The growth plan for Byron Bay? To be economically viable, I am told that we need to expand from village to town. The NSW government definition of ‘town’ has a population over 20,000. To my mind, 20,000 koalas is ambitious. Does this goal include more oystercatchers, curlews, wonga-wonga pigeons, goannas, dingoes and dusky flatheads? Given the historical abundances of pipi and other shellfish, 20,000 would be an under-target but nevertheless it’s a start.
Ask your grandparents about their parents’ lives. The late 1800s and early 1900s? Vintage dates for another coastal Byron lifestyle. Catches of local fish were shared among neighbours. Families on the economic fringe relied on fishing. Byron and Mullum oyster saloons warred with each other to present Brunswick shellfish, considered the finest in the country. In the high season, thousands of holiday makers expected to eat seafood daily.
Many looked forward to making an outstanding catch that was reported in the newspaper. Snagging one of the two-hundred-pound marine turtles would merit a front page photo. As for freshwater turtles, they were so common they were considered a nuisance.
What happened to such marine abundance? Was there a change in the fertility of the coast? With eyes only on one type of economic progress, seeing only dollars, the value of many coastal lives was at the lowest ebb. Not only animal and plant lives, but human ones, too. Actions against peoples such as the Aboriginals, Chinese, Pacific Islanders and Southern Europeans played out in the region. Different classes of ‘whites’ were ranked by convict heritages as well as poverty and employment prospects.
The history of these people and the species they knew holds part of the answer. Outside of the cash economy, their day-to-day lives depended on what is now called ‘place-based food’. The edible and medicinal wild biodiversity. These species and their needs, as well as knowledge about their lifecycles and habitats, were not economic priorities. The coastal wetlands themselves, with their peats, sedges, mangroves and seagrass supporting all these birds, reptiles, mammals, insects, fishes, sharks, dolphins, dugongs – most were drained. The forests cut. The first industrialisation of the landscape was export agriculture: tallow, maize, sugar, dairy, slaughterhouses. The seascape was valued according to the prices set at the Sydney Fish Market.
Now, Byron coastal living relies on little, if any, place-based foods. There is some agriculture for local sales, but not as much as there is need. The ocean is only a playground, not the generous and terrifying source of sustenance for body and spirit.
Now, the cash economy is fixated on coastal real estate, as ‘wealth’ and tourism generators. The con is to level all places to serve only as building sites. The latest targets are the most degraded and floodprone places (West Byron, Belongil Estuary and adjacent coast north and south), fertile places (Ewingsdale) and wild places (Belongil Estuary, Taylors Lake and its sources in Suffolk Park and the quarry).
This type of cash economy imagines no future for them as abundant with wildlife and fertile with foodstuffs. It doesn’t see its own limitations: there is only a three-day supply of food at the supermarkets. It doesn’t safeguard against its difficulties or decay: which alternative systems is it supporting?
Without growth plans for wildlife, places of Byron Bay will host the usual ecological collapses. We need not only the likes of koala management plans but expansion targets across the species.
We need transformative development. This values West Byron first as an opportunity for extensive revitalised coastal ecology based on a newly productive wetland and floodplain. It grows our own economy of healthy foods, cultivated and wild throughout the shire. It offers more options in the unknown future by working with Aboriginal Australians, residents and scientists in renewed forms of ‘caring for country’.
Global financier Brad Orgill writes that ‘in a world obsessed with economic activity and monetisation, [Byron Bay] is rare… [one of] fewer and fewer such places in the world… where we can walk in forests and swim in clean oceans. It is a massive credit to the Byron Bay community and douncil…’
Once again, Byron Bay community and Byron Shire Council, here’s our chance. Let’s reject single species humans-only growth targets as the base for our local economy. Let’s invest in our point of difference: coastal livings, not only housing. Let’s transform and go rewilding.