Lives on the line : Rock fishing drowning and mitigation in Australia

Dr Jaz Lawes1, Shane Daw1

1Surf Life Saving Australia, Sydney, New South Wales


Rock fishing is a popular coastal activity and has been dubbed Australia’s most dangerous sport. Ranked as the third highest cause of coastal drowning deaths it is a significant focus for coastal safety research initiatives in Australia. Between 2004-2019, there were 181 rock fishing drowning deaths recorded nationally, but two-thirds (n=120, 66%) occurred in NSW. Rock fishing victims are predominantly male (n=171, 94%) and between 40-59 years old (n=95, 52%).
The extensive rocky coastlines of NSW, WA and VIC, combined with frequent hazardous surf conditions, create high-risk environments for fishers. Waves and slippery surfaces are prevalent causal factors in rock fishing drowning deaths but 77% (n=139) of drowning victims were not wearing lifejackets. Research exposed freak waves as a myth and identified a strong understanding of wave periods is necessary to reduce risks of rock fishing incidents. In response to the high numbers of drowning deaths a coronial inquest (2015) recommended mandatory and enforced lifejacket usage. Compulsory lifejacket usage has been trialled within high risk local government areas in NSW and WA and provides an excellent example of multisectoral collaboration between government and emergency service providers. In NSW, the Rock Fishing Safety Act 2016 was passed to support this recommendation. These preventative measures have initially appeared to be effective (despite recent spikes) although the true impact will need to be monitored over time.


Shane Daw is the General Manager – Coastal Safety at Surf Life Saving Australia and is responsible for developing and delivering national coastal safety strategic direction across all surf lifesaving activities. He manages coastal safety programs, lifesaving operations, research and emergency services.
Shane has over 25 years’ experience within surf lifesaving across research, operations, coastal risk management and strategy. His involvement varies acting as a key expert at coronial cases through to extensive experiences as a rescue practitioner, including 28 years in helicopter operations.
He has been involved in development programs and initiatives in Bali and Fiji all centred on drowning prevention including the development of programs, water safety plans and committees to address these issues and presented at local and international forums.