It’s no surprise that Chief Minister Michael Gunner’s announcement last week that the Government intends to legislate for a blood alcohol limit whilst driving a boat has caused an uproar in the recreational fishing community, particularly on social media where there has been a barrage of protest and condemnation.
It follows the publishing of the Alcohol Policies and Legislation Review – now already known as the Riley Review – which recommended on page 73 that “The NT Government legislate to make it an offence for a person to operate or navigate a vessel with a breath or blood alcohol content above a prescribed minimum…”.
For some reason, this recommendation – which does not suggest a limit of .05 or otherwise – was jumped upon and seemingly given a higher priority than so many of the important major initiatives for alcohol harm reduction in the NT which were outlined in the Executive Summary.
In fact, breath testing boat drivers didn’t even rate a mention in the Executive Summary.
Let’s get something straight from the outset: I believe people should not be driving boats if they have been drinking excessively, to the point that they cannot function both competently and safely as a boat driver.
At the same time, I’ve seen a huge reduction in the amount of drink boat driving on Top End waterways over the last couple of decades.
Peer pressure has had a lot to do with this, but there has also been a wide and increasing acceptance of the need as an angler to be responsible in so many ways when fishing.
Take the killing of big barra – boy, is that a no-no nowadays!
Just about everyone releases the big barra they catch because we all know these are the big female breeders.
It shows great responsibility on behalf of the angling community, and it has come about through education and through peer pressure.
What about catch and release in general?
Most people happily release fish in excess of their requirements as food, and they do it in such a way that released fish have the best chance of survival.
In fact, nearly all barra fishing tournaments specify barbless hooks to facilitate quick, harmless release of fish.
Again, that’s come about through education and peer pressure.
Another good example of education, in particular, at work is that all Top End fishos now know what barotrauma is, and they try to avoid or at least manage it by the way they fish and by where they fish.
An ongoing highly-successful education campaign by NT Fisheries has made everyone aware of how both golden snapper and jewfish, amongst several species, caught from water deeper than 10 metres will cause internal injuries due to changes in pressure; ie barotrauma.
Then there’s the great Crocwise campaign which is definitely working.
And what about “Slip, Slop, Slap”? That’s another winner for education.
Why can’t we do the same by educating local and interstate visiting anglers to drink responsibly on the water?
So getting back to the proposed drink-boat-driving blood alcohol limit, it seems to me that we’re opening a can of worms that might just get too complicated to deal with.
Here’s one complication just for starters.
The Chief Minister wrote on his Facebook page: “A blood alcohol limit for driving a boat… would apply to vessels in motion. If you want to have a few while anchored up and camping out on your boat – as many Territorians do – you will be fine.”
So what happens if you’re happily anchored up and “having a few” – as dozens of boats do six times a year rafted up in the Top End Barra Series – and your anchor pulls and your boat starts floating away dangerously in the night?
No pun intended, but do you get my drift?
Of course, what really is missing here is the consultation process.
We have a Recreational Fishing Advisory Committee which gives advice to the Minister for Fisheries and in turn the NT Cabinet.
We have a peak recreational fishing lobby group, AFANT, which has been a model for just about every state in Australia.
Finally, we have the wider angling community, numbering tens of thousands.
Where was the consultation with all, or any, of the above?
One minute we have the Riley Review and the next minute we’re getting breathalysed as boat drivers.
AFANT President Warren De With said: “So much of what has been announced appears to be policy made on the run.
“There seems to be little or no evidence presented to justify this decision, whereas our community rightly expects policy to come through an inclusive and well-substantiated process.
“AFANT is a strong supporter of safer boating experiences, we encourage investment in education and want to see better outcomes on the water, but any solutions must be practical in order to have the desired effect.”
AFANT Executive Officer, David Ciaravolo, added: “A number of the specifics being ruled in or out by the Government do not appear to come directly from the Riley Report; we think it is essential that consultation with stakeholders takes place before decisions are announced.
“We will be announcing our own community consultation process in the near future,” David said.
You know, a few weeks ago, long before the Riley Review came out, I was listening to Attorney-General Natasha Fyles on the radio, and she was explaining how she thought there should be breath testing of boat drivers on the water.
At the time, I commented to the person with me: “Wait for it, in a few seconds we’ll hear that this is what happens down south.”
Perhaps not word for word, but yep, that is what Minister Fyles said next: “They breathalyse boat drivers down south.”
I’ve said this many times, and I’ve written it once or twice: “Hello, we don’t live down south!”
We live in the Territory because we have a minuscule percentage of population compared to the states, because we have vast open areas with lots of room to move freely and safely, because we have a lifestyle that is the envy of southern city slickers, and because we don’t have the same endless red tape of the states.
I’m running out of space here, but tackle shops are already hearing from interstate anglers that they’re not coming up on their annual pilgrimage next year because they won’t be able to have a quiet beer in a boat on a secluded waterway.
Hang on a moment… I thought we were actually trying to achieve the opposite.
Shandelle Judd fished with Michael Dixon to catch this spectacular 118cm barra on a Reidy’s Big Ass B52 fishing coastal creeks in Chambers Bay. This big female barra was released unharmed as is the case with just about all big barra caught by anglers in the Top End nowadays, and that’s thanks to peer pressure and education.