Building local ecological knowledge empowers communities

Finale of the performance Shifting Sands at Currumbin. Photo Mary Gardner

Finale of the performance Shifting Sands at Currumbin. Photo Mary Gardner

Mary Gardner

The blast of fireworks lit up the grand finale on the platform in the waters of Currumbin. I joined the happy applause at this world premiere of Shifting Sands. The performers were professional ballet and indigenous dancers plus circus artists as well as community people from many groups including the morning swimming club, youth water clubs, paddle boarders and a dragon boat team. Composers, musicians and narrators contributed to a soundtrack built on recordings by residents about the history of this place on the Gold Coast. The scope of the pageant was inspiring and made me think again about Tallow and Belongil. Sometimes, to better understand community here in Byron Bay, I go outside of it.

Sarah Waries, an employee with Shark Spotters on the beaches of Cape Town, spoke clearly and confidently to a packed meeting near the beach in Ballina. I was glad to applaud her, her non-profit employers and the people who helped get her here: Warren Hubbard, Tamara Smith and Sea Shepherd. Sometimes, to learn about marine animals that are seen on Byron beaches, I need to hear about what other people see from their beaches.

For 12 years, Sarah and the rest of the team honed their system. Observers on eight beaches monitor the water and raise flags advising the public about the sightings of great white sharks. The advice is in real time. The observers on the beach are part of a team who pool their local knowledge into both scientific reports and community education. They provide practical support so that people and great white sharks can share the inshore waters.

The patient work by Shark Spotters resulted in people gauging more exactly what risks they take at the beach at any given time. The holiday makers are better informed. The newspapers can report facts based on over two thousand sightings rather than sensationalism of the moment. Every beach has shark bite first aid kits. The great white sharks continue as those important predators influencing communities of fish and marine mammals.

Both projects highlight the importance of local ecological knowledge. Maybe even more important are the new systems that people are using to develop and share that knowledge. The performance was an innovative project in local history, its collection and presentation. The Shark Spotters are a non-profit group providing good employment for 36 people while developing credible information about the local ecology. In both cases, people had to create new social structures within their community. This pulled together participation, funding, resources and good will for an important collective aim.

The loss of local historical and ecological knowledge are the deepest of the thousand cuts that slowly kill a place like Byron Bay and the shire. In this post-colonial trans-national age, global studies call it habitat loss and social disempowerment.

Our label as a biodiversity hotspot means everyone is watching to see what this community will do before our animals and plants all die out and our places either paved with bitumen or walled up with rocks. After the logging, dairy farming and fishing, we have yet to start our new work. This involves employing a new generation of our community to work with elders of culture and place in rehabilitating these habitats.

Look past the fences on the land or in the mind. Our teams can monitor sharks as well as the whales, seabirds, fish and the waterways. Bring Aboriginal and Western science together. Use all our arts to collate and share the knowledge. How about rebuilding reefs of wild oysters? Rejuvenating beaches for pipi?

Managing the waterways primarily as nurseries for fish, prawns, eels and crabs? Add logs for ‘cobra’, the edible burrowing clam? Rehabilitating drained wetlands to produce the indigenous grains, tubers and wild game for what is now called the Australian native food industry? If nothing else, at least we could hope to feed ourselves with proper bush tucker. So, who’s putting up their hand?

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