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Surfer safety concerns not fixed by Department of Fire and Emergency Services forums

Warren HatelyAugusta Margaret River Times
Surf coach and Margaret River Recreational Surfers committee member Bec Sheedy-Ryan.
Camera IconSurf coach and Margaret River Recreational Surfers committee member Bec Sheedy-Ryan. Credit: Russell Ord/RegionalHUB

Surfing groups are disappointed much-heralded talks brokered by the Department of Fire and Emergency Services last year have led to few solid outcomes.

Every day surfers look set to continue as the region’s de facto first responders for surfers and oceangoers who get into trouble in the water after the talks dissolved with little changed in what triggered the concerns in the first place.

After a shark attack in August at the Boat Ramp surf break offshore from the White Elephant Cafe, Emergency Services Minister Stephen Dawson instructed DFES to hold a forum to explore concerns highlighted by the incident.

While marine rescue and surf lifesavers were involved in the talks — and remained the official service anointed by State and local government to help in ocean emergencies — surfers including the Margaret River Recreational Surfers lobby group were already warning more needed to be done due to population growth, the popularity of surfing and kiteboarding, and logistical issues meaning agencies were not first on the spot during shark attacks as well as other incidents.

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Margaret River Recreational Surfers had led the campaign to consider part or full funding for a Hawaiian-style service in which trained volunteers could be on call with jetskis to help surfers and other ocean users getting into trouble.

But a spokesperson for Mr Dawson confirmed any solution would be brokered by local groups meeting in future “on an as-needs basis”.

“Community safety is a priority for the Cook Government and the meetings were an important opportunity for State Government agencies, local government, emergency services and recreational groups to review processes and procedures,” a spokesperson said.

“Rather than the provision of a new service for recreational board riders, the attendees agreed that better co-ordination of existing services and groups in the region was needed.”

While closer ties to lifesaving and marine rescue groups were welcomed, Recreational Surfers president Jim Ross was disappointed State and local government absolved themselves of the responsibility to help keep surfers as well as visitors safe.

“This is the dilemma. As more of these tourists and some locals venture out into ocean conditions that require a good level of experience, the potential for disaster is increased,” he said.

MRRS committee member Bec Sheedy-Ryan said other measures had to be considered if the State Government and shire did not provide funding.

Ms Sheedy-Ryan said more safety gear had to be distributed to surf spots, especially given most beaches were unpatrolled and the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions was unprepared to deploy lifeguards at spots including Redgate Beach, a site of historic drownings.

“Better co-ordination of existing ocean safety services and businesses can only improve the efficiency and effectiveness and skills of what we already have in our area as long as saving lives and better outcomes stays at the forefront of decision-making and team-building,” she said.

Ms Sheedy Ryan also said surfers had to train to prepare for emergencies, given the reality of the region’s notoriously dangerous waters.

Shire president Julia Meldrum said the local government took part in the meetings and remained committed to funding lifeguards at Rivermouth, but she did not outline any further plans to address the concerns of the surfing community.

Mr Ross said the time required to launch official rescues remained inadequate and warned ocean users remained at risk.

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