Rock Fishermen of the Munmorah State Conservation Reserve – Introduction
The rock platforms of the Munmorah state recreational reserve near where I live, is one of the most deadly locations to rock fish in Australia. Rock fishermen & women regularly lose their lives in this area, being swept of the rocks by rogue waves or by storm swells on days they simply should not be fishing. The fishermen also contribute to their demise by not wearing life jackets, fishing alone & not being competent swimmers.
The local council, fishing organizations & even the state government, have provided warning signs, life rings, off shore permanent moored safety buoys will soon be installed & memorials have been erected to those who have died but the fishermen keep coming.
The area is a place of great beauty & being on the platform at sunrise, sunset, when the ocean is angry or calm, to appreciate this beauty, is a joy in itself.
During the six weeks I went to the rock platform, I was very aware of the different ethnicities of those who were fishing & have made a point of noting this is along side the photos, as this is an important part of the problem. All of the people I saw fishing, had Asian or Middle Eastern heritage, prior to beginning this project, I had also seen fishermen of Australian/English heritage. The new Australian citizens seem to enjoy the freedom of life style their new country offers & have embraced with a passion, the pastime of fishing. Anecdotally, unfortunately, many of these people have not grown up around the ocean & lack the ability to swim or an appreciation of the danger, power & unpredictable nature of the waves.
The people I saw fished for different reasons. The Vietnamese man & his wife enjoyed the early morning sunrise while they fished, using bread & small hooks, for small fish that would be made into traditional soups, sauces or fish cakes of their birth country. The Philipino man was not interested in the beauty of his surrounding, his interest was catching large fish like Salmon, Tuna & Mackerel. He meticulously prepared his baits to achieve his goal. The Asian man who was so protected from the elements gave the impression that fishing was also his only reason for him being there. He used a float & green weed so was fishing for Luderick & Drummer which feed in the white water near the rocks. The six young men who were of middle eastern decent certainly enjoyed fishing & catching fish. They cheered each other & assisted with nets & gaffs when one had a hook up. However, they also enjoyed “playing” a game of chicken with the waves. They admitted that it was the excitement of rock fishing they enjoyed & that they would not fish from the beach or a boat.
My intention with this photo essay is to show all of the facets of this beautiful, dangerous place & the people who use it. Will my essay have any impact on those who’s habits need to be changed to protect themselves & the environment…..probably not…..
Image 1 – Vietnamese fisherman at sunrise
With the sun just above the horizon, it is the fishermen who have witnessed this transformation from night to day. For some, like the Vietnamese man, it was a combination of the fishing & being here at dawn to see the birth of the new day, which brought them back to the rock platform again & again. He said he enjoyed both & only fished in the early morning. He came to fish with his wife who also fished. They fished with small hooks & light line for small fish which they turned into their traditional fish soups, sauces & fish cakes.
He wore a life jacket but she did not. I did not ask why.
The image was taken to show the beauty & the serenity that can be the rock platform at sunrise. A view quite only appreciated by the fisherman who venture out at these early hours.
Image 2 – Vietnamese fisherman at dawn
It was a calm morning, the sun had risen, & even though this Vietnamese man was wearing a life jacket, he was still very mindful of where he stood with relation to the breaking waves. He kept a vigilant watch of the sea, as he said that even on a calm day, a big wave can come & suck me into the water.
In the image I did not want to show the wave frozen, I wanted to show how something dangerous could also be something beautiful. So the subdued colours, the smoothness of the waves all portrays beauty, not danger. This perceived beauty may be what lures the fishermen to reduce their guard & be caught unawares by the ocean.
Image 3 – Phillipino fisherman casting
This fisherman from the Philippines knew how to fish the rocks, he chose the best times, prepared his baits skillfully, wore a life jacket & as seen here, gracefully casts his bait to where he considers the best location to catch a fish. I saw him on a number of my trips to the rock platform & observed the methodical manner with which he fished. He fished to catch fish…..big fish, Salmon, Mackerel or Tuna which frequently swam along the deep water beneath this rock platform. It was the thought of catching that big fish that brought him back so often, this was what gave him pleasure.
The image shows the action required by the fisherman to propel his lure into the sea, to where the fish are. How close they have to venture to the breaking waves & the potential for the action of casting the lure, to cause the fisherman to over-balance, loose their footing or to trip on the rough rock platform & be caught by the waves.
Image 4 – Attaching the lure
At all levels, fishing the rock platform requires skills, from knowing the best tide, the route to climb down onto the platform, the best bait, even to the best way to fix the bait to the hook so as to fool the target fish. This fisherman, originally from the Philippines, was a regular visitor to the rock platform, he always wore a life jacket but he liked to fish alone. He was never there on the rough days, he said he picked the times when the tides, times & ocean conditions were right. Here, he prepares a bait onto the hooks, then winds a line around the bait to retain it’s shape & the hold it onto the hooks more securely. His methods were rewarding, he caught some nice fish.
Image 5 – Giant swells breaking across the rock platform
When the ocean became angry, the wise fishermen stayed away. You would expect all fishermen to stay away but they don’t, only the wise did. On this day the swells were in excess of three metres. On a day with smaller swell, the spray from the waves reached up onto the rock platform, but on this day, green water rolled across the rock platform, swirling, foaming, moving all that was loose in it’s path, then sucking back down to wait for the next swell.
I spent quite a few hours on the rock platform this day, carefully trying not to become a statistic. This is difficult, as I found myself being lured into positions to get a better image, only to be surprised by one of the big sets rolling in & me being too close to the edge. I was trying to show the size & the power of the waves, I am not totally happy with the images, as there was nothing to show or conveyor the real size & the force of the waves. There was nothing to show scale, a person or a boat.
Image 6 – Abdul Karim beating a hasty retreat
Beating a hasty retreat, this fisherman, Abdul Karim, said that he only fished the rocks, he enjoyed the fishing but he enjoyed the excitement of the playing with the ocean, judging it’s moods, motions & with some sense of risk management, playing his dangerous game. He was of middle-eastern decent & he said he could swim but always wore a life jacket. He was interesting, very polite to speak with & exuded the fun he was having with the other fishermen with whom he came.
The fishermen go close to the edge of the rock platform to cast, this allows their bait to travel further from the rocks but once they have cast many tend to stay in this unsafe zone & relax into fishing mode, forgetting the large wave which crashed across the spot where they are now standing only twenty minutes before. Hopefully they are paying attention when the next big wave comes & they can run to safety. But even the act of running away is not safe as it is not possible to look forward to where they are running & back at the wave at the same time. This is what I am showing in this image the dangers of being too close to the edge & then having to run to safety.
Image 7 – A fisherman standing his ground
This man was with a group of five other men of middle-eastern decent, who enjoyed the challenge of fishing, even when the ocean was angry. Including this man, of the group of six, five did not wear life jackets. He was polite, spoke good English & was openly enjoying the challenge of the fishing & the wild waves, laughing when he ran away or was caught by the waves. He did not back away from the waves as quickly as his friends, challenging them to wash him away. To him it appeared to be a game with the ocean. When I spoke with him he indicated that he put his trust in his God to decide his fate. This I found to be a strange concept.
These type of action images are opportunistic, they can’t be posed, so I have created more opportunities by spending more time with the fishermen.
What I am trying to show is the scale of the waves & the risks that some fishermen are placing themselves in. This fisherman has to run over the wall behind him if a larger wave comes, a larger wave would have probably gone around both sides of the rock trapping him.
I am showing a fisherman who is placing himself in a high risk situation but is doing nothing to mitigate the risk, wearing a life jacket, wearing clothes which are not going to become sodden & heavy & restrict his ability to swim, if he could swim, plan his escape route, all things which may save his life but also the lives of others who may attempt to rescue him.
Image 8 – A fisherman seeking safety
This man taunted the ocean time & time again, openly laughing when he had once again cheated death. He was enjoying what he was doing. He wore no life jacket & a heavy hoodie, which would weigh him down & make swimming difficult if he were to be caught by the ocean & sucked back over the rocks, into the foaming cauldron which boiled only metres behind him. On this day his faith, his luck & his agility all contributed to him going home & with a catch of good fish.
This image is showing what happened when a large wave came in & the fisherman was in the wrong position. He must run to safety, he stands no chance against to full fury of the ocean. The wave is clearly seen, as is the sense of urgency & determination in his face. It is not fear…….as soon as he realized that he was escaping the wave, his facial expression changed to a smile then laughter. Even though all this is being done in urgency, he has not dropped his fishing rod, he is bringing that with him, another sign that he is not fearful.
Image 9 – A fisherman heads home safely walking passed a lifebuoy
I was not able to speak with this fisherman, but did observe him for a period of time. Even though it was a warm, calm day, he was covered from head to toe to protect from the sun, had suitable shoes to allow safe movement on the rocks & was wearing a life jacket. He fished well back from the edge & when he did approach the edge, did it with care. He appeared to have respect for the ocean, he fished as though it was a meditation for him, not an exciting game or a necessity to catch a fish.
As he left the rock platform he passed one of the two life rings which have been mounted on the rock platform to be used in case of an emergency. Even though these are a life saving device, which are clipped to the mounting frame, on one occasion when I visited both had been removed, presumably thrown into the sea by people with no social morals.
This is an image of a fisherman safely leaving the rock platform, walking passed the life buoys, a symbol of safety & protection.
Image 10 – “The strength of his passion and love for the deep waters, could not outweigh the strength of the ocean.”
“The strength of his passion and love for the deep waters, could not outweigh the strength of the ocean.”
These words are cast into a plaque on a memorial for Tony Danchenko, who lost his life here, along with more than twenty other people over the years. The memorial, the life rings, the warning signs & just plan common sense should prevent any more deaths but from what I have seen over the last six weeks, it won’t. It is just a matter of time before there will be another death.
I found the poignant words on the plaque, “The strength of his passion and love for the deep waters, could not outweigh the strength of the ocean.” to be so true, if more fishermen read these words & realized the meaning of them, they may have more respect for the ocean.