"We just couldn't go on": Fishing family "devastated" by NSW Government reforms

Devastated: Donna Cook, her son Jamie and his son Kayden with some of the family's boats, which they say will be "worthless" following the reforms. Photo: Lachlan Leeming
Devastated: Donna Cook, her son Jamie and his son Kayden with some of the family's boats, which they say will be "worthless" following the reforms. Photo: Lachlan Leeming

TEARS come to Donna Cook’s eyes as she describes the sale of her and her husband’s family fishing business; forced, they say, by the impact of the NSW Government’s fishing reforms. 

After five generations spanning more than 100 years of working the Macleay, the Cook family sold their Stuarts Point fishing business earlier this year to an investor.

“We’ve always been a successful fishing family, we’ve bought a home and raised five kids,” Donna told the Argus.

“But we lost 60 per cent of our income from the reforms.

“We just couldn’t go on.” 

Donna’s husband Darrin has fished the Macleay river for more than 30 years, continuing a family legacy that runs back to his grandfather.

She said selling the business “broke” him.

“It nearly destroyed our marriage,” she said.

“He thought he'd let five generations of his family down.” 

"End of the line": Jamie says his son Kayden wanted to continue in the family when he grew up.

"End of the line": Jamie says his son Kayden wanted to continue in the family when he grew up.

Donna said Darrin had become increasingly withdrawn as he struggled with the reforms.

“He said, ‘how do I look my kids in the eye and tell them I failed them?’”

“He didn’t – the National Party failed them and these reforms did.”

Under the reform, commercial fishers had the amount of fish they could catch with their existing permits capped, with fishers required to purchase more shares to catch the same amount of seafood.

The State Government reasons that the reform will ensure economic viability and environmental sustainability for the sector. 

Darrin Cook has been fishing around the Macleay for more than 30 years.

Darrin Cook has been fishing around the Macleay for more than 30 years.

But Donna said the changes have crippled fishers from around the State, with many forced to sell out to wealthy investors and large scale fishing operations. 

“It would cost us more than $1 million to buy the shares just so we could do what we do now,” she said.

Adding frustration to an already painful process was the lack of information surrounding the new share system.

“We went to the Department of Primary Industries and asked, ‘what shares have you got?’, and they said they don’t know.”

“It’s just put so much pressure on these fishermen.”

Donna Cook

“We’ve got to make a life decision on them knowing nothing.

“You’ve got 1000 people working out whether to stay in or get out of the industry. It’s ridiculous.”

The Cooks are just one of the families impacted on the Mid North Coast, Donna said. 

“We’ve got guys in the area on suicide watch and suffering heart attacks,” she said.  

“It’s just put so much pressure on these fishermen.”

For now, the Cook family will look to lease back in to the industry, “hoping and praying” that who they lease from will have enough shares for them to remain viable.

A change in tack from the Government appears unlikely. 

Minister for Primary Industries, Lands and Water, Niall Blair, announced last Friday that the deadline for fishers to apply for government buyouts, low interest loans and financial advice would be extended until the end of January. 

Donna said that, even with the extension and a parliamentary inquiry currently underway, little would change for fishers.

“We still don’t know what shares are out there,” she said. 

“It’s just put so much pressure on these fishermen": Jamie, Kayden and Donna Cook.

“It’s just put so much pressure on these fishermen": Jamie, Kayden and Donna Cook.

In a scathing letter to the editor published in the Macleay Argus on Friday December 2, chairman of the Macleay River Fish Co-op, Lawrie McEnally, urged a State Government rethink.

“The fishers don’t want this policy and the fish co-ops don’t want it either. Only the National Party keeps pushing it,” he wrote. 

“I invite the Minister to show me who wins, because I can show him hundreds of losers.” 

In reply to the letter, Member for Oxley Melinda Pavey said “the Nationals are listening and are trying to resolve more Labor legacies”. 

“While the simplistic (and populist) approach to trying to reform the NSW commercial fishing sector is to say ‘junk the reform’, that’s just not responsible nor realistic,” Ms Pavey wrote.

Her views were echoed by Mr Blair, who met face to face with fishers in the Macleay earlier this year.

“At the beginning of this year I met with more than 200 fishers up and down the coast to discuss the NSW Government’s commercial fishing reforms,” Mr Blair said. 

“I acknowledge there are a broad range of opinions on what is the best way forward and we have engaged with industry every step of the way and adjusted the program where necessary.”

Mr Blair said the reforms were “the simplest and most effective way to manage fisheries”.

To Donna and her family they’re empty words. 

“We had faith and they’ve just devastated us,” she said. 

"I just don’t know how they can take a man’s life work and give it away.”