Ballina Fisherman’s Co-Op manager Phil Hilliard says local trawlers have left for deeper waters to the north and south.
Ballina Fisherman’s Co-Op manager Phil Hilliard says local trawlers have left for deeper waters to the north and south. Jay Cronan

Eight trawlers down to four, and more losses expected

THE Ballina coastline has lost half its trawlers since the beginning of the year, and fishermen warn more casualties are likely.

New laws passed in NSW Parliament have made it easier for the government to shut down entire fisheries and stripped fishers of their right to compensation if their livelihoods are taken away.

Ballina Fishermen's Co-op general manager Phil Hilliard said the industry could wait no longer for the reform process to be finished.

"The Ballina fishing fleet had eight active trawlers at the beginning of the year," he said.

"Now we're down to four."

Unrest over the reforms is coupled with confusion about whether the Richmond River sandbar, a notorious obstacle for boaters, will ever be dredged.

Mr Hilliard said two of the former Ballina trawlers had left for deeper water at Coffs Harbour and two had headed to ports up north.

"They must hold some hope that things will get better, because these trawlers haven't gone on the bank," he said.

"They're still getting worked, just not in Ballina.

"Ballina will feel the effect of only having four trawlers in the next couple of years."

Fishers are hopeful the government's new powers will be reined in once the regulations dictating how the law is interpreted are drawn up.

As it is, Mr Hilliard said Primary Industries Minister Niall Blair could simply shut down an entire fishery with the stroke of a pen.

"The prawn trawler fishery stretches from Tweed to Bermagui," he said.

"They can turn around and say they don't want any more prawn fishing, and cancel all the shares with no compensation.

"That's not about to happen with the prawn fishery because there is a lot of product and it makes a lot of revenue for the government."

He said the state's six licensed eel fishers may be more likely to feel the effects.

"They spend about $10,000 to $15,000 for each share, and they need a minimum of 40 shares to go out," he said.

"Now they can wipe that away with the stroke of a pen without public consultation, without going through parliament, and without paying compensation."

Environmental law changes allowing the minister to immediately close a river contaminated by an oil spill without needing parliament's tick of approval were welcomed.

Mr Hilliard said he had no choice but to trust the government would make fair decisions.

"(Niall Blair) seems like the most trustworthy politician I've met so far," he said.

"I still check my wallet when he leaves the room, but he sounds and acts genuine.

"But this has worn out a lot of people in the industry to the point where many are giving up."