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Byron Shire
April 21, 2021

Pied oystercatchers threatened south of Ballina

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Pied Oystercatcher
Pied oystercatcher on South Ballina Beach – photo supplied

Following our recent story about 4WDs damaging the beaches south of Ballina, Echonetdaily has received more information about threats to this crucial habitat for the endangered pied oystercatcher.

Local resident Megan Ward has been watching the habitat degrade over the last six years, with motorcyclists riding in the dunes at night and increasing numbers of 4WDs and dogs on the beaches every weekend, as well as illegal camping and fires.

Megan Ward – photo David Lowe

‘There are people who enjoy and respect the beach,’ she said, ‘and there are other people with 4WDs who think they can come and trash it. It’s become known that with this beach you’re not going to get booked, there’s no police, there’s no monitoring, it doesn’t cost you anything to get on it. No one’s going to do anything.’

According to Ms Ward, ‘This is the only key habitat remaining for the pied oystercatchers in NSW. That means it should be entitled for protection under the state Biodiversity Conservation Act*. It’s ridiculous to have 4WDs driving on a wild beach, destroying something that can never be recovered.’

‘We’re not saying 4WDs can’t be on any beach,’ she continued, ‘but this is the key habitat for an endangered species. It’s also habitat for another endangered species, the little tern.

Local resident Megan Ward with 4WD tracks on South Ballina Beach – photo David Lowe

‘We’re saying that in an area where there is the last remaining species left in NSW, we can’t have 4WDs. And when we do have 4WDs, they have to be highly monitored, because people don’t realise that the beach is a really valuable and vulnerable ecosystem.’

Scared to death?

In his recent scientific study, ‘Taking Fright: the decline of Australian Pied Oystercatchers at South Ballina Beach NSW’ Empire Vale researcher Stephen Totterham has drawn a clear link between 4WD impacts and falling bird numbers.

Pied oystercatcher and 4WD track on South Ballina Beach – photo supplied

The study found that oystercatcher numbers on South Ballina Beach had reduced from 15-16 breeding pairs in 1994-1996 to 7-9 pairs in 2016-1018, despite control of foxes in the area.

By contrast, the breeding oystercatcher population at Bombing Range Beach, further south (where no 4WDs are allowed) actually increased.

Born to be wild

Oystercatcher food, pipi shell at South Ballina beach – photo David Lowe

Megan Ward says the littoral forest behind the dunes is under threat, as well as the invertebrate life the oystercatchers rely on and the biome of the sand and soil.

‘We must have wild beaches,’ she said. ‘It’s critical that we look after the few that are left because they support such high biodiversity.’

Unfortunately, as Echonetdaily recently revealed, the various authorities with intersecting responsibilities for the South Ballina beaches are all failing in one way or another, leaving no one to arrest the decline in pied oystercatcher numbers.

According to Stephen Totterham’s study, ‘human recreation disturbance is preventing recruitment into the South Ballina oystercatcher breeding population. Without strong protection of habitat from such disturbance, the NSW oystercatcher breeding population size will continue to decrease in the next two decades.’

What next?

Megan Ward shows 4WD damage to the dunes – photo David Lowe

Megan Ward is disappointed by the failure of councils and Crown Lands to do anything substantial to solve the problem, but encouraged by the support of Ballina MP Tamara Smith. She says the next step is to draw up a plan with an ecologist to create a bigger evidence-based study of the pied oystercatchers.

‘If we can get the 4WDs off the beach for the next breeding season, which is July-January, we will have a scientific study showing what COVID showed us, briefly, the change in behaviour for these birds to actually regain their natural habitat.’

Pied oystercatcher looking for food, South Ballina Beach – photo supplied

She said many chicks are currently not surviving because of their parents’ exhaustion, from constant stress and attacks, which leads to the birds not being able to feed themselves or their chicks.

‘Imagine six months where these birds are breeding in their natural habitat? They’re going to have a much higher success rate.’

Ms Ward argues that the issue is bigger than the pied oystercatchers, and bigger than South Ballina. ‘This wild beach is a very important link,’ she said. ‘We break that link and we’re weakening Australia’s biodiversity.’

* Ms Ward added that ‘Individuals that kill endangered species face penalties, such as a $1 million fine or jail time.’


More stories about 4WDs on South Ballina Beach

South Ballina and Evans Head Beaches closed to 4WDs

The closure of South Ballina Beach and Evans Head to 4WDs and other vehicles has been met with a mixed response.


What’s happening with South Ballina Beach?

The debate about the future of the beaches south of Ballina is heating up again as councils and concerned citizens grapple with the ongoing issue of 4WD-related damage.

Pied Oystercatcher

Coastal Defenders respond to NPWS

Stephen Totterman from Coastal Defenders Network said the National Parks and Wildlife Service's response to his concerns about 4WD impacts on the pied oystercatcher population on the beaches south of Ballina is 'unsatisfactory'.


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Governments giving up on beach-nesting birds?

Stephen Totterman from Coastal Defenders Network says fatalities are mounting for locally endangered pied oystercatchers at South Ballina Beach as authorities fail to act.


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  1. Totally agree we this is a collective issue vehicles come off Seven Mile beach rd and drive along ripping off barracades to access beach. There are dogs, fires etc.
    What is urgently needed is Council and National Parks to urgently work in state funding for addressing areas that are not been prioritised.
    We are literally eroding our best asset nature.
    Tourist pay nothing to park along Seven Mike beach rd and Broken Head because there are no manage to plans. Brunswick is also being trashed and there are routinely dogs in areas that are habitats.
    We could have people paying substantial money to visit Byron to bird watch and experience nature in a pristine state ( not toilet paper). and yet we are focussing developing a town that resembles Sydney Airport with the number of chain stores and franchises.
    We don’t need to look at attracting more tourists we need to focus on managing our areas so we attract better tourists.

  2. The Echo may wish to investigate the damage being done within the breeding habitat of the migratory seabird breeding colonies at Belongil Creek mouth in Belongil. Within one hour last week I twice saw a large colony of breeding pairs and chicks of various species deliberately disturbed by young men in one case pursuing the birds with his surfboard. The Echo may wish to enquire of Byron’s National Parks and Wildlife Service, Byron Marine Parks and the new Byron Council wildlife officer as to the delivery of protections for the regions increasingly threatened wildlife and habitat and the compliance measures to ensure protections are respected by residents and visitors.

  3. Megan thank you for standing up for those lovely water birds and their habitat. South Ballina Beach was one of those wild beaches that I visited as a child in the 1950s
    FINES ENFORCED if it can be done.
    Some study of when the damage is being done would help.
    Birds Australia may be a helpful contact
    All the best for a good outcome for the lucky ones who really want to care of the place.

  4. It is time to close the beach from Evans Head to Ballina to vehicular traffic except for regulatory authorities and professional fishermen. And it’s time to restrict development, much of it inappropriate and damaging, a death by a thousand cuts.

    Vehicles are destroying the very things which attract visitors. It was so good when the beach was closed during the early stages of the current pandemic to vehicles. But now it’s back to business as usual with the usual numpties wrecking it for all.

    I have watched the decline of this fabulous beach over the last 65 years and wonder how we could be so stupid as to let this happen. The pied oystercatcher is one of several ‘canaries’ in the mine, a barometer of the beach’s decline: Refer Taking fright: the decline of Australian Pied Oystercatchers Haematopus longirostris at South Ballina Beach, New South Wales https://t.co/DkgUVkaVEK

    Good on you Megan (and Stephen) for sticking up for the beach.

  5. Once again the key issue is governments failing to dedicate the necessary resources for surveillance and enforcement, as well as the predictable passing the responsibility buck. The rules are there, they just have to be enforced. There is also plenty of signage on both what is protected and the penalties for breaking the rules. So ignorance on this is no excuse. No warnings or cautions necessary. Maybe if someone puts up a Captain Cook statue we’ll see surveillance and enforcement resources devoted to the location.

  6. All of these gratuitous activities – unregulated 4WD driving, illegal camping, and fires – are so clearly inconsistent with the survival of this precious endangered species. This message needs to spread, because as Megan points out, many 4WD drivers likely don’t even realise the damage they are doing to this valuable and vulnerable ecosystem. This is Crown land that no one is taking responsibility for, so it’s vital that we make a call for action from the NSW government and local councils. To start, I encourage a push to keep 4WDs off the beach for the breeding season from July through to January.

  7. Great to see such strong activism and support from members of the community on such a blatantly important issue for the South Ballina wildlife.

    Building strong local and wider community pressure for change backed by scientific studies is clearly key for achieving practical solutions here.

    With that in mind, I think it’s important we comment and share articles like these.

  8. Thanks Megan and Echo for bringing these critical local issues to the fore. Time is upon us to protect these precious habitats.


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