CASA and the live fish trade

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image: © Civil Aviation Safety Authority

Supply and demand—it fuels the global economy. When it comes to the live fish trade, Australia has what the masses crave. But getting a school of coral trout from Cairns to Hong Kong restaurant fish tanks in time for dinner poses just as many safety headaches as it does logistical ones.

Keeping fish alive in large quantities during long-haul transit means one thing—oxygen. Large gas canisters packed tightly into a jetliner raise well-founded safety concerns. In 2008 an oxygen bottle shredded the side of a Qantas 747 at 29,000ft, leading to rapid decompression and an emergency landing.

For Dangerous Goods Inspector (DGI), Ben Firkins, the hazards presented by oxygen cylinders during air transport are dangers requiring constant vigilance. As part of ongoing industry surveillance, DGIs such as Firkins are on the front line of ensuring live-fish exporters maintain the high safety standards that will keep Australian skies incident free.

‘Anything that goes in the cargo hold of an aircraft can be subject to extremes, either on the plane or through differences in the ports of loading and unloading’, says Firkins. ‘This includes variations in atmospheric pressure, temperatures ranging from -40 ˚C to 55 ˚C and constant vibrations exerting up to 8G of force’, he says. ‘So it’s really important that we work with the manufacturers and exporters of the containers to make sure they’re up to standard, and with operators to ensure they are carefully inspected before loading.’

One of these manufacturers is FishPac, a Melbourne-based company that produces fish transport systems. CASA’s DGIs have been assessing FishPac’s newly designed bin that not only holds more fish, but is also safer.

Previous designs had the oxygen bottle sitting towards the top of the container above the water. While it provided easy access to the bottle and its fittings, it meant a much higher centre of gravity and increased the overall size of the bin.

The new design encases the entire bottle within the plastic mould at the base of the bin. This allows the oxygen cylinders, each capable of holding 4100 litres of oxygen, to sit much closer to the ground, lowering the centre of gravity and increasing the units’ stability. The adaptation also allows the design to be flatter so it can fit on a wider range of aircraft, reducing the cargo pressure on wide-bodied passenger aircraft.

The new bin is made from a tougher plastic compound and has a simplified bottom pallet configuration to minimise damage by forklifts. The colour of the bin has also changed—from grey to blue—supposedly reducing the stress levels of the fish.

The changes may seem rudimentary, but Firkins points out that these enhancements are part of an evolution to improve safety. ‘The use of oxygen systems to keep fish alive in air transport started towards the end of the last millennium’, he says. ‘The risks weren’t just the cylinders of compressed gas. They included concerns about the oxygen-rich atmosphere in the hold, increased water vapour and, naturally enough, the construction of the bins and their ability to hold water.’ Needless to say, 600 kg of water sloshing around in the hold could critically affect the weight and balance of an aircraft.

‘It’s the engagement with industry that counts’, says Firkins about dangerous goods. ‘We work with manufacturers and exporters to improve their safety practices and assist them to set and maintain higher safety standards. We also encourage operators to know their clients and to take a proactive role in managing dangerous goods safely.’

When asked about the cost, particularly for a fish supplier who has capital tied up in bins and an understandable reluctance to move to new fish containers, Firkins points out that it will not be an overnight revolution but more of an evolution driven by market forces and the retirement of the existing inventory of bins as they become fatigued. ‘The long-term safety benefits of these changes will be invaluable’, he says.

It’s this high standard of safety regulation that has made Australia well respected internationally. When you’re working with manufacturers that operate in the global economy, the regulations and safety standards of other countries become very important in making sure goods are accepted into those countries’, he says. ‘However, local manufacturers are finding that many foreign regulators have the attitude that “if CASA is happy with it, then we’re happy with it”. ‘So while it’s nice to know that our standards are renowned around the world, this is tempered by the knowledge that the value of the live fish export market hinges on the cost of one adverse incident. Our vigilance and engagement with the industry will be ongoing.’

Visit the Civil Aviation Safety Authority’s website for more information about dangerous goods and surveillance in Australia.

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