The World Today Archive

Calls for moratorium on oil exploration

22 October, 2001

Reporter: Michelle Fonseca

ELEANOR HALL, COMPERE: The Australian Conservation Foundation is calling for a moratorium on oil exploration off Victoria's coastline after the discovery last week of a dead whale. The foundation and local fishermen say it's no coincidence the whale died around the same time oil company, Esso resumed its seismic testing for new oil and gas deposits.

As Michelle Fonseca reports, they don't believe the company's claim that the only possible impact of the testing is to frighten some fish.

MICHELLE FONSECA, REPORTER: Scallop fisherman, Arno Blanco, has been trawling Bass Strait for the past thirty years. He's seen a lot in that time, but says he's never come across a dead whale, and he has no doubt its death is somehow connected to the seismic testing which Esso conducts in the same waters.

ARNO BLANCO, SCALLOP FISHERMAN: Put it this way, there is an industry perception in respect to Esso being out there, and all of a sudden we've got a dead whale on our hands. And it raises a serious amount of questions what actually took place in the last few days.

REPORTER: Esso has twenty-one offshore platforms in Bass Strait. Every two years for the past three decades it's conducted seismic tests in the waters in between those platforms to search for new oil and gas deposits. It describes the procedure as non-invasive. In other words, its says the tests don't involve big blasts, and don't leave any physical impact on the marine environment. Spokesman Nick Thomas.

NICK THOMAS, ESSO SPOKESMAN: Simply what happens is that there is a rapid discharge of air into the water, and so that forms a wave which goes down and benches off the rocks structures below the seabed. And then comes back up again and is picked up by streamers which trail out the rear of the vessel. And that data is then transformed to very sophisticated computer systems and analysed.

REPORTER: In any case, Mr Thomas insists Esso only began its latest round of seismic tests yesterday, days after the whale carcass was found. He says what the fisherman saw was the company's vessel preparing its equipment for testing.

NICK THOMAS: They would have seen the actual streamers being deployed, and they would have seen those coming through the water. And as you actually look at the streamer you will see a little bit of a wave around it where it... there's a piece that actually sticks up out of the water.

REPORTER: Mr Thomas says there's plenty of goodwill between Esso and the fishermen. In the past, the company has moved its testing to other waters to avoid cramping the fishermen's space. Indeed, it says, it's shifted this round of testing to another part of Bass Strait to accommodate thefishermen.

But if that's the case, someone's forgotten to tell them. They're angrily accusing Esso of pressing ahead with its testing, despite their concerns it could harm fish stocks at a crucial time.

ARNO BLANCO: We... when we had this meeting with Esso last Wednesday, it was quite clear that that form of testing does kill off fish eggs and larvae, particularly scallop larvae, within certain distances away from the actual blast. And that was our major concern, that whilst our scallops are spawning that this larvae was going to be killed off by that form of blasting.

REPORTER: Esso has also failed to convince environment groups its seismic exploration is 100 per cent safe. The Australian Conservation Foundation says there's enough scientific evidence around to warrant a ban on the technique, at least until whales have completed their migration through Bass Strait waters. Spokesman, John Connor.

JOHN CONNOR, AUSTRALIAN CONSERVATION FOUNDATION SPOKESMAN: We're talking about loud explosions underwater which travel, some evidence shows, up to 100 kilometres, but definitely there's quite an impact up to 10 kilometres. And there is scientific evidence to show that there is impact on fish species, but also on hearing and balance of marine mammals. And that's very important for marine mammals in their... finding their direction. So for whales, how to find... how they're finding their way down the coastline.

REPORTER: But Mr Connor says there also needs to be a long-term solution. The Australian Conservation Foundation is lobbying for a tightening up of the regulations governing marine exploration.

COMPERE: Michelle Fonseca with our report.

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