Reef rescue a business and science pact

Survival skills take diverse forms for Victorian fisher John Minehan, from joining research projects and creating new seafood industries to consolidating workplace safety

Photo of John MinehanJohn Minehan at the start of another day working on the seabed.

Story and photo by Brad Collis

One of John Minehan’s earliest memories is of sitting astride his dad’s shoulders in the surf off Mallacoota, Victoria; father and son at one with the sea – its power, beauty and bounty. It was inevitable that he would follow in the footsteps of his father, Mike Minehan, to become a diver and fisher, so powerful was his childhood bond with this world.

His boyhood reads like a Tim Winton novel: youthful rights of passage honed by the challenges and knowledge that comes to people who learn, often hazardously, the ways of the sea and the life within it.

“It was a beach life. I grew up surfing, fishing, diving and aside from a brief side-step into university (studying IT), that’s the way it has continued,” he says, reflecting on the influences that have made maintaining the health of his marine backyard a professional passion.

John Minehan’s father was a pioneer of the Mallacoota abalone industry in the 1960s, establishing it as the economic mainstay of the Victorian township that lies just south of the border with NSW; tourism weighed in later.

Joining the fray

John Minehan has continued his father’s legacy of community leadership. For his father this included helping to found AFCOL, previously known as the Abalone Fishermen’s Co-operative, to process and export wild abalone. But as the fisheries sector has evolved, for John Minehan this has meant dealing with the more modern issue of securing continued access to the abalone resource against both environmental and regulatory challenges.

For more than a decade he has been on the committee of the Victorian Eastern Zone Abalone Industry Association and in recent years he has been heavily involved with FRDC-backed research into the loss of abalone habitat caused by an explosion in sea urchin numbers.

The ‘why’ of the urchin explosion is still being researched, but the consequence has been a denuding of underwater reefs and the kelp forests that abalone and other species need to survive.

The main problem species is Centrostephanus rodgersii, the Long-spined Sea Urchin.

“Just being in the water, as I have been, over the past 20 years I’ve witnessed the steady loss of our kelp forests – we estimate we’ve lost 50 per cent in Victorian waters over this period,” John Minehan says.

The urchin invasion has caused abalone habitat to shrink, and the abalone fishery along with it. Cuts to the total allowable commercial catch (TACC) for abalone in the Eastern Zone are a stark measure of the impact.

Protecting reefs

The good news is that reef ecosystems can recover if the urchins are removed or controlled. John Minehan has been one of the team of 22 divers involved in a Fisheries Victoria project – the Marine Reef Restoration Project – to test reef recovery. He says they have removed more than 1.5 million urchins to date, which has restored a tremendous area of marine habitat back to a healthy state.

“We are part of this environment so a lot of what we are doing comes very much from a strong sense of stewardship and responsibility,” he says.

“We witnessed firsthand the destruction that occurred, and it was distressing. It’s beautiful working 10, 15, 20 metres down in a kelp forest. You become very familiar with it, and the knowledge you build over years of working in this environment makes you very comfortable in a place that would be hazardous for many other people. It becomes very special.”

The Marine Reef Restoration Project has been a successful confluence of science and business. The urchins have their own potential in seafood markets, where their roe is considered a delicacy.

This has led sea urchin harvesting to progress from developmental fisheries permits to a licensed, quota-managed fishery in its own right.

“Where sea urchins being removed are of a viable quality – in other words, where they haven’t started to starve because they have eaten an area out – we harvest for market,” he says.

With the decline in the abalone TACC, urchins have become an important part of John Minehan’s business, accounting for more than six months of work. He splits his time between Mallacoota and Melbourne, where he dives in Port Phillip Bay to harvest a different sea urchin species, Heliocidaris erythrogramma, sometimes called the Purple Sea Urchin.
Diver safety

John Minehan has also been a leader in efforts to establish a new safety management plan for abalone diving.When the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) was formed in 1990, new national laws and regulations governing marine operations were introduced. This pushed fishing vessels and dive-based fisheries, such as abalone, to address the safety risks inherent in these activities.

“We had to process a whole lot of new paperwork to obtain a safe operator’s ticket to keep operating, but there was a lack of relevant support documentation,” he says. His requests to the Victorian Abalone Industry Committee for a formal plan led the committee to suggest that he might take on the job – to come up with a document that was suitable for the industry and that would meet AMSA compliance requirements.

“There was a draft document, but it was not user-friendly and didn’t fully meet AMSA’s requirements. We needed something simpler and more tailored to our industry. So it started out, really, as self-interest because I was simply looking for useable documentation for myself and then discovered everyone was looking for the same thing.”

John Minehan says in the process he realised that the knowledge required around issues such as risk assessment and safety was already well enshrined in professional practice.

“From my father’s day to the present there have been enormous improvements in safety and they have mostly been driven by the industry itself. So putting together the safety management plan for AMSA was really just about compiling existing best practice, already tried and proven by the industry.”

The plan earned him the Seafood Industry Victoria’s Safety Award in 2017. But John Minehan sees it mainly as a validation of proven industry standards for practices and equipment and to show how this supported AMSA’s requirements.

He retains a pragmatic view of regulations. “In our industry safety always comes back to individual operators and their professionalism. But we are a small community, so it doesn’t take much for people to keep each other in mind and to contribute to improve standards. It’s ongoing because, like the management of our fisheries, it’s all about self-preservation.”

FRDC Research Codes: 1999-128, 2012-058