Rock fishing study dispels ‘freak wave’ myth

A group of people fish off a rock ledge jutting out into the ocean
Around 1.2 million Australians enjoy rock fishing, but a joint study between the University of Melbourne and Surf Life Saving Australia shows rock fishing is the third highest cause of coastal drownings.

New rock fishing research is challenging what is known about ‘freak waves’ and current risk management practices to prevent deaths and injuries on hazardous rocky coasts.

‘Freak or rogue waves’ have been blamed for numerous rock fishing deaths.

A collaborative study between the University of Melbourne and Surf Life Saving Australia, however, shows ‘freak waves’ to be rare events.

The study found that inexperienced fishers are unaware there is a wave period, and when a larger set of waves comes through after a period, believe these to be ‘freak waves’ rather than normal occurrences

The study was done by University of Melbourne scientist Peter Kamstra, who with the help of fishers in Randwick Council, a rock fishing drowning ‘black spot’ in Sydney’s east, found that experienced fishers kept safe by scanning three wave zones (immediately in front of the rocks, 50 metres out and 200 metres out), being particularly vigilant of waves furthest out.

Local rock fisher, Kharis Lianto, who took part in the study said: “Inexperienced rock fishers come down here and say ‘Oh, it’s glassy (i.e., calm) so it must be safe’, but I bet most drownings occur on days with a low swell, say 1 metre, but a wave period over 10 seconds because they get lulled into a false sense of security.”

Surf Live Saving Australia research has identified rock fishing as the third highest cause of coastal drowning, following swimming/wading and boating.

The same research shows all but eight of the 158 rock fishing deaths in the past 13 years were males, 98 of whom were born overseas – 54 of them in China, Hong Kong and Korea. Australian born individuals made up 34 of the rock fishing deaths.

Surf Life Saving Australia National Coastal and Safety Manager Shane Daw said the risk from ‘freak waves’ is best managed by people taking fewer risks.

“Understand the environment, the tide, surf and wave periods for the locations you are heading to,” Mr Daw said.

“A STOP, LOOK, PLAN strategy can be the difference between life and death.”

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