Port Stephens and Newcastle whale tourism operators left out of seismic testing consultations

WASHBACK: Marine tourism operators claim they were left out of the consultation process conducted by Asset Energy in the lead up to seismic testing conducted off the coast of Newcastle in April. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers
WASHBACK: Marine tourism operators claim they were left out of the consultation process conducted by Asset Energy in the lead up to seismic testing conducted off the coast of Newcastle in April. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

Marine tourism operators were not consulted about seismic testing, conducted off the coast of Newcastle in April.

Asset Energy conducted the first round of 2D seismic testing over four days, southeast of Newcastle, between April 15-19.

The Perth-based company intends to develop a gas-field in coastal waters between Newcastle and Sydney, known as the Sydney Basin. 

Community consultation with stakeholders is a requirement of a Petroleum Exploration Permit (PEP). The permits are issued for both gas and petroleum exploration by the federal government’s National Offshore Petroleum Titles Administrator.  

However, the published Environmental Plan Summary, approved by the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA), in January 2018, states that the tourism industry “were not deemed key with respect to potential impacts and no concerns were raised during the consultation period from any tourism related organisation.”

Fairfax Media contacted three marine tourism operators, Moonshadow Cruises, Nova Cruises and Imagine Cruises. None had been involved in a consultation process.

Imagine Cruises’ Frank Future said the first he knew of the proposed testing was when he was contacted by Stop Seismic Testing Newcastle, a recently established community group which opposes the testing.

“That really put me on edge,” he said.

Mr Future, who has operated his business for 23 years, said he then contacted Asset Energy and was told consultation had been conducted nine years previously.

“I wasn’t consulted nine years ago either,” he said.

In the days before the testing commenced, four whales were sighted in the waters off the Newcastle coast. The sighting marked the beginning of the whale migration season, according Mr Future.

Whales pass between Newcastle and the continental shelf, about 35-40km out to sea, each year from April travelling north to warmer tropical waters. 

Mr Future said he was concerned testing, and the establishment of a gas-field, directly on their route may force the whales further out to sea.

“The noise is extreme,” he said. “Whales live in a world of sound.”

A  whale watching industry has grown around the annual migration over more than two decades. Destination Port Stephens said whale watching was a key experience promoted to drive visitation during the low season and contributes to driving economic benefit to the region in terms of day and overnight visitation.

The Newcastle Commercial Fisherman’s Cooperative was contacted by Asset Energy about two years ago as part of the required consultation process required under a PEP application, cooperative general manager Robert Gauta said.

At the time, Mr Gauta advised Asset Energy its list of stakeholders impacted by the proposed activities was incomplete.

During the consultation process the cooperative was shown the Environment Plan Summary. However, Mr Gauta claimed the plan contained factual errors.

“We disagreed with the facts” Mr Gauta said. “We told them we had serious concerns.”

The cooperative has never seen the full environmental plan because “they don’t have to put it out to the public.” 

The Environmental Plan has since been approved, after NOPSEMA, rejected the company’s first plan submitted in October 2017.

Mr Gauta said the cooperative insisted Asset Energy conduct a survey of the area before testing as a baseline to measure any environmental impact. It is understood no survey was conducted.

During the recent testing, NOPSEMA has confirmed two of its inspectors, with two specialist mammal observers, were on board the vessel throughout the duration of the activity.

“No whales were observed during the survey activities,” the spokesperson said. “A pod of bottlenose dolphins was sighted on 16 April.”

After the dolphins were sighted “a shutdown of the seismic sound source were implemented in a timely manner, and the pod of dolphins left the area shortly after arriving.

“No observations were made of any distressed, injured or dead marine fauna during the seismic activities by NOPSEMA’s inspectors.”

According to information published by MEC Resources, which owns Advent Energy, of which Asset Energy is a subsidiary, geotechnical studies will also be conducted before 2019, with an exploration well to be drilled before 2020.  

By 2021, it plans to conduct a 3D survey.

Asset Energy did not respond to questions put to it by Fairfax Media.

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