By Mary Gardner
Rainbow bee-eaters, the size of a small child’s hand, tunnel deep into the face of the dunes making nests near the Tallows waterway.
At the base of the dune is the new two strand fence, a token defence against people who would clamber up and down or bring along their forbidden dogs.
Nests can collapse, birds are crushed or frightened to death by heavy feet or the smell of the canine predator.
The ignorance of recent beachgoers, which prompted the building of the fence, is a symptom of generational amnesia.
This is the loss of ecological knowledge over time which goes hand in hand with losses of animals and plants.
Who notices where a few little birds nest today? Who remembers when flocks of bee-eaters numbered in hundreds or thousands?
In 1995, fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly coined the phrase ‘shifting baseline syndrome’.
He was describing how each generation of marine researchers assume the present numbers of fish they find in the sea is the norm and dismiss as exaggerations earlier accounts of greater abundances.
As researchers started to ask elders and check records going back hundreds of years, they found that each passing generation was quickly losing memories of earlier ecology and its wild wealth.
How to remember? One memory of past abundance is in the history of pests.
In the 1930s, rainbow bee-eaters were so common that in Queensland, they were labelled noxious and bounties were paid for every dead bird.
In New South Wales, ‘hoppers’ were paid to smash the eggs and nests of another pest, the black swans.
Long lines of low netting along the banks of the Richmond trapped droves of another vermin, freshwater turtles.
Another memory is in the records about commercial harvests. Until the 1950s, good money was made of sea turtles caught in Byron or Ballina and sold for soup at the Sydney Fish Market.
Into the early 1960s, Byron Bay was Sydney’s major supplier of seafood.
In 1951, a union was calling on local council to investigate a fruit and vegetable processing centre in Bangalow or Byron Bay which would include a cannery for fish.
Old newspapers report that sharks in Byron Bay were common and hazardous. In 1917, ‘about two acres’ of mullet were driven by sharks into Byron Bay.
It took a half hour for all the fish to pass under the jetty. In 1937, fisherman gave up fishing for snapper at Julian Rocks because there were so many sharks.
By 1950 anglers still complained that sharks took two of every three fish they hooked. The lower reaches of the Richmond were well known as a breeding ground for sharks.
The oysters of the Brunswick were considered by many to be tastier than those of the Richmond.
Through the first half of the 20th century, both Brunswick Heads and Ballina had public oyster reserves. Here tourists and residents could pick and eat fresh oysters on the spot.
When these disappeared, a birthright, once the pride of Bundjalung people, extending back for thousands of years, was extinguished.
Any day, an extra fragment of history may come to my attention. Last week, a friend way up Wilson’s Creek told me his elderly neighbour remembers a time when sea mullet came upstream. almost 20 kilometres from Brunswick Heads.
When I am called back inside to meetings, I look again at every development, rural activity and project as might sea mullets, oysters or bee eaters.
Drains can become channels. Trampled banks are sites for planting new wetland plants.
Programs for flood management of waterways must include growth plans for aquatic wildlife. Dune restoration? Removing rock walls? More sites for the nests of bee eaters as well as the surprising increase in the numbers of sea turtles.
Future livelihoods will depend on the success Byron Shire makes of not only sustainable farming but re-wilding the waterways and coastal seas.