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Uphill battle to convince people harbour seafood is safe

Gladstone Seafood Promotion Fund Committee chairman Peter Milne said serving free Gladstone Harbour prawns at the Harbour Festival would help rebuild the product's reputation.
Gladstone Seafood Promotion Fund Committee chairman Peter Milne said serving free Gladstone Harbour prawns at the Harbour Festival would help rebuild the product's reputation. Tom Huntley

THE Gladstone Seafood Promotion Fund has begun its work. Now the question is: will it work?

GSPF committee chairman Peter Milne on Wednesday said he did not expect a quick fix to the damaged reputation of seafood from Gladstone Harbour, but he believed there were solutions to the deadlock that has existed since the "fish disease" controversy in 2011.

The region's main fish wholesalers have not accepted seafood from Gladstone Harbour since the State Government closed it to fishing in September 2011 when barramundi started turning up with red lesions.

Free Gladstone prawns for all at festival: read more here

Gladstone Ports Corporation has argued all along that the product is safe to eat, and Fisheries Queensland says commercial fishing can safely take place on the harbour. 

Mr Milne said the committee wanted to change the perception, in Gladstone and around the country, that seafood from the harbour was dangerous.

On Friday and Saturday, the committee will be serving free cooked prawns caught in Gladstone Harbour at the harbour festival. The aim is to get Gladstonites believing in their harbour again.

That may be possible, but Mr Milne knows his real challenge will be bringing the commercial fishing industry on board, something he acknowledges will be difficult.

We have to make people aware of it. We somehow need to get Gladstone eating seafood from the harbour again

The GSPF began when GPC announced it would donate $1.5 million for the initiative.

While the committee is theoretically independent of GPC, the commercial fishing industry sees it as an extension of the ports corporation.

After two years of hostile argument over whether dredging has caused fish disease and whether compensation is owed, most fishers are not ready to befriend the port authority.

Mr Milne said the key point was that seafood from Gladstone Harbour was a quality product.

"We have to make people aware of it," he said. "We somehow need to get Gladstone eating seafood from the harbour again."

He acknowledged he was having difficulty bringing the industry on board, but he said it was in the long term interests of the industry to rebuild the reputation of their product.

"We do need to have the fishers in the process," he said. "I would have thought sooner or later common sense would prevail."

So far GSPF includes one commercial fisherman and one retailer - not an inspiring list, but Mr Milne said the project was in its infancy and he was working to communicate with hesitant players.

Simon Whittingham at Gladstone Fish Market with a 600kg catch of diseased fish that he had to reject in 2011.
Simon Whittingham at Gladstone Fish Market with a 600kg catch of diseased fish that he had to reject in 2011. Chris Chan

Gladstone Fish Market owner Simon Whittingham has been one of the strongest critics of GPC, saying its dredging project has decimated his wholesale business.

He refuses to accept seafood from Gladstone Harbour until Safe Food Queensland gives him assurance the product is safe and scientists agree on what caused the fish health problems since 2011.

He is also irate that GSPF is handing out free prawns on Easter weekend, a time when his retail business relies on a boost in trade.

"I'm not interested in it at all," Mr Whittingham said of the GSPF.

He said until he can be convinced the product is safe, he won't sell it.

"If 1% of (seafood) out there is crook, than I'm doing the right thing," he said.

Mr Whittingham said he needed to see a scientific agreement on the state of the harbour before he could feel comfortable with the product.

He also said some science was being withheld. He cited an Entox report on poor turtle health which was only recently made available, after criticisms by Dr Matt Landos about its non-availability a year after it being completed

"There is a reason why they closed that harbour," he said.

The Observer has spoken to others in the industry who support the concept of the GSPF, although they declined to speak publicly.

Mr Milne said he had had telephone conversations with Mr Whittingham about the GSPF, but had not convinced him join.

He said the project would probably take years to achieve the desired outcome, but he hoped to have a formal strategy completed by the end of this year.

Topics:  fish health, gladstone harbour, gladstone ports corporation, state government



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