Fishing class action win against Department of Fisheries

FISHERMEN and associated businesses seeking more in depth data from the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for their class action against Gladstone Ports Corporation have had an order by the courts in their favour.

The action of more than 150 fishermen and associated ­businesses against GPC is expected to go to trial in 2021 and initially take 11 weeks.

More than 150 seafood ­industry members from Queensland and NSW - from Bowen to ­Sydney - are seeking $100 million-$150 million from GPC, saying works carried out by the ­corporation in the ­Gladstone Harbour about 2010 negatively ­impacted the water quality, fish health and fish numbers, which impacted the industry members' businesses.

The fishers legal representatives, Clyde and Co, made an application to the Supreme Court for the production of historical catch data relating to commercial fishers who may have fished in Queensland waters since 2005.

DAF objected to the request, saying "much of the data sought was not relevant to the issues in the proceedings" and "the request was oppressive given the time and resources needed by DAF to respond".

Justice Graeme Crow, outlining his decision in favour of fishers, said this procedure was "not available when its purpose is a fishing expedition for ­documents which may have been in the possession of a person not a party to the action".

"Documents of the nature of those sought will be relevant to the proceeding," he wrote.

The matter was the subject of a hearing in the Supreme Court in Rockhampton earlier this week, March 2, where both sides put more detailed argument before the court.

Lachlan Armstrong, for the plaintiffs, said the expert ­reports were dependant on ­getting information from GPC and other parties such as DAF.

DAF had provided two sets of data to the plaintiffs to date, but fishing population expert, Ian Knuckey said he required more in-depth data for his report.

The court was told DAF's issues included the department needing to write a new ­computer code to encompass the search perimeters outlined by the plaintiffs; the data input of the department was three to four months behind; that ­"running these searches might slow down the department's usual processes"; and the results would likely be large and that once the data had been extracted, it would need to be formulated into readable content.

On Friday, Justice Crow published his decision online, in favour of the fishers.

His orders were for DAF to provide the data to the ­plaintiffs in full for the period January 1, 2005, to September 30, 2019, by March 30, 2020.

Background information:

The plaintiffs served DAF with a notice on November 25, 2019, seeking logbook data for Queensland commercial fishing tour; aquarium fish fishery; Queensland east coast tropical rock lobster; beachworm, bloodworm and yabby; broodstock and culture stock collection; Queensland east coast line fin fish fisheries; Queensland reef line multi-hook fin fish fishery; Queensland east coast net and crab fishery; spanner crab fishery; Queensland east coast trawl fishery; stout whiting trawl fishery and ownership data.

The plaintiffs claim GPC's bund wall discharge escaped into affected waters and caused significant elevated increased turbidity and total suspended solid concentrations; significantly elevated levels of contamination from bioavailable metals; significantly elevated levels of reactive dissolved metal ions due to entry of material; contained reduced amounts of oxygen; and/or toxic algae blooms.

The plaintiffs allege that from about September 2, 2011, the contamination effects affected the ecology of affected waters; caused the deaths of or damaged marine life; caused the volume of commercial species caught in affected areas be reduced, which in turn adversely affected the catches of, and income of, the commercial fishing group members; and/or caused a reduction in the quality of the commercial species caught in affected waters, which in turn adversely affected the catches of, and income of, the commercial fishing group members.

Justice Crow outlined in his decision that GPC deny causation and loss. They further raise the positive case that prior to June 16, 2011, there were various species of fish that had been discovered within Port Curtis with rashes or conditions and that commercial fishermen had experienced reductions in catch rates for some species of fish.

The GPC claim due to above average rainfall in the areas of the Calliope and Boyne Rivers in November and December 2010, the Awoonga freshwater dam began to overflow for the first time in eight years. This caused an unusually large influx of freshwater into Port Curtis, along with about 30,000 large barramundi being washed over from the Awoonga Dam into the Boyne River.