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Alarm over Abrolhos oil search
The West Australian

Commercial fishermen and conservationists are alarmed at Commonwealth proposals to open up a large area of ocean bordering the Abrolhos Islands for oil and gas exploration.

The Federal Department of Resources and Energy flagged the proposed release of an area stretching from the islands' southern edge 500km northwards in the latest round of offshore petroleum permit bids.

A final decision on whether it will be offered to oil companies will be made in May.

The proposed expolration area and others near places such as Ningaloo Reef come amid concerns about the growing encroachment of oil and gas activity on sensitive areas.

Late last year it was revealed US-based Apache Energy - the company behind the Varanus Island gas explosion - wanted to explore for oil and gas within kilometres of World Heritage-listed Ningaloo.

The plans emerged months after BHP Billiton and Shell unveiled plans to carry out similar work near the reef and Woodside began a drilling campaign near the Rowley Shoals off the Kimberley coast.

Fishing and green groups are angry about the move to offer sites off the Abrolhos, an environmentally fragile group of islands at the heart of the $200 million rock lobster fishing industry.

Although the Government has only proposed to open up the area, WA Fishing Industry Council chairman Brad Adams was concerned that activity was being considered so close to the islands.

"It's extremely important from a fishing point of view but it's also got unique wilderness values as well," Mr Adams said.

"I can understand why people would want to explore these areas but I would have thought an area like the Abrolhos Islands would attract intense scrutiny of any proposal that goes any further than just exploration."

World Wildlife Fund WA director Paul Gamblin queried the Government's plans given the Abrolhos' environmental and historical significance and importance to tourism and fishing operators.

Mr Gamblin said the latest proposal reinforced the need to better protect fragile areas like the Abrolhos and Ningaloo.

"What this is pointing to is the need for Government to hear the community and these broad concerns . . . and really take the opportunity to create oil and gas exclusion zones around places like the Abrolhos," Mr Gamblin said.

State Fisheries Minister Norman Moore, who is also Mines and Petroleum Minister, said he was seeking advice from his departments to see if there were any possible risks from the plans.

"However . . . successful companies will be required to undertake stringent approvals processes for any proposed activity to ensure local industries and communities are not adversely impacted," he said.