A proposed aquaculture farm has divided the South Australian city of Whyalla, as it looks for employment opportunities for its citizens beyond traditional industries.
- The Whyalla Council has blocked access to a marina necessary for a proposed new fish farm
- Company Clean Seas says the farm would bring 70 new jobs and help diversify the economy
Local fishers say the farm risks local tourism and the fish populations
Opposition to the new fish farm by recreational fisher Nick Antonio is based on his experience with the last time a fish farm operated on South Australia’s Upper Spencer Gulf.
“You’d pull in to drop your rubbish on the way home, and there’d be dead kingfish in nets at the bins.”
“They had dead fish smell ponging through their shacks,” he said of beachfront shack-owners like himself.”
Aquaculture company Clean Seas last ran a Yellowtail Kingfish farm near his shack at Fitzgerald Bay about a decade ago.
But a plan to re-establish it has forced locals to confront tough questions about how the former manufacturing powerhouse makes money into the 21st century.
‘They completely destroyed the marina’
Forty kilometres north of Australia’s Steel City, Whyalla, the bay is a stone’s throw from a booming tourist drawcard — the world’s only annual cuttlefish breeding aggregation.
Mr Antonio said last time the company was there it did not respect the environment or a local marina and many did not trust them with the region’s fledgling tourist economy.
“They had a lot of washed-up debris, nets, buoys,” he said.
“They completely destroyed the Point Lowly Marina. They used it as their loading facility when rec-fishers were trying to launch their boats.”
He and others appear to have convinced Whyalla City Council as much. Early this year, council voted to block access to the marina, which Clean Seas needs to operate.
“Risks associated with its proposal outweigh its public value”, the council said at the time, adding the farm “did not fit with its plans to grow the incredible tourism opportunities on offer at Point Lowly”.
‘We need to diversify’
But some locals and the State Government disagree with the Council.
They say the 70 direct jobs and opportunities to further diversify the city’s community away from steel manufacturing, are too good to pass up.
Local MP Eddie Hughes believes if appropriate safeguards are in place, the company can and should be trusted.
Indeed, Clean Seas has outlined an agreement to restart a defunct aquaculture training program at the local high school if the project goes ahead.
Acting CEO Rob Gratton said the company had learned from the mistakes of the past.
“There are some concerns going back to that time. But we’re a different company. It’s a different management team and importantly, the technology has moved on from then,” he said.
“Previously our nets used to come to shore for cleaning every day, but now the nets are cleaned in situ in the ocean and so the cause of a lot of that disruption 10 years ago, has now changed.”
Government has ‘good checks’ on aquaculture
Mr Gratton also said claims by local fishers that Clean Seas’ other farms under-reported fish escapes, harming wild fish populations in the Gulf were untrue.
“We can’t afford to be putting feed in the water to feed fish that aren’t there, and those fish are highly valuable.”
Department of Primary Industries Executive Director of Aquaculture Gavin Begg agreed.
“Their operations will be randomly audited in terms of compliance by officers, so we have a really good check in terms of how aquaculture sectors are operating within the state,” he said.
Where to from here?
The schism has highlighted a tension apparent as many single-industry towns fight for survival into the 21st century.
After buying the city’s ailing steelworks in 2017, the GFG Group committed to a $1 billion renewable energy program and started construction of a solar farm to cover its energy needs.
Though renewables have emerged as the city’s most likely saviour, there is a sense that tourism is something the community is only just waking up to.
The Instagram generation has given it a taste of being a destination in its own right, spruiking underwater selfies amongst schools of other-worldly cuttlefish.
Plans for a $100 million waterfront hotel have also been drawn up, as the ABS reveals Australians are fleeing metropolitan areas in record numbers due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr Antonio thinks boosting tourism is the right step for the region.
But whether aquaculture cannot exist alongside that plan remains to be seen.
As Clean Seas CEO Rob Gratton points out, it has run a farm at coastal hotspot Port Lincoln for more than a decade.
“We do operate alongside tourism, they have a great tourism industry down [there] and also a fantastic aquaculture industry.”