Will we welcome our marine climate refugees?

Rocky Creek Dam, the source of the water in the taps of Byron Shire. Photo Mary Gardner

Rocky Creek Dam, the source of the water in the taps of Byron Shire. Photo Mary Gardner

Story & photo Mary Gardner

Making sense of small talk is a never-ending task for this particular biologist. I deeply, truly want to hear what people think about the weather, water, fish and all that. Over the years, I’ve been splicing together these sound bites into a detailed collage.

‘I have this idea what the Great Barrier Reef is going to do with all this global warming,’ my Byron friend spoke up excitedly. ‘It’s going to move south. All that coral and all those creatures. They will end up right here in Byron Bay.’

‘Exactly,’ I said. ‘Climate refugees! And how shall we welcome them here?’

In the next second, I am remembering an earlier conversation I had with another friend who works with Queensland agencies in the Great Barrier Reef.

‘We now have a few million dollars to spend,’ he said. ‘I am putting it all into buying up coastal wetlands and rehabilitating whatever we can. Habitat. It’s all about saving habitat.’

In the third second I remember something I read in the journal Nature. (Although not a face-to-face conversation, let’s count reading as a virtual conversation.) Maps of sea-temperature changes show various ‘climate traps’.

Marine animals migrate from warming waters only to find their favoured temperature zones disappearing altogether. Or they find other conditions in these new places are poor, without the food or habitat they need. The water quality is marginal or detrimental.

So I finally say to my Byron friend, ‘If we have marine climate refugees, is our coastal water clean enough? Do we have functional wetlands where the juvenile fish can move in and grow up? Where are our oyster and pipi beds? Do we have seagrass in the Belongil for dugong?

‘The Belongil is in such bad shape.

‘We have no treatment for stormwater pollution. Every rain we have, the water washes all the vehicle pollution from roads and pavements into a network of closed pipes and open drains. Some pour into the Belongil. Others go straight out to sea.’

‘From out at the lighthouse, I’ve seen that line in the sea, the colour change after rain, the run-off.’

He shakes his head. This conversation moves on.

Later, I overhear some people chatting about the new water re-use pipes in the public toilets at Byron Bay.

‘Did you know the effluent from the West Byron Sewage Treatment Plant goes into the Belongil through open drains from Ewingsdale through West Byron?’

‘No! But with more tourism and development, isn’t there even more effluent? Are they hooking up more toilets with recycled water?’

Another time, I am at a picnic by the Rocky Creek Dam. We small talk, considering the water in the dam, which is the source of the water in the taps of Byron Shire. The question is raised: what does water conservation mean in the tourist towns that draw on the water of this dam?

Another day. Over coffee, another friend asks me. ‘How do I learn about water and the environment? I want to, but how? I want to get out more in nature.’

I think about the last few months. I spent many long hours indoors collating the results of 17 surveys done by volunteers. They spent hours outdoors traipsing the waterways of Byron, which have decades upon centuries out to millennia of experiences to share. Many may be in poor shape now but they have potential.

I hear again the angry residents about ‘tourists destroying the place’. I remember a child by the water. The parent near the bridge calling out, ‘I didn’t think we’d see any fish in here but look!’

Projects throughout urban Australia aim to create ‘water sensitive cities’. Plants and microbes in waterways and ponds cleansing stormwater. Trees for wildlife, to cool urban air. Recycled water piped everywhere. Outreach to business, tourists and residents about water conservation. Neighbourhood programs to monitor, enhance and protect waterways with education and action.

I wonder about water-sensitive coastal living. Some observers doubt that Australians can manage themselves differently in existing commons. Is every aspect of life fated to be enclosed, monetised and propertied forevermore?

I look at my friend. ‘Rain’s expected. It’s so hot, getting wet will be fine. Let’s go watch the flow in that waterway.’

Dr Gardner, writer and biologist, has a special interest in local ecology, place-based knowledge and deep resilience. Read more at To download A Proposal for Water Sensitive Coastal Living go to OurEarthOnline .

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