Marine policy set in historical vacuum


Story & photo Mary Gardner

On the shore of the ocean, all dead woods are equal now. Whether as wrecks of trees or old ships from the 1800s – all are surrendered to the salty water and the heavy sand. I search each timber for its own share of history. Perhaps they were young woods once long ago but in different countries. They knew weather, birds and maybe children too.

To give boat timber an advantage against ‘shipworms’, builders plated it with copper. Regardless, the wrecks of both ship and tree now have the telltale tunnels of these shipworms. These are actually burrowing clams. They simply housed themselves as best they could, without fussing about the origins of materials. Touching the wood, I handle the new maritime history: a fresh awareness of the marine world not only changing humans but itself greatly changed by them.

Remember how we all talked of the sea as timeless and eternal, a watery realm where humans had no impact? The new maritime histories around the world have shifted tectonic plates of thinking and a tsunami of insight destroys our old certainty. The ocean itself has a history, before us and intertwined with us.

From the submarine trenches of lava to the marine scent in the air, every aspect of the ocean has this past. Some of the deepest and harshest marks of the passage of time can be read in the bodies of our marine life. These species are the companion marine animals of human cultures all around the world.

Same as elsewhere, we built our lives around them here. Think of your lifetime of encounters with the whale, dolphin and seal. The flathead, snapper, whiting and mulloway. The shark, turtle and sting ray. The sponge and the beche de mer. The oyster, the edible ones and those with pearls. The beach worm and pipi. You’ve grown. But what’s happened to all of them and the very waters in which they live?

These questions haunt me on a weary night as I page through the thin NSW draft marine-based industry policy released last week. Public submissions are due before June 17 ( The last few of these 19 pages are a table listing the 14 waterways of north and mid north coast which reach the sea.

Their characteristics are ‘navigability’, ‘physical constraints’, ‘existing waterfront activity’ and ‘special attributes’. This last category is a tally of some natural features such as mangroves, salt marshes or reserves and licensed local fishing or aquaculture. Curiously, the references are all government documents from 2006, though viewed online in 2010. Yes, three years ago.

Nowhere is there any sense of history. Nothing suggests what these communities of people or animals have gone through or dream of for the future. Breakwaters are givens. Navigability is either ‘more’ or ‘less’. There is no story of the modifications over time: the silting, the pollution, the fate of former industries, their modern legacies. Some environmental legislation is listed but basically, all is a blank canvas for ‘industries that depend on access to a navigable waterway’. The policy is to help approvals and rezoning.

Whatever new impacts expected or ‘required’ (such as dredging) – all is good as long as it can be ‘sustainably managed, ameliorated or offset’. The last word means ‘to compensate or make amends for’. Without any sense of the present burden of history, what can this mean?

Other NSW regional planning documents explain more. Recurring words are ‘gas fired electricity plants’, ‘coal’, ‘natural gas’ and ‘coal seam gas’. Absent are ‘climate change’ or ‘solar and wind power’. So are terms from recent history such as ‘fracking hazards’ and ‘gas free communities’.

Missing are all the words acknowledging our unique Australian marine contexts, our past and clues to our future. Lacking is an accounting of our valuable social and natural capital. This includes the marine animals and their companion species – us.


Mary is searching for information about the Byron Bay Fishing Co-op and other north coast maritime industries. If you have leads or stories email her at [email protected].


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