Decline in lifejacket use off rocks a concern: water safety officials

A joint statement from WaterSafe Auckland, Surf Life Saving Northern Region and Auckland Council. 

Water safety experts are concerned at evidence of a dramatic decline in lifejacket use among rock fishers on Auckland’s notorious west coast.

The finding comes from a just-released survey of west coast rock fishers by Auckland University researcher Dr Kevin Moran, which highlights a more than 30% drop in lifejacket use.

While the numbers of fishers drowning off rocks has declined in recent years, the survey results show that several risky, rock-fishing behaviours are creeping back in, say WaterSafe Auckland Chief Executive Jonathon Webber and Surf Life Saving Northern Region Operations Manager Adam Wooler, whose organisations are part of a joint taskforce with Auckland Council to improve safety at rock-fishing sites. “What stood out alarmingly was a dramatic decline in lifejacket use,” says Webber.

“Our joint campaign to reduce drowning off rocks has been effective, but there is a real risk that the fishers will become complacent – and the survey tells us that’s happening.”

Webber says the arrival of summer and the holiday break sees a surge in numbers fishing off rocks and the task force will be carrying out a campaign of activities over summer to raise awareness about the risks involved.  The campaign will include workshops, public service notices and visits to the sites to educate those fishing on the dangers and what they need to do to stay safe.

“We are appealing to the families of the mainly men who fish off the rocks to urge their fathers, husbands and sons to act responsibly, especially around wearing a lifejacket, so they get home safely at the end of the day,” says Webber.

“In the absence of incidents, the blokes tend to feel they’re bulletproof but it just takes one rogue wave to dislodge a person, and wearing a lifejacket may mean the difference between life and death – as the sad Kaipara incident last month showed.  Our west coast seas remain dangerous and unpredictable whatever the time of year.”

Wooler says the task force would rather urge people to be responsible than legislate to force the use of lifejackets for rock-fishing, a move recently taken by the State Government in New South Wales.

“The carrot is preferable to the stick,” he says. “But if the rock-fishers won’t take responsibility for their own safety no matter how hard we try to cajole them, it may become an option we have to consider – as NSW did.”

“Every incident on the rocks doesn’t just put the person in the water at risk – it also poses a risk to others trying to assist them, including our lifeguards,” Wooler says.  “We want to eliminate the risks or at least reduce them, and use of a lifejacket is an absolute no-brainer.”

The annual survey, the 11th to be carried out by Moran’s team, interviewed 147 rock-fishers on their thoughts and habits around rock-fishing risks and precautions.  The 2016 survey showed 24% of those interviewed didn’t “often” or “always” use a lifejacket on the rocks, compared with 40% in the 2015 survey.

Other concerning findings were that fewer perceived there to be a drowning risk on the rocks (22% v. 77% in 2015) or that drowning was “a constant threat” (14% v. 68% in 2015), while there was still an alarming prevalence of the use of gumboots and a habit of rock-fishers turning their backs to the sea or going down to the rocks’ edge to retrieve snagged lines. There was also a “bullish” sense of rock-fishers own ability to survive being swept off the rocks, says Webber.

The rock-fishing locations involved were at Muriwai (Maori Bay, Collins Bay, Pillow Lava Bay), Bethells Beach (O’Neill Beach, Ding Bay), Whites Beach, Ninepin (Anawhata and Whatipu) and Karekare.

Moran’s survey showed as in previous that the biggest percentage of those fishing off rocks are Asian (54%), mainly Chinese, and male (91%).  Campaigns in the past have been multi-lingual and this year’s will also feature strong outreach to the Asian community, as well as Pacific Island communities.

-Ends-

For further information or to arrange interviews with Jonathon Webber or Adam Wooler:

WaterSafe Auckland: Barbara Venville-Gibbons, tel. 027 523 3253, email Barbara@watersafe.org.nz

SLSNR: Sam Clemerson, Wright Communications, tel. 021 178 4891, email sam@wrightcommunications.co.nz 

Dr Moran’s report can be accessed from our Research Section