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December 5, 2023

A vision for the future of Byron’s wetlands

Latest News

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Photo Mary Gardner.

Photo and story Mary Gardner

On 23 April, I heard a broadcast from the Stop Adani Convoy in Brisbane. Bob Brown said that within 20 years, unchecked climate change will close down one of Australia’s major food bowls: the Murray Darling region. I thought about the Belongil, Sydney’s seafood basket for most of the 20th century. This only collapsed fifty years ago. Could the future of West Byron lands lead the regeneration of seafood supply in the Belongil catchment and the sub-tropic region from the Richmond to the Brunswick?

I say yes, we could have such a future. At the April meeting of the Northern Regional Planning Panel (NRPP), our MP Tamara Smith reported that NSW ministers have invited the landowners of West Byron lands to meet and discuss options for a buy-back. Surely the next step in the community campaign is to urge such a step by both groups of owners, represented by Villa World and R&D Pty.

Yes, in spite of the last two hundred years of commercialisation and individualistic exploitation, aquatic nature can still wash and re-invent a promising local and regional ecology. Some reasons for such confidence are the persistent ecological patterns from the deep past.

Mullet moments

One pattern is aquatic coastal/marine migration. Starting mid April is the annual East Australian coastal migration of mullet. For millennia, they, like seventeen other fish species, move from freshwater to marine to spawn. Nine other species move from marine to freshwater for the same purpose. Fifteen other species travel back and forth between fresh and salt water as part of their life cycles, although not to breed.

Also migrating from brackish water to marine waters are invertebrates such as the eastern king and school prawns as well as certain species of cartilaginous fish such as sharks, rays and saw-fish. Marine migratory animals include coastal and sea birds, sea turtles as well as certain species of whales, dolphins and fish.

Another pattern is habitat engineering by foundation species. The abundant existence of these species, creating habitat and providing food, supports other aquatic and bird life. These species include animals such as oysters, surf clams, burrowing clams (aka ‘cobra’), sponges and corals plus plants such as sea-grasses and mangroves. Also important are those animal/plant creatures called macro-algae: kelps and other large sea-weeds.


A third pattern is the place-based pathway for each of key elements such as carbon, nitrogen, sulphur and various metals. Some pathways are physical but many are facilitated by microbes resident in wetlands, peat-lands and coastal forests. These act among themselves and with other species of animals, fungi and protists to store, activate, recycle and transform these chemicals.

A fourth pattern is the place-based variations of the different water cycles. These include rain, with its extremes as flood and drought as well as the movements of ground-water and storm-water, municipal tap-water and the product after processing, effluent (aka recyclable water). These cycles are also affected by land alterations and expanded uses driven by development as well as spikes due to tourism.

The persistence of these patterns suggest that, with changes to our collective actions, they can be rehabilitated to good purposes. One example is Ewingsdale’s large private wetland restoration which feeds into the Belongil floodplains. This successful project could have water during drought if it was better integrated with Byron Bay’s effluent recycling. Rather than an ocean outfall, our municipal water system opted for land-based disposal. Properly treated, this can be an enviable resource for use in the entire catchment.

The West Byron future could take a cue from the long history of Bundjalung and Aboriginal water management. One model is the community-based trust running the Hunter Wetlands. Another is the innovative blend of conservation, regenerative agriculture and cultural heritage at Gayini Nimmie-Caira, NSW. These 87,816 hectares of wetlands are now a property managed by a consortium including the Nari-Nari, University of NSW, the Murray-Darling Wetlands Working Group and the Nature Conservancy.

The Belongil, along with the Tallow ICOLLs (Intermittently Closed and Open Lakes and Lagoons), nested inside the pair of Brunswick and Richmond waterways, were all waters renowned for various foundation species. These may well be restored. Where oyster reefs are rebuilt, water clarity also improves. Sea-grass beds expand. With carbon and nitrogen cycling improved, prawns and coastal fishes may proliferate. Tropical fishes, sea turtles and even corals migrating from overheated waters may find better prospects here in the subtropics.

Future jobs

Yes, youth in the near future will be acquiring and applying global and local ecological knowledge. This month, National Geographic reports that to avoid ecosystem collapses and keep climate change under 1.5 degrees Celsius, 50 per cent of land must be managed as conservation sites: paid work of the near future.

So even in climate change uncertainties, our children and grandchildren may find new livelihoods in a revitalised coastal and marine commons. The long-term place-based management, accruing blue carbon credits, enhancing wildlife populations as well as producing sea-foods may be one of the 21st century post-capitalism ventures. How about futures in the Byron Bay Eel and Carbon Co-operative?

Yes, of course, confidence in aquatic nature. I look at the woven fish, made by women of Cabbage Tree Island who remember ‘mullet hopping’. Sitting in dinghies amidst migrating fish so abundant, they say fish simply ‘hopped on board’. As we rehabilitate ourselves as well as places, that kind of day may come again.

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