Access To Ashmore Reef

Here are the two letters that I sent to my local MP Allan Rocher, and the replies that I got from Senator Robert Hill as Minister for the Environment.

Letter 1

22nd October 1996

Allan Rocher MP
Member for Curtin

Allan,

I was recently on a boat trip from Broome to Ashmore Reef via Scott Reef.  I am writing to you because we were refused permission to land on Ashmore Reef.

I was in a group of 10 birdwatchers surveying seabirds migrating from the Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean via the Timor Sea.  We were very successful as we recorded Leach’s Storm-Petrel (only about 5 previous Australian records), Bulwer’s Petrel and Matsudaira’s Storm-Petrel (bigger numbers than previously recorded), Long-tailed Jaeger and Black Noddy (very few previous WA records) and Tahiti Petrel (only one previous WA record).  This information along with other sightings will be passed on to the WA Museum and other interested bodies such as the Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union.

As we approached Ashmore Reef we contacted the ‘caretaker’.  He was very helpful and gave us information about where to moor, and the activities that were permitted (snorkelling but no fishing or spearfishing; land but don’t disturb or take any wildlife; etc) because it was a nature reserve, etc.  Then he asked for the details of the vessel.  He asked if we were a charter vessel and then suddenly it was a case of no access was permitted unless we had a permit from the Australian Nature Conservation Agency (ANCA) in Darwin and that we were not allowed any access (swimming was permitted but no snorkelling, etc) and that we should leave the area.

This seems ridiculous. If we were a private vessel we would have had full access but because we were a charter vessel we were allowed no access.  There were also about 8 Indonesian fishing vessels there with full access also.  I have no objections to the latter provided that their activities are sustainable.  But there should be one rule for everybody.  There were also a number of Indonesian fishing vessels at Scott Reef where we moored for one night, and one vessel at Cartier Island where we passed.

We inquired about getting a permit on the spot but were told that this was not possible, and that it was a Sunday anyway and ANCA in Darwin could not be contacted.  A fee of about $2000 (or maybe $200 each) was mentioned.  This is very steep for the period that we would have been there.  We would have landed on the main island for between 1 to 2 hours to do a bird census, and for about 1 hour on a nearby island to census the nesting seabirds.  This information would also be very useful as Ashmore is an important seabird (and turtle) breeding location and also a stopover for some passerines migrating to north west Australia.

I have no complaints with the caretaker.  He was just following the required procedures. It is the procedures that should be changed.

The current access to Ashmore Reef is inconsistent.  If a permit and fee is required, then it should be payable by everyone and based on the period of time that access is desired.  It should also be able to be collected by the ‘caretaker’ on the spot.

Yours sincerely,
Frank O’Connor

Reply 1

11th February 1997

Dear Mr Rocher (Allan),

Thank you for your personal representations of 23 October 1996 on behalf of Mr Frank O'Connor of Nedlands concerning access to Ashmore Reef.  I apologise for the delay in replying.

Ashmore Reef is declared as a Marine National Nature Reserve under the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1975 and public access is restricted for the primary purpose of protecting the marine and terrestrial wildlife of the reef.  The access requirement does allow private vessels to anchor and obtain fresh water from the pump on West Island, which is incorporated in the Australia-Indonesia Memorandum of Understanding giving the same standard of access to Indonesian traditional fishers.

I am advised that Mr O'Connor was a passenger on a chartered vessel, the Jodi Ann II, which attempted to land at Ashmore Reef's West Island lagoon.  Both the owner and the charterer of the Jodi Ann II had been in contact on several occasions with officers of my Department based in Darwin, and had been advised of the need for a commercial permit to conduct the charter voyage to Ashmore Reef.  The vessel proceeded without the permit and without advising the true destination and timing of the voyage.

The Warden to whom Mr O'Connor refers, was acting within his powers under the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1975, to request the charter vessel to leave as it was without permit in declared waters.  I am advised the type of voyage undertaken requires permission and insurance cover under the Navigation Act 1912 and the Seafarers Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1992 respectively.  It is doubtful that the Jodi Ann II complied.

I trust this clarifies the matter for your constituent.

Yours sincerely
Robert Hill

Letter 2

8th March 1997

Allan Rocher MP
Federal Member for Curtin

Allan,

Thanks you for following up my concerns about access to Ashmore Reef (West Island in particular) with Senator Robert Hill (Minister for the Environment).  I was disappointed with his reply.

Our trip was not specifically to the Ashmore Reef, but to survey the seabirds migrating from the Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean via the Timor Sea through Australian waters.  Ashmore Reef is located on the edge of the continental shelf and is the limit of Australian waters.  On the northern voyage we checked the deeper waters to the west of the route from Broome, and we checked the shallower waters further east on our return to Broome.

All we wanted at Ashmore was to land on West Island for about 60 (maybe 90 or 120) minutes.  I fail to see why a charter vessel should be treated differently to private vessels and traditional fishers.  It might be different if we wanted to stay overnight, or for an extended period, or to land on the other islands.  We were not asking for permission to land on the seabird colonies on the other islands.  If a fee is required, then $2,000 (even split between 10) is excessive for an hour or so.  The traditional fishers were clearly collecting from the reef.  We would simply have quickly walked around the island to do a bird survey and left.

Senator Hill was advised that we attempted to land on the island.  This was not true.  The skipper of our vessel went to the Warden and asked permission to land.  We left shortly after permission was refused.

Senator Hill seems to believe that Ashmore Reef was the ‘true’ destination of our voyage.  This was not true.  As mentioned above, our voyage was to survey the Australian waters, and Ashmore Reef was the turn around point as it is on the edge of the continental shelf and the limit of the Australian 200 mile zone.

We did inquire about access to Ashmore Reef before we left.  We were not interested in a permit (if it cost $2,000) as Ashmore Reef was not the main purpose of the voyage.  We did inform appropriate people in Broome of the itinerary of the voyage.  Our vessel was fully licensed to operate within the Australian 200 mile zone.  Most of its charters are similar to ours but for fishing or diving.  It was disappointing to read Senator Hill alleging non compliance by the skipper of the vessel.

We had no complaint with the Warden, but with the regulations.

At the end of Senator Hill’s reply, I am still none the wiser about the regulations, and why a charter vessel is treated differently.  I fully support the need to conserve and protect the main seabird colonies, but West Island is no longer a significant colony and only requires a lower level of protection.  I still fail to see why our voyage should have been treated differently to a private vessel.

Yours sincerely,
Frank O’Connor

Reply 2

6th May 1997

Dear Mr Rocher (Allan),

Thank you for your further representation of 11 March 1997 on behalf of Mr Frank O'Connor of Nedlands who is seeking additional information regarding access to the Ashmore Reef National Nature Reserve.

I am advised that the owner of any charter vessel seeking to visit Ashmore Reef in order to carry out any kind of commercial activity - such as landing paying clients on West Island - must be in possession of a Commercial Permit.  Such a permit is required under the provisions of Regulation 23 of the National Parks and Wildlife Regulations and this requirement applies in all Parks and Nature Reserves administered by my Department.  Permits are issued by the Director of National Parks and Wildlife and are usually valid for a period of twelve months.  The cost of a permit to carry on any commercial activity in the Ashmore Reef Reserve is set at $2,000, in order to recover at least part of the Commonwealth outlay involved in retaining a caretaker vessel in the Reserve.  There are no landing fees which apply in the Reserve.

I understand that the vessels visiting the Reserve from the Australian mainland are required to be under survey from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA). While charter vessels based in Western Australia or the Northern Territory are issued with Survey Certificates by the State or Territory Marine authority, these are valid only within State or Territory waters.  Once they leave these waters - as would be the case involving a voyage to Ashmore Reef - an AMSA certificate of survey is required.  I am advised that the Jodie Ann II, (on which Mr O'Connor was a passenger) has not been issued with such a Survey Certificate.

I trust that this provides your constituent with a better understanding of the background to the circumstances surrounding his visit to Ashmore Reef.

If Mr O'Connor would like to discuss the matter further, may I suggest that he contact Mr Des Pike, of Parks Australia North, at the Darwin Office, tel. 08 8946 4300.

Yours sincerely,
Mr G. Bracken for Robert Hill

Copyright Frank O'Connor 1997-2002 Visits Last Modified 31st January 2002