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Rock Fishing Danger - a warning to share


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Inexperience killing Asian rock fishers

By Amy Simmons

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Experts say the federal and state governments should be doing more to address the high fatality rate among rock fishers from Asian backgrounds amid what has been one of the sport's deadliest months in Australia.

Eight lives have been lost this month, bringing the national total since last July to 22. Last year there were 13 rock fishing fatalities - a figure higher than Australia's average 11 per year.

The latest incident occurred on Saturday when 29-year-old student Qingtao Wang was swept off the rocks at North Bondi, in Sydney's east. Authorities found his car in the area and his fishing gear by the water but they are yet to find his body. Mr Wang's 28-year-old wife was pregnant with their first child.

It was the sixth rock fishing fatality in New South Wales in less than a week after five Hong Kong-Chinese nationals, including two elderly couples and one of their sons, were killed in a single incident at Catherine Hill Bay, south of Newcastle, the previous weekend.

Just prior to that a Korean man was swept off rocks in almost the exact location, while a 40-year-old Filipino national was also killed rock fishing near Albany in Western Australia.

The tragedies have sparked calls for stricter rock fishing regulations, such as closing off certain black spots and making life jackets compulsory.

But Australian National Sportfishing Association safety officer Stan Konstantaras says education is key.

He says more than half of Australia's rock fishing tragedies involve people from Asian backgrounds, but after this month's spike in fatalities that figure will rise to more than 60 per cent.

"Definitely the Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese anglers are over-represented in our rock fishing fatalities around Australia," he said.

"I think it's probably lack of education and awareness of our coastline - most of them are first generation or migrants who are still learning the ropes on how to deal with our coast and what our sea conditions are like."

A NSW-wide warning to avoid rock fishing because of dangerous conditions was issued the night before Mr Wang was swept to his death at North Bondi.

But Mr Konstantaras says it can be difficult to ensure the warnings are heard. He is meeting with NSW Fisheries Minister Steve Whan today to try and come up with an effective program.

"How do we get these messages out into these communities?" he said.

"It was on the news, in the newspapers, we advertise in the ethnic media as well, but we need to be able to get these messages out down to the grassroots level."

Mr Konstantaras says for what is probably the most dangerous sport in Australia, the perils of rock fishing have been largely overlooked by authorities.

Royal Lifesaving Australia spokesman Dr Richard Franklin agrees better education is needed to reduce the number of rock fishing fatalities.

He says governments need to invest more money into water safety, particularly targeting Australia's culturally and linguistically diverse communities.

"The problem is that this is a really hard group to reach. We see just over half of them come from an Asian background, predominantly they are residents of Australia, but English is not their first language," he said.

"It's not just rock fishing, it's about the wider education to the culturally, linguistically diverse communities as well - making sure we are getting swimming lessons into them, making sure they're having opportunities to understand about water safety.

"That's a wider strategy that needs to go on and we're actually seeing very little funding in that area.

"It would be a great step with the federal election looming if the Federal Government would put more resources into water safety generally and specifically into cultural and linguistically diverse communities."

Killer waves

Mr Konstantaras says an ability to swim, read the conditions and knowing what to expect while fishing off rocks are essential to staying alive.

"You could go to a rock platform one day and fish it quite safely and comfortably with your whole family, and the next day have the potential to be over the top with waves that could kill you," he said.

"If you sit down and watch the sea long enough you'll see a pattern develop and you will get a bigger series of waves every 10 to 15 minutes, and they're the ones that do the damage.

"It could be perfectly fishable for 20 minutes of the hour an then you'll get a set of waves come through that are just a bit bigger.

"At low tide these waves will break a bit further out from the platform and there'll be a rush of white water, on high tide they will break on the platform and you'll get a big push of green water on the platform that will knock you off."

He says too many inexperienced anglers are putting their lives at risk by refusing to head home when the conditions are rough.

"Out of the last six deaths we've had over the last week, all those people came from the north-west part of Sydney and they'd driven between and hour and two hours to get to these fishing spots," he said.

"There was no willingness to turn around and go home because they were too rough and that seems to be the problem - they're just taking the risks and continuing to fish, whereas an experienced angler would just turn around and go home and think 'well, there's always tomorrow'."

He says while wearing a life jacket is important, making them compulsory would not necessarily save lives.

"Putting a life jacket on and thinking that you're going to get washed in and that will save you is a totally wrong mindset to approach the rocks," he said.

"Your biggest problem is trying to get back onto the rock platforms when it's rough, and that's when a lot of people drown - head injuries and things like that.

"Some of these rock platforms are two or three metres and high and you won't be able to get back up, but if you just swim out the back of the impact zone - the first five or 10 metres where the white water is - out the back the swells are just going to be rolling past you.

"So to get out there and wait is the best advice we can give - you can throw and upturned bucket to someone, turn it upside down and hug it and that can keep you afloat if you can't swim.

"If you float out there they'll pick up a live one. If you try to get in and get banged around they'll pick up a body."

Mr Konstantaras says fishing groups have been shocked at the recent spike in fatalities.

"It's devastating to us," he said.

"We thought we were on top of it, that the number of deaths were reducing slowly, and we thought we were making some inroads, and to have this happen is a major setback to us.

"The best advice we can give is be prepared, know what the weather is doing before you leave home, never fish alone, wear a life jacket - but most importantly if it's too rough, go home."

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