Sentinels on a fragile seashore

Pied oystercatcher. Photo Mary Gardner

Pied oystercatcher. Photo Mary Gardner

Mary Gardner


The black and white birds with the long red beaks and legs are telling, but so very quietly.

Taxonomists call them Haematopus longirostris. Bundjalung, the pipi-birds, leading people to beds of shellfish. Anglos, pied oystercatchers or, from the 19th century, ‘sea pies’. An old cook book says that baked in pastry, they keep ‘well about a week or nine days at sea’. Since the 1990s, throughout northern rivers, they have declined by 56 per cent. Not because they feature on the pub menu. Rather, they signal changing conditions in the coastal zones where they live. How to hear what they mean?

Human activity

Sometimes, science people have ears. Biologists point out how the birds use their sensitive beaks to probe the sand for small food, including pipi.

They will agree with Aboriginal Australians that the numbers of birds are closely tied to the amount of food and level of human activity on beaches.

In Byron Shire, I see a few birds. Some nest on the plain open sand near the Belongil. In spite of the continued dredging at the mouth of the waterway. Regardless of the mad medley of rocks taking over the beach. Though threatened by the reconstruction of the waterway itself, a few still persist.

Ecologists say that the little hearts of these birds race when dogs and people burst into their space. As you walk on the beach, look far ahead and you’ll see when they begin to react to your presence.

If you walk straight towards them, they shriek and fly away. If you veer to one side and go wide around them, you’ll spare them the anxieties and the physical side-effects that accrue and debilitate them. You’ll hear their silence, a thanks for your small kindness.

Thinking big

Back in 1955, Byron Bay planners heard another bigger beat. They longed to make an even better port of the Bay, with more than just a repaired jetty. The great storm of 1954 had broken the last hundred metres of the jetty near Belongil. Two cranes washed into the sea. Twenty-seven of thirty small fishing boats were lost.

The first part of the plan was for a breakwater harbour, a stone wall from The Pass, built in an arc across a section of the bay. The next part was a set of rock walls at the Belongil, ‘training it’ to stay open. Excavation would create a dredge basin of 20 acres and a tidal basin of 300. A sand pump would work 24/7 to keep the entrance open. Annual dredging would keep the basin clear.

Money and rocks

A letter to the editor applauded the scheme. This was similar to works at the ‘now busy Port Kembla’. These were built ‘in the mouth of a similar creek’ and ‘now accommodating overseas freighters’.

Such ideas had echoed in British imagination since the fifteenth century, when artificial harbours were first built there. The geographer W G Hoskins cites the north Devon village of Clovelly. The Elizabethan squire George Carey transformed his farming village on a rough coast into a harbour town by building a stone breakwater and pier.

The NSW government of 1957 listened to money. They calculated works in Byron Bay were too expensive and uncertain. They invested in rocks at Brunswick Heads and Evans Head. These would develop the ‘potentialities’ of the far north coast, which lay in fishing. After all, in 1953, the Byron Bay fishing co-op reported a catch of 316 tonnes. Other industries underway were whaling and sandmining of the beaches and dunes.

Dunes destroyed

Historians listen to the rustle of old documents. By 2000, depending on which figures are used, the fish catch was two to ten per cent of that earlier one. Pipi beds shrank to nearly nothing. Whales were protected and at least the population of humpbacks recovering. After destroying nine-metre-high dunes and kilometres of coastal vegetation, the sandmining company left. Erosion sped up.

Two hundred birds were scattered across the region, but with the changing conditions, the numbers halved over the next five years.

Poets, like Mary Oliver, listen to subtexts. ‘I tell you this to break your heart, by which I mean only that it break open and never close again to the rest of the world.’

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Some of The Echo’s editorial team: journalists Paul Bibby and Aslan Shand, editor Hans Lovejoy, photographer Jeff Dawson and Mandy Nolan

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