In the lagoon, the pace of winter life during the long dry seems pretty settled. The growth of small estuarine prawns slows down. Bream now five years old are grown up, itching for saltwater and their winter spawn.
Male flatheads just over a year old are readying for a springtime spawn, but the females plump up for four years or more before they’re keen. Female eels live way upstream while males are in the brackish parts near the beach. But then, with unexpected urgency, the water of the Tallow drains away. Suddenly, over 12.4 tonnes of fish die.
The power of death
The fish themselves had little to do with the events leading up to June 14, 2019. In the 450-hectare catchment around that waterway, us people hold life and death power over aquatic animals. Most of the time, ws people are busy with our lives and trust that the fish will be taken care of by the powers that be.
So we all expected that on June 27 councillors would pass an urgency motion to support the Arakwal people in the management of their homelands, ask the state to investigate, halt further openings, and develop a protocol to actively avoid fish kills and enhance fish breeding. The last few phrases are an important first for this council.
At its best, the powers that be are working according to the letter of protocols, approved by local government. We people contribute where we can in the creation of such plans.
Back in 2015, this process included an online survey seeking feedback from residents ‘affected directly or indirectly by elevated water levels in Tallow Creek.’ During that survey period, many residents of Suffolk Park received an official-looking letter about the survey dropped in their mailboxes by some anonymous source. The letter decried flooding and urged participation in the survey.
As a resident indirectly affected by water levels in Tallow Creek, I remember that survey. I participated and was deeply unhappy with its format. The questions led to certain answers and closed out alternative responses. I remember complaining about the design of the survey as well as the mysterious letter campaign.
But bureaucracy kept moving. The West Byron mega-development required attention. Like everyone, I was so busy. Sadly, I lost sight of this issue.
A matter of process
A document about an opening strategy was adopted by Council. This did not go on public exhibition as it was for ‘internal Council use’. It supplanted the 2009 Tallow Creek Floodplain Risk and Management Study, written by another consulting firm and which did go on public exhibition.
The 2009 study set out an ‘interim strategy’ to scrape the berm when the height of the sand on the beach reaches 2.2m AHD (Australian Height Datum).
‘As sandbar scraping will not reduce sand levels to the extent that the standing water level in the lake will be impacted [on], adverse environmental outcomes such as fish kills from forced releases will be avoided. The reduced san-bar level will act as a fuse, breached only at times of natural flooding.’
But the 2015 document is called an Environmental Management Plan (EMP) and includes a protocol for dredging open a channel to quickly drain the Tallow. Before any EMP would be adopted, the authors of the 2009 report expected that ‘environmental monitoring… on lake levels and flora and fauna’ would certainly be done ‘to ensure sustainability’.
What actually happened since 2015 is that the Tallow blew open a number of times. Only once was this of its own accord and without a fish kill. The other times, trenches were dug by anonymous hands. These events, in 2017 and 2018, triggered fish kills.
Who bears the cost?
On June 19, 2019, the ABC headline was ‘Thousands of fish killed after Byron Bay residents pressure council to open lagoon.’ Staff are quoted saying exactly that.
The current 2015 plan doesn’t include public pressure as a trigger for draining the Tallow. The 2009 document reported that, upon consultation with stakeholders, a ‘minor’ $30,000 worth of nuisance flood damage was estimated to occur annually in backyards, with absolutely no threat to human life.
But 12.4 tonnes of fish could be 12,400 kilograms of edible fillets, fish heads, stock or fish meal. At even a very cheap $10 a kilogram, the fish kill can represent a $124,000 loss to the economy.
The aquatic biologists among us present such costings to get more people to notice the value of fish and other aquatic creatures. But dollars won’t convey the panic of all the alert intelligent animals swept to their painful deaths. The losses of future fish as eggs and young crudely aborted. Whole life-cycles broken.
Council workers removed the dead fish to the dump. Meanwhile, some of the Arakwal rangers and a handful of volunteer residents and children carried stranded live fish in nets and wheelbarrow to the sea. With any luck, some bream are away spawning and some flathead found sanctuary elsewhere.