A proposed 1000ha aquaculture development zone off the Albany coast has been touted as the key to unlocking the State’s potential as a national shellfish powerhouse. But the plans have left local commercial fishers scrambling for answers and worried about their future use of the waters that have kept them afloat for generations. The South Coast Aquaculture Development Zone is set to be the third of its kind in WA, after the Kimberley and Mid West zones. Fisheries Minister Peter Tinley officially declared the first stage of the zone — a 500ha patch of Oyster Harbour — open to commercial-scale shellfish operators this month. Subject to negotiations with Southern Ports, a further 500ha is set to open in Princess Royal Harbour and King George Sound. Andrew Forrest’s Leeuwin Coast brand, launched in Albany, is set to be a key player. If approved, the combined 1000ha would make it the biggest shellfish production zone in Australia. But within the sprawling zone are pockets of coast frequented by commercial fishermen who claim they have been left out of the conversation. One among a growing chorus is Out There Fishing’s Gavin Jackman. A fourth-generation commercial fisherman, Mr Jackman catches most of his fish in Princess Royal Harbour, selling his catch at the Albany Boatshed Markets. He said he felt blindsided by the announcement of the zone. “I was absolutely blown away,” he said. “We knew nothing about it and at the meetings that we had, it had all been proposals. “There was nothing set in concrete and we thought that they would come back and talk to us as (an) industry ... but that never eventuated. “If I was to turn up with a 20-tonne excavator and decide I want to share Twiggy’s hole up north, imagine all the trouble that would cause.” However, a State Government spokesman said the consultation process was “comprehensive and provided opportunity for input from relevant stakeholders”. “Given the multi-stakeholder interest in the South Coast Aquaculture Development Zone, the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development engaged the specialist services of South Coast NRM to provide informed local assistance with the community consultation for the proposed aquaculture development zone,” he said. The spokesman said the aquaculture licences and leases did “not provide exclusive access over a site”, meaning commercial fishers could still access the water. He said DPIRD wanted to work with the industry and aquaculture operators to minimise impacts. But Mr Jackman said questions remained about how infrastructure in the water would affect the freedom of fishers to carry on their decades-old practices — and whether it could cause an imbalance in other parts of the harbour. “Being a custodian, it really hurts because you get to know at certain times of year where your fish are and how to harvest and look after the sea grass,” he said. “Being shut out of somewhere that we’ve had all our lives, it’s like a farmer’s paddock. “So not to be consulted as a major stakeholder or any compensation or anything for those areas is really a blow to local fresh seafood in Albany and WA alike. “It is a pretty unique bit of coastline down here and there is room for everyone ... we just want to work together.” Albany Seafoods’ fifth-generation fisherman Bryn Westerberg said although there had been some talks with local fishers, there had not been enough detail provided to reassure them their livelihoods would not be at risk. He claimed the commercial fishing community was not specifically informed of plans for the zone to extend to Princess Royal Harbour and King George Sound ahead of this month’s announcement. “It seems to have been rushed through with minimal consultation and we are pretty annoyed about it all,” he said. “We are all happy and excited to see what Harvest Road can do with the shellfish but we don’t think it is right to re-allocate ground without proper consultation or compensation. “You can’t go and take a farmer’s best paddock away and not expect to have to pay some sort of compensation.” On the day of the zone announcement, Dr Forrest said he wanted to collaborate with anyone willing to “have a crack” at shellfish farming. Mr Westerberg said commercial fishers should have been directly approached before leases were opened to expressions of interest. “That is our livelihood, we are not just out there doing a hobby. We have been on the water — a lot of the Albany fisherman — for four or five generations,” he said.