Deadly rock fishing

TIME and again NSW government ministers have rejected calls to make wearing a life jacket compulsory for people who fish from the rocks of the state’s coast, and each time they spin the same line. NSW is not a nanny state, they say. The emphasis should be on education, not legislation. The government will erect more signs warning of the danger. Rock fishermen must exercise common sense.

Time and again it doesn’t work. Tragically. The terrible loss for three Lake Macquarie families at the weekend, for their friends and for the community, is not eased by the fact that the three young people who are believed to have been swept to their deaths while rock fishing near Catherine Hill Bay were members of a long procession of anglers heading to their death in the surging sea off popular rock-fishing haunts north and south of Sydney.

Six other people have been swept to their death from the rocks of that short strip in the past two years; just over two years ago, in May, five people of Chinese descent drowned when they were washed from the same spot being fished by the Lake Macquarie three at the weekend. Eight people died while rock fishing in NSW in that month of May. The average annual death toll among people who fish from rocks in NSW is eight, making it Australia’s most dangerous sport. No other sport in Australia claims as many lives, and if the death toll is measured against the number of participants and the number of excursions rock fishing must be an extremely dangerous sport.

While the death rate among rock fishermen has been consistent over many years, recently people of Asian descent have been making up two-thirds of the sorry toll, and the NSW government has been funding rock-fishing safety workshops for people of Asian descent.

If the emphasis is on education it hasn’t been emphatic enough. And it never will be. Just as in every voluntary pursuit, people who go rock fishing are confident they will be safe, that they will not be swept off the rocks, that they know what they are doing, and you may have read in this paper yesterday of one mother’s confidence that her son and the other two would have taken every precaution, that they were experienced and sensible.

Many people who die rock fishing are experienced and sensible and take every precaution bar the most important one, wearing a life jacket. It is far and away the precaution most likely to save the life of a person swept from coastal rocks, yet successive NSW governments have rejected calls to make the wearing of a life jacket compulsory. Less than a year ago a Newcastle coroner, Mark Buscombe, recommended that the government make lifesaving devices compulsory for rock fishermen, and he was not the first coroner to do so.

That recommendation was sadly pertinent at the weekend, and the best the state government could come up with on Sunday was that it was reviewing a report on best practice for rock-fishing safety. The government, a spokesman told us, ‘‘is already running educational safety programs about rock-fishing safety’’!

The government’s fear of being seen as a nanny is puzzling because NSW is indeed a nanny state. Think absurd OH&S requirements, pool fences, seatbelts, school zones, bicycle and motorbike helmets, smoking bans, Responsible Service of Alcohol, poker machine warning signs.

And consider the government’s concern for the safety of people who fish from small boats. Such a boat heading out through the heads must have life jackets, anchor, bailing bucket or pump, compass, orange flares, red flares, fire extinguisher, a map on paper, marine radio, emergency radio beacon, oars or second motor, a horn, a fluorescent V sheet, a waterproof torch and water. All occupants of the boat must wear a life jacket while crossing the bar.

Anyone engaged in the nation’s most dangerous sport is not constrained by a single safety requirement, even though a single safety requirement, the wearing of a life jacket, could very well save their life.

Should a life jacket be compulsory for rock fishermen? Should rock fishing be banned on public land?

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