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Class action planned over White Spot

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A fisherman who has been trawling the Clarence River all his life is behind a legal class action hoping to compensate fishermen who haven’t had any income since February due to a White Spot control order preventing the harvesting of uncooked prawns.

Bruce Clark, who has been fishing the Clarence River all his life and for the past 17 years has operated a family fishing business with his son and grandson trawling the Clarence River and Lake Wooloweyah, said they have never been locked out of the estuary before.

“I’m the bloke who instigated all the White Spot class action for and on behalf of the region two (Clarence River) fishermen, I initiated the class action about three weeks ago and it’s still in the process of being formalised,” he said.

Mr Clark said the class action is being handled by Chris Thompson from Law Essentials, Hervey Bay.

White Spot was first detected at a Palmers Island prawn farm in August 2022, then in February 2023, White Spot was detected at two Palmers Island prawn farms and was confirmed by the NSW Department of Primary Industries DPI and the Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness diagnostic tests.

A control order, issued under the NSW Biosecurity Act 2015, issued on February 15 is in place until June 14, 2023, and restricts the movement of raw, uncooked decapod crustaceans from the Clarence Estuary while containment, source detection and surveillance activities are underway.

Currently, Mr Clark said the prawns in Lake Wooloweyah and the Clarence River are too small to cook, meaning trawler operators haven’t received an income since February.

“The prawns can be caught and cooked, but at the present moment the prawns are only bait size and are not a cooking grade, so we have completely lost all income,” he said.

“We are on our asses, we’ve had no compensation, the only compensation we were given by the Department of Primary Industries was a one-third reduction in our management fees, which is nothing.”

Having lost thousands of dollars a week since February 15, Mr Clark said the class action calls on the government to compensate fishermen for lost wages while they are locked out of the estuary due to the control order.

“The reason for no compensation according to the DPI is because it was not an emergency shutdown, if it was declared an emergency shutdown or closure, it’s like flood relief, you get automatic compensation, but this was a control order closure,” he said.

“If they’ve implemented an emergency response incident management team, that should automatically entitle us to compensation under the emergency closure.

“You can’t just close an industry down overnight, and that includes the fish co-op which it’s costing thousands of dollars daily, without any compensation.”

The only financial compensation offered, Mr Clark said was $500 from the Rural Assistance Authority, which fishermen had to apply for and wait up to eight weeks to receive.

The Clarence Valley Independent sent NSW Agriculture Minister Tara Moriarty questions about an April 19 meeting she had with the Clarence River Fishermen’s Co-Op asking whether there are any plans to compensate fishermen, if the government plans to stop imported prawns and prawn food, what the source of the white spot outbreak was, if the control order will be lifted early or how long it would last, and what would be done to help local fishermen and the co-operative.

A spokesperson said NSW DPI is working with infected farms, local industry and other state and national bodies to ensure on-farm eradication and surveillance of wild crustacea in the area but gave no indication of whether there were any plans to compensate fishermen.

“DPI is working with the coop, the associations and the fishers to try and develop a pathway back to business for these fishers whilst removing the risk to the rest of the state from spread of the virus, and without putting our international trade in crustaceans from Australia at risk,” the spokesperson said.

“This pathway back to business will need to be supported from all other States, the Commonwealth Government and industry.

“The best assistance for these farmers is to get back to production with access to markets as quickly as possible, and that is what the current work by DPI has focused on. Including covering the costs of decontamination for those farms.”

The spokesperson didn’t comment on whether a ban on imported prawns and imported prawn farm food would be sought by government, or if imported prawn food was detected as the source of the outbreak.

“DPI effort and focus has been on minimising the risk of the spread of White Spot,” the spokesperson said.

“Formal biosecurity directions have been in place on each of the affected farms since the detection of White Spot on each farm. These directions ensure appropriate biosecurity risk mitigation is in place throughout the response.

“DPI are also working with the Australian Fisheries Research and Development Corporation and our industry partners to establish a project to work on product and market development alternatives which is already underway.

“DPI is continuing to work to determine the source of the outbreak.”

The Independent also asked new Member for Clarence Richie Williamson why the coalition didn’t do something about the White Spot issue and compensate fishermen when they were in power.

“I really can’t answer that question as I wasn’t privy to any discussions previously, apart from one meeting (as a candidate in early March 2023) with the Minister, the former Member for Clarence and the board of the Fishermen’s Co-op,” Mr Williamson said.

Mr Williamson said he wasn’t privy to any plans made by the government to combat White Spot in the Clarence before he was elected, but noted the government was in caretaker mode from March 3 leading up to the election.

“I’m very willing to work, in a bipartisan way, with the new Minister and Government to ensure the fishing families that have been affected by this order are financially supported by both the State and Federal Government, I believe it is the right thing to do. 

Clarence Valley Independent 26 April 2023

This article appeared in the Clarence Valley Independent, 26 April 2023.

Related story: White spot order crippling Clarence fishermen

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