A floating protest

 

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Commercial scale fisher Chris Massie anchored in Okehampton Bay. Photo: Hilary Burden

JUST bring a sleeping bag and a toothbrush. You can sleep in the same clothes. That’s what I’ve been doing,” comes the message from 53-year-old skipper Chris Massie aboard the Mater Cara. I pack an esky and drive to Orford, where a friend will take me on the half-hour boat trip from the Prosser River jetty to Okehampton Bay.

In my 20s, cameraman Andy and I spent holidays at Orford, fishing for flathead with a handline and sailing across to Maria Island for sleepovers. We’d throw over an anchor and swim in the clear waters of Okehampton Bay, too. It offered the kind of tranquility yachts seek – shelter in shallow waters with a white-sand beach – along with a clear view to Maria Island. The only road access was through farmland and a gate kept open for those in the know.

In the Mercury on September 11, 1884, a correspondent described Okehampton Bay as “an excellent shelter landlocked on three sides” and “the beau ideal of a port for Maria Island”. At different times, though there’s little sign now, Okehampton boasted a whaling station, post office, store and quarry. Okehampton sandstone was used to build the Melbourne Law Courts, Victorian Library and Town Hall. The correspondent records the quarry failed because “too much was expected from it”.

It seems industry’s quest is nothing new at Spring Bay.

Twenty-eight fish pens will soon house 800,000 fish at Tassal’s Okehampton fish farm. I’m revisiting Okehampton to meet Massie, a fisherman who has taken up temporary residence in the bay to make a stand against the fish farm.

Despite the Federal Government giving the final environmental tick of approval for the farm two days earlier, Massie is sticking to his two-week vigil. Barges are being loaded up at Triabunna with buoys, ropes, anchors and concrete blocks ready to have fish in Tassal’s pens by the end of the month – proof that local mayor Michael Kent was right when he said plans for Okehampton Bay were “almost done and dusted” in the weeks before the ruling.

Back in the ’80s, Andy and I were colleagues reporting on the Franklin Dam when the No Dams referendum vote led to the demise of the Holgate Government. Now, here we are taking photos of barges against the dramatic backdrop of Maria Island, a National Park on land and sea.

Councillor Kent supports the salmon industry. He says it is creating jobs in a region that desperately needs them. But a recent Mercury poll found 48 per cent of Tasmanians do not want salmon farming at Okehampton Bay, with a majority 52 per cent in the Lyons electorate opposed. It might as well be dam wars, or forest wars, all over again.

The Glamorgan Spring Bay Council has previously identified Triabunna-Orford and Maria Island as “a visitor gateway” to the East Coast. Now, the warm East Coast welcome is split; neighbours, including this month’s two key players, are at loggerheads. It just so happens that Mark Ryan, Tassal’s chief executive, lives on the waterfront in the same Lower Sandy Bay street as Massie – in fact, just two doors down. Massie says when he makes his morning cuppa, he can see Ryan watering his trees.

The wind on the water is brisk as we speed across the bay in a 200hp motorboat. Andy points out a giant sea eagle’s nest in the branches of a dead tree at Flensers Point. Flenser, a French word meaning “to strip the blubber or skin from a whale or seal”, points to Okehampton’s history as one of the East Coast’s major whaling stations in the 1820-40s. Just around the corner, we find Massie sheltering in the bay.

On board, I watch as Massie makes tea in winter sunshine reflecting sharply off the clear turquoise sea. Mugs are warmed with hot water before he slices off two hunks of cake that the Wilsons, friends from the Channel, brought in support. Massie’s fish-fingered hands look too big for the delicate sponge.

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Supporters delivered a sponge cake for Massie during his two-week protest. Photo: Hilary Burden

His sentences are economical. He doesn’t embellish, rage or rush. At night in his bunk, he listens to an audiobook on the life of the father of peaceful resistance, Mahatma Gandhi.

As he watches the barges laying the anchor buoys, he turns and says he knows some of the men working on the boats but holds nothing against them. He knows they’ve got to work. But he is sick of what he sees as spin and greed. He says he knows he’s not going to make a difference, but he wonders if, with Tassal’s “industrial fish farm”, Tasmania is witnessing “the last of our hunters and gatherers”. “It’s hard to say without accusing someone though, isn’t it?” he says. “It’s a bloody fine line.”

He says sadness, not anger, is his prevailing emotion on the water: “In 20 or 30 years’ time, at least I can say I put my point of view in a passive way.” He says he was nervous on day one of his protest. “But I reckon you’d bloody regret it later in life if you didn’t do anything about it. Two weeks in the scheme of things isn’t long, is it? I’m just not earning any money.”

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Chris Massie with a map of the Mercury Passage on board the Mater Cara. Photo: Hilary Burden

Many friends have visited him over the 11 days and he has received plenty of messages and emails. One visitor was Malcolm Ferguson, a boat-builder and crayfisher from Triabunna who built the Rachel Christine, the last timber fishing boat in Tasmania. Massie shares one of the video diaries he’s been making to record his time on board. In it, he is having dinner with Ferguson in the downstairs fo’c’sle. Ferguson says he’s been fishing the area since 1980 and that it’s still pristine. “We haven’t damaged it. I don’t want it to start now,” he says, looking directly into the iPad camera.

Tim James, Massie’s best friend for 30 years from their Rosny College days, stayed for three nights. Massie had to ban him from the small galley kitchen because he didn’t leave things how he wants them. When James’ wife Ange visited, she took videos of the pair on her mobile phone but lost them all when she dropped it over the side into the water. Ange also happens to be Premier Will Hodgman’s sister. It’s a very Tasmanian story.

Massie is listening to a digital music playlist that James made especially for his friend’s vigil. It’s an ’80s mix: The Angels, Leonard Cohen, The Rolling Stones. One of the videos records the two men talking as they fish off the back of the crayboat. “I remember when they dammed Lake Pedder,” Massie says. “I was only young. My mother went down there. Well, this is like flooding Lake Pedder and we’re just marking the moment. It will never be the same.”

In other messages of support, his father Ron, a retired State Fisheries protection officer, says he felt betrayed by the fish farm activity “because of the impact on our wild fisheries”. There’s an email from old-timer Des Whayman, a mussel and oyster-fisher from the Channel who visited Massie in the first week: “Good on you for your great effort in bringing your views to the front. You are not alone. Keep up the excellent work. I will be with you all the way.”

Massie, his wife Tilly and their children Hamish, 17, and Eve, 14, have had a shack at West Shelley, Orford, for nearly two decades. Tilly’s family used to own the nearby property of Rostrevor. In his younger days, Massie made a good living working as a deckhand, then ran a cherry orchard on the East Coast for 20 years, fishing in between. After that he worked as a professional fisher with his brother for 15 years: whiting and tiger flathead out of Hobart, and sandy and tiger flathead out of Triabunna. “I’ve had the best of fishing,” he says. “The ocean’s been good to us. I feel obligated.”

He says they’ve always tried to catch small amounts of fish and supply the local market. Some weeks he only fishes a total of three hours. The way he says he fishes, they’d never fish it out.

“There’s got to be more fishermen like me,” says Massie, “but it’s so hard for young fishers to get into fisheries now. Once we did it as hunters and gatherers and we made a good living out of fishing. Now, big companies are taking this right away from us.

“I’m not against them. All I’m doing is asking the question – are there other possibilities other than putting in 800,000 fish out there? I don’t have the answer to any of this, but I don’t think putting them in is the answer.”

Massie met Tassall’s Mark Ryan about three years ago. His wife had organised a gathering to open the neighbourhood herb garden constructed on the nature strip of their Lower Sandy Bay street and the Ryans came over for the event.

Since then, he says they’ve “had a few run-ins”, especially after Massie put up a ‘No Fish Farms’ sign outside their house, which he took down when the council told him he needed development approval for it. Massie invited Ryan over, among others, for a sleepover on the Mater Cara (which means Dear Mother) on his first night at Okehampton. The invitation went unanswered.

“It’s hard to tick something off without spending time here,” Massie says. “With a little gem as good as Maria. They’re not making any more of them.” He produces a book from the cabin, Maria Island – A Tasmanian Eden by Margaret Weidenhofer. A tinny pulls alongside. It’s Wilhelmina Rae, spokesperson for Marine Protection Tasmania, and her brother Ben, owner-operator of Tasmanian eBike Adventures. They are here to wish Massie well before heading back to their mother’s family home at Orford.

At night, the Mater Cara rolls on calm waters. Massie lights the fire downstairs using timber from the shore. Dinner is barbecue T-bone steak with vegetables from his father-in-law’s garden, wine and a couple of beers. He says people mock him on Facebook “just because I’m trying to save something nice”.

“But I’ve got a right to express my concern without getting slandered,” he says. “I’m for small-time cottage industries. There are so many talented people at Triabunna. Better fishermen than me, plus engineers, farmers, boat builders … it’s annoying that a company is coming to ‘rescue us’. It doesn’t sit comfortably with me. If I was out in a ship sinking, I’d do everything to save myself. Maybe they could grow one-tenth of the salmon, and the Triabunna people could construct the pens and farm for themselves, for a niche market … they’re just ideas I’m having while I’m out here in solitude.”

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Sunrise on Okehampton Bay. Photo: Hilary Burden

The next morning I’m woken by the sound of fairy terns gathering on the beach before sunrise. It’s a cold sou’wester. I pee into a bucket that gets emptied into the sea. Downstairs there’s a

Sani-Loo. Legally, Massie says, he’s not allowed to discharge anything over the side less than about 5km offshore. He goes through the arguments again about fish poo, warming waters, algal bloom, pen tarps and feed tonnage, threats from seals and sharks, and asks why the Okehampton pens can’t go offshore in ocean currents.

Two sea eagles are perched on a tree on Flensers Point. Massie says it’s the first day he’s seen them together. “It’s a bit ironic,” he says. “Monday morning the barges are full into it for the first time, and they both appear. It’s almost as if they’re watching, too.”

TROUBLED WATERS?

Concerns about the impact of fish farm expansion have been in the air since 2009, when a group made up of salmon farmers and representatives from CSIRO, the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies and the Government confirmed a “clear downward trend” of dissolved oxygen levels in deeper water.

In July 2015, on the first day of a Senate inquiry into Tasmania’s aquaculture industry, Premier Will Hodgman called the inquiry a “witch hunt”. Since then, environmental monitoring and reviews appear to have struggled to keep up with industry growth.

Reforms have been provoked by intense media scrutiny – including the ABC’s Four Corners program Big Fish, which late last year revealed damning evidence about the environmental degradation of Macquarie Harbour – as well as opposition from inside the salmon industry (for example, Huon Aquaculture’s ongoing legal proceedings against the State Government). Increasingly, high-profile campaigns by Environment Tasmania and Marine Protection Tasmania (with local shack owner and AFL star Nick Riewoldt on their 1500+ database) have also held the Government to account.

The Government’s latest Draft Sustainable Industry Growth Plan for the $730 million salmon industry, released last week, identifies “Grow Zones” and “No Grow Zones” with expansion “largely oceanic rather than estuarine” and a new commitment that “other than the small existing leases, the entire East Coast of Tasmania will be salmon-farm free”.

Tassal has described its Okehampton lease, on a pre-existing mussel farm, as Australia’s first “eco-aquaculture” site and says it has strong support at Triabunna, being the largest employer in the town. Opponents say just because there’s a pre-existing site, that doesn’t give them a green light to farm salmon. A Tasmania-wide coalition of community and industry interests has this week called on both major parties to agree to a moratorium on lease allocation until what it describes as governance problems are addressed and “proper community consultation” is undertaken.

Environment Tasmania describes the proposed 4000 tonnes (800,000 fish) stock load over 80ha as “intensive”. Tassal has about 7800 tonnes across three leases totalling 280ha in Macquarie Harbour. Tasmanians have until Friday, September 8, to provide feedback on the draft plan, which will be delivered by June next year.

 

Published in TasWeekend, August 19, 2017

 

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