WAFIC pushes back on Shark Bay dredging proposal

The WA Fishing Industry Council (WAFIC) is opposing a proposed dredging operation in Western Australia’s environmentally sensitive Shark Bay World Heritage area, following the release of an Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) report.

Solar salt field operator, Shark Bay Resources, is proposing to undertake maintenance and capital dredging of up to 80,000 cubic metres in Shark Bay. The dredging will be undertaken at the entrance channel of the port and includes seabed levelling of 10,000 cubic metres in the berth pocket to restore navigable depths to its port facility at Useless Loop.

The site is located approximately 25 kilometres west southwest of Denham and includes development envelopes that are either within, or adjacent to the Shark Bay World Heritage Area and/or the Shark Bay Marine Park.

The total development envelope is approximately 81 hectares.

The berth pocket sits within the Shark Bay World Heritage Area and Shark Bay Marine Park – both of which are environmentally sensitive environments that are seeking to balance demands of tourism, charter fishing, recreational fishing and commercial fisheries.

WAFIC Chief Executive Officer, Darryl Hockey said it was hard to believe anyone can suggest dropping 80,000 cubic metres of dirty sediment on the seafloor of a World Heritage Area and not expect any impact.

“This is not an insignificant volume of sediment. If we overlay the dredging sediment over the impacted landmass it is approximately the equivalent of dropping around 18,000 small sedans over an 81-hectare region of the seabed,” Darryl said.

Consultation process

Shark Bay Resources has undertaken public consultation as well as targeted consultation with the Shark Bay World Heritage Advisory Committee.

This consultation has seen some concessions, including reduction in dredging times and volumes and the extent of turbidity impacts, but still presents potential for impacts.

The Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) report recognises the potential impact to seagrasses and has moved the timing for disposal to include release on spring tides as a means to minimise the impact of heavy concentration of sediments. Unfortunately, this will effectively spread the 80,000 cubic metres of sediment over a larger area.

In February 2021, the EPA recognised the WA Fishing Industry Council’s (WAFIC) concerns over the dredging and acknowledged WAFICs request to participate in the project’s stakeholder reference group.

Among the concerns were that the Environmental Protection Act relating to the project didn’t adequately recognise the significant economic and social impacts that may result through impacts on the physical or biological environment.

The EPA recognised WAFIC’s concerns and advised it would consider the request, but no action was forthcoming.

Commercial fishing impacts and concerns

While WAFIC appreciates the operational needs of Shark Bay Resources in relation to safety and the need to secure access to the jetty, it is concerned for the potential resource damage to achieve these outcomes.

WAFIC is concerned that the natural interdependencies within this sensitive marine environment may be damaged through the waste disposal process, resulting in the deterioration of seagrass beds, burying of seafloor species and the impacts on food chains, which can potentially affect everything from the seagrass, crabs, prawns and cockles through to dolphins, dugongs and migrating whales.

“Some Shark Bay species are only now recovering from the 2010 Marine heatwave which devastated a number of seafloor species, including scallops and crabs. We are obviously worried about the further impacts of marine sediment plumes that can bury or contaminate important marine life and sea grasses.”

“The seagrasses in this region are a lifeblood for so many other species and having 80,000 cubic metres of sediment – which roughly translates into more than 80,000 tonnes of dirt, could potentially devastate the region again,” Darryl said.

The region’s demersal fish species have also come under increased pressure as a result of a doubling in recreational boat numbers and boat ramp traffic. The full extent of this will be announced when the report is released in coming weeks, but it is not expected to be good.

The WA Fishing Industry Council and its fishing partners have invested heavily in this region and have a demonstrated commitment to preserving its health.

The Shark Bay Prawn Trawler Operators Association recently (December 2020) received MSC re-certification for the area’s prawn fishing industry, which proved the sustainability credentials of the local fishing industry.

What’s next?

WAFIC would like to see more information presented on how the company will be monitoring and managing the impacts of the sediment plumes while they are occurring to ensure there is no capacity for damage.

“We would like to see more information on what other options are available for disposing of the sediment. We would also like confirmation on how the company will be monitoring and managing the impacts of the plumes while they are occurring to ensure there is no capacity for damage, and what compensation or insurances they have in place should they get it wrong.

“WAFIC will also be liaising with the Commonwealth Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, which still needs to assess and approve a ‘sea dumping permit’ made under the Environment Protection (Sea Dumping) Act 1981, to ensure it is aware of the long term impacts of this dredging and dumping in a World Heritage Area,” Darryl said.

EPA Report link