A hazard-index to help make rock fishing safer


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Surf Life Saving Australia has developed an evidence-based hazard index for rock-fishing sites in partnership with the University of Melbourne.

Key points

  • Surf Life Saving Australia has introduced an evidence-based hazard index and is encouraging experienced rock fishers to share their wave-reading knowledge with inexperienced fishers.
  • The partnership with University of Melbourne researchers showed there is no such thing as a ‘freak’ wave.
  • The research team conducted aerial surveys of rocky coasts, studied wave dynamics and analysed how fishers perceive risk.

The outcome

New safety measures have been introduced by Surf Life Saving Australia (SLSA) to reduce the number of deaths linked to rock fishing. SLSA is responsible for ensuring water safety on Australia’s beaches and rocky coast.

In partnership with researchers from the University of Melbourne, SLSA created a new hazard index that rates the risk to fishers at individual fishing sites. SLSA began promoting the index in 2019 to the lifesaving community, councils, fishers and recreational fishing groups.

SLSA is also encouraging experienced fishers to share their wave-reading knowledge with inexperienced fishers.

Previous safety measures were based on the belief that rock-fishing deaths were usually caused by unpredictable, ‘freak’ waves. The research team disproved this. The danger arises instead from inexperienced rock fishers’ failure to recognise hazardous ocean conditions.

The need

Over 1.2 million people in Australia – 8 per cent of the population – go rock fishing each year. The sport has led to 192 deaths between 2004 and 2019.

Environmental factors, such as slippery rock ledges, leave rock fishers vulnerable to blunt-force trauma or drowning if they misread conditions and are swept into the ocean by large waves.

Councils have installed signage at sites where fatalities have occurred, but their effectiveness is unknown.

Rock fishing offers many advantages – relaxation, contact with nature, sport and food. SLSA is keen not to discourage people from participating, but wants to ensure their safety.

SLSA needed an evidence-based strategy to improve rock-fishing safety.

Developing the solution

SLSA partnered with a research team led by Associate Professor David Kennedy from the School of Geography at the University of Melbourne. The University of Wollongong was also a partner on the project. Researchers there used drones to conduct three-dimensional aerial laser surveys of coastal waters.

Using this survey data, Associate Professor Kennedy’s team modelled the interactions between geological features and wave dynamics around the rocky ledges used by fishers.

The research team also conducted fieldwork at rock-fishing sites along the Great Ocean Road and in East Gippsland in Victoria, as well as two sites with the highest number of rock-fishing-related drownings in Australia: Little Bay in New South Wales and San Remo in Victoria.

Based on this data, the team created a hazard index. The index uses information about a rock-fishing site – such as geology, prevailing weather conditions and surf exposure – to calculate its hazard rating.

To understand how fishers perceive risk, Dr Pete Kamstra (who was then a PhD student) interviewed rock fishers in Little Bay and San Remo. He took up rock fishing, spending days on rock ledges talking to fishers about how they perceive and mitigate risk.

The interviews revealed a perception bias among inexperienced fishers based on their misunderstanding of dangerous wave behaviour. Dr Kamstra found that inexperienced fishers either watch for any drop in water level in the wave trough immediately in front of the rocks to estimate wave energy or look at wave height 50 metres offshore. However, they often fail to track wave patterns more than 200 metres offshore.

By contrast, experienced fishers scan the sea surface further offshore to anticipate the nature of the wave set before the wave reaches the fishing platform. This allows experienced fishers to perceive conditions that can produce intermittent large waves, before it is too late.

As a result, the research team found that the ‘freak’ waves often blamed for rock fishers’ deaths are in fact predictable with sufficient experience reading wave sets and energy levels.

SLSA is now promoting the new hazard index. It is also working with the same researchers to develop a phone app, so the index can be shared more widely.

Based on the research, SLSA also encourages social sharing of wave-reading knowledge from experienced to inexperienced fishers. A package of updated information is available to rock fishers on the SLSA website. Councils, government, police, media, fishing clubs and recreational fishing organisations are also involved in these education efforts.

The partnership

The partnership began in 2012 and involved SLSA, the University of Melbourne and the University of Wollongong.

Throughout the project, SLSA provided feedback on how well the hazard index matched its knowledge of rock-fishing sites. SLSA also shared extensive data on Australian beaches, drowning statistics, and its own access and user surveys.

The partnership also led to Associate Professor Kennedy being invited onto the NSW Premier’s advisory panel on legislation regarding compulsory wearing of life jackets by rock fishers. The panel’s work led to the Rock Fishing Safety Act 2016 (NSW), which requires people rock fishing in high-risk locations in the state to wear life jackets.


Surf Life Saving Australia

Funding support

ARC Linkage Project

Rocky Coasts: A Framework For Risk Assessment In Order To Reduce Drowning (LP130100204)


Kamstra P et al (2019) Expert perceptions of the ‘freak’ wave myth on Australia’s rocky coasts. Oceans & Coastal Management 173: 104–113. doi: 10.1016/j.ocecoaman.2019.02.015

Kennedy D et al (2013) Rocky coast hazards and public safety: Moving beyond the beach in coastal risk management. Oceans & Coastal Management 82: 85–94. doi: 10.1016/j.ocecoaman.2013.06.001

Image: Thomas Savige


Associate Professor David Kennedy

Dr Brian Cook

Dr Pete Kamstra

First published on 3 September 2020.

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