Member for Mount Gambier Troy Bell has called on the State Government to provide funding for a Marine Rescue Squadron and rescue vessel to be based at Port MacDonnell.
Mr Bell last week spoke in Parliament about the matter, outlining the push for such a service started in 2011, when local fisherman rescued two men whose vessel had capsized 15km off the Port MacDonnell coast.
A series of public meetings followed and a proposal for a marine rescue service was prepared by the Grant District Council and presented to the State Government, highlighting the significant recreational fishing fraternity, the large commercial fishing sectors in the area and a predicted rising aquatic risk profile.
“This marked the beginning of what is now an 11-year campaign to establish official marine rescue services in the Lower South East of South Australia,” Mr Bell said.
“Since that event in 2011 there have been numerous instances where the community has depended on the goodwill of local fishers to assist in rescue operations, some of which ended tragically.
“2022 saw another two incidents involving volunteer rescues. In April, two Carpenter Rocks fishermen aided in the rescue of two tourists whose dinghy had capsized.
“Then in August, the call again went out to locals to assist an amateur vessel that had reported engine trouble. Charter fishing operators Jason Fulham and Tyson Kain answered the call.
“The rescue operation took almost five hours with complications occurring on the tow back in. The damaged vessel began to take on water and had to be abandoned. During this process, the rescuer’s own vessel suffered approximately $5000 in damage.”
Mr Bell said the incidents were a selection from the past decade in which professional and recreational fishermen played a crucial role in rescue operations, with many others not reported publicly.
“There has been a long-standing agreement between local police and the community of Port MacDonnell to conduct these rescues and the professional fishing fleet has always selflessly come forward to offer their time when they have been called in,” he said.
“However, we cannot rely on the goodwill of people forever, plus expect them to shoulder the costs associated.
“Along with lost time and fuel, fishers are also shouldering a heavy liability burden. Rescue operations are outside the normal duties of both recreational and professional fishermen.
“Should something unforeseen happen during a rescue can we guarantee the insurance companies will step up to the plate? If a professional vessel is damaged, who will compensate the fisher for the lost earnings while the boat is on land being repaired?”
Mr Bell said the stretch of coastline had proven to be treacherous, yet the closest rescue vessel was located in Kingston, a two hour boat ride away.
“Not only are we relying on commercial and recreational vessels that are not designed for this purpose, but we are also relying on local fishermen who have not been trained to perform rescues safely and may not have the necessary equipment,” he said.
“It is important to emphasise that many of the local fishers are happy to volunteer their time, but they want to be able to do it safely and not at personal cost and/or possible liability.”
Mr Bell said it was time to a Marine Rescue Unit at Port MacDonnell, equipped with a built-for-purpose vessel and trained volunteers.
“The Grant District Council is a great supporter of this project and has been actively involved over the previous 11 years in garnering support for such a facility,” he said.
“They have provided in-principle support with the provision of land, along with a commitment to assist with engaging community members.
“It is evident there is a consensus on the need for rescue services in the Lower South East, yet we still have no dedicated marine rescue unit.”
Mr Bell said both sides of the government have had the opportunity to act on the proposal, yet it “appeared budgetary constraints have halted the project from moving any further”.
“With the rock lobster fishing season now under way, and summertime approaching, let’s hope that action is taken before a tragedy forces the issue,” he said.