Fingal Head residents are pinning their hopes on federal intervention to stop a controversial plan to use a stretch of the Tweed River at the coastal village for the high-speed sport of wakeboarding, which they say will impact heavily on the habitat of migratory birds.
Village community groups are outraged after Tweed Shire Council yesterday gave conditional approval for a Gold Coast-based wakeboard operator to run a coaching clinic on the river.
The operator, Pro-Wake Academy, had been running the coaching clinic illegally there for around five years before it was approached by council to lodge a development application.
Staff had recommended refusal mainly because of environmental impacts on native animals and plants, including threatened species and their habitats, and riverbank erosion from the high-speed wakeboarding boats.
They said it was the wrong spot and not in the public interest.
But councillors voted 4–3 to give in-principle support to the wakeboarding proposal and called for a further staff report to be brought back with consent conditions.
The contentious proposal had been debated by council several times over the past year, with staff and Crs Katie Milne, Dot Holdom and mayor Barry Longland consistently opposed to it.
Fingal Head Community Association president Dawn Walker said the federal environment department believes the proposal should have been referred to environment minister Tony Burke, under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC).
Ms Walker said a departmental officer told her association it should have been referred ‘because of the likelihood of it having a significant impact on a Matter of National Environmental Significance under the EPBC Act’.
She said the decision was ‘a great concern’ because there was overwhelming evidence from state and federal government authorities the area was ‘very environmentally sensitive’ and wakeboarding had the potential to have a cumulative-damage effect on the riverbank.
‘The issue of the migratory birds that roost here is of national significance and any use of this river needs to be looked at carefully.
‘We’re also very concerned that after staff had put in so much effort, time and care into their extremely thorough report, they were ignored and undermined by the four councillors (Polglase, Youngblutt, Skinner and van Lieshout).’
The decision could be an embarrassment for Ms Walker when she attends September’s Annual World Congress of Ocean 2012 in Dailan, China.
The invitation follows her presentation of a paper at last year’s NSW Coastal Conference at Tweed Heads where she outlined the environmental credentials of Fingal with its internationally protected migratory birds, Cook Island Nature Reserve and Cook Island Aquatic Reserve.
‘This area is a sanctuary for so many animals and plants that are being threatened with extinction.
‘The white eastern curlew is endangered in NSW and leaves Fingal’s shores during March or April, then goes back to Siberia, Mongolia and Manchuria to breed in May and June.
‘Such birds’ migratory paths are threatened by development.’
Cr Holdom said all previous studies had concluded wakeboarding was not suitable for the site proposed and there were international agreements for the protection of migratory shore birds.
She said there were only 52 white eastern curlews left on the whole NSW coast ‘and only at Fingal, but that’s by the by apparently’.
Greens Cr Katie Milne said she was disappointed the pro-wakeboarding councillors could ‘not understand the sport’s cumulative impacts on the riverbank’ and that council could not control the private use of boats on the river.
‘This is an internationally significant environment and we shouldn’t be inflicting a high-speed sport on the river; it’s also highly incompatible with other more passive river users, and the river is one of the last places Aborigines can carry out their cultural functions, such as oystering.
‘We’re talking about one dominant extreme-use water activity for a minority. The whole purpose of wakeboarding is to create wake – that’s the name of the game, it will exacerbate erosion.’
Cr van Lieshout said the operator ‘would like to have the whole river’ for wakeboarding but was happy to stay in the Fingal Head area. Cr Youngblutt said wind, storms and floods all contributed to erosion and Cr Polglase said ‘anybody could put a boat in the river and go wakeboarding, there’s no rule book that says you can stop them; the only way is to ban water skiing at the same time’.