dealt with as matter of state and national importance.
“We seek the assistance of the Australian Defence Force in both naval and air capacity to locate and assist in the retrieval of the containers and their contents,” a joint statement said. “Not retrieving and salvaging this lost cargo poses imminent risk to life and income and also lays a time-bomb for environmental damage and water safety for years to come.”
A spokesman for NSW Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton said the government welcomed the announcement by the ship’s owners that they will meet the cost of the massive clean up.
“The NSW Government thanks all those who have pitched in to clean up the beaches,” he said.
“A massive operation is underway, involving federal and state agencies, to not only clean up the mess but also to ensure the seaways are clear of containers and other debris.”
Not retrieving and salvaging this lost cargo poses imminent risk to life and income and also lays a time bomb for environmental damage and water safety for years to come.Port Stephens MP Kate Washington
“There will of course be a full investigation, and this will shape the NSW Government’s response to an incident that has had a huge effect on our coastline and environment.”
Roads and Maritime Services Executive Director Maritime Angus Mitchell said on Friday that a crew had been sent to Coffs Harbour after several yoga mats that had washed up.
“Divers have also discovered a large quantity of light plastic material in the water column near Fingal Bay and are removing as much as possible from the water.
“Aerial surveillance yesterday reported large amounts of scattered debris at Dark Point south of Mungo Brush, where some of the teams are focusing on cleaning today.
Helicopters are also being used today to pick up the 1.5 tonne bulker bags from clean up areas for processing.
Mr Mitchell said Roads and Maritime officers and those from other emergency response, environment and wildlife agencies participate in regular pollution training exercises. One exercise was held in Port Stephens last year. He thanked those who had offered to join in the clean-up effort.
“On the eve of the long weekend, it’s only appropriate to acknowledge the great efforts of people in local coastal communities who have been helping or want to help remove this debris from what is essentially their backyard,” Mr Mitchell said on Friday.
“The contractor engaged by the ship’s insurer is working with local councils to ensure there are adequate waste facilities available to dispose of debris at key locations.
“Officially though, the community is unable to be formally engaged to help for safety, environmental and liability reasons. We do however encourage the community to continue reporting debris through the number below.”
Three community and industry briefings will be held at Nelson Bay and Tea Gardens on Wednesday and Thursday next week.
“The community response has been incredible,” Duty MLC for Port Stephens Catherine Cusack said.
“Rightly so, people want to know what is happening so I have requested Roads and Maritime provide briefings to the Port Stephens community and separately to the fishing community.”