Williamtown Contamination Expert Panel welcomes voluntary Hunter River prawning ban

26 Nov 2015

The chair of the Williamtown Contamination Expert Panel has described as "sensible" a decision taken voluntarily by prawn trawlers not to fish in the Hunter River system.

The indefinite self-imposed ban comes after a meeting today between local trawlers and representatives from the Department of Primary Industries – Fisheries to discuss results from the latest round of prawn sampling.

Prawns caught at several points along the River, including outside the current fisheries closure area, showed elevated levels of Perfluorooctane Sulfonate (PFOS) – a chemical compound found in firefighting foam historically used at the Williamtown RAAF base.

The Expert Panel analysed the results at its meeting on Wednesday (25 November 2015) before asking DPI – Fisheries to liaise with commercial fishers about the potential consequences for the industry in the Hunter.

Chair of the Panel, NSW Chief Scientist & Engineer Mary O'Kane, said local prawn trawlers faced a tough decision – but they've made the right one.

"From a reputational perspective for the industry, I believe it's the right call – but there is no doubt this has been a difficult decision because their livelihood is at stake," Professor O'Kane said.

"This is a highly precautionary approach but a very sensible one given the need to minimise any potential risk to human health.

"While there is any question mark over the quality or safety of their catch, removing it from sale will alleviate any community concerns while further testing is done – and protect their brand longer term," she said.

It's not thought the elevated PFOS levels in prawns are such that they pose a significant human health risk as a single source of exposure; however, a full and thorough human health risk assessment is needed to calculate the cumulative risk to someone who consumes several types of food on a daily basis.

The self-imposed ban by prawn trawlers covers the entire Hunter River system.

The Expert Panel has made no formal recommendation at this stage to widen the current fisheries closure – although that will be reviewed as further results from fish and crustacean sampling become available.