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.
The organisation with ultimate responsibility, NSW Crown Lands, has missed its March 1 target to formally arrange consultation with the three groups who would have motorised access to the beach after closure to public 4WDs (indigenous, emergency and commercial fishers).
Meanwhile an anti-closure petition has also been circulating online with over 3,000 signatures since Richmond Valley Council prematurely stated that Ballina Shire Council had decided to close all 4WD access to the beach.
Local resident Megan Ward told Echonetdaily, ‘Frustration is growing in the community about the slothful approach Crown Lands seems to be adopting.
‘Despite their lip service, they seem unmotivated, and ready to fold at the slightest resistance rather than following through with integrity.
‘Now the target is before Easter but I have no confidence this will happen… The science must be listened to and acted upon,’ said Ms Ward.
Late in February, Stephen Totterman of Coastal Defenders Network wrote a submission to all decision-makers in response to lobbying from 4WD enthusiasts and recreational fishers to keep the beach open, despite mounting evidence of hooning behaviour.
He said there had been discussion for twenty years about closing South Ballina Beach to 4WDs, to protect endangered beach-nesting birds, including the Australian Pied Oystercatcher, but ‘a loud mob of recreational fishers and others’ had stymied progress, with the problem getting steadily worse until the temporary respite of COVID-19.
After people saw what it was like to have the beach not covered with speeding 4WDs, the public mood on the issue shifted, in favour of closure. Since then, pro-4WD groups have become more vocal in response.
Movement from councils
While Ballina Shire Council has made clear that its power to act on the issue is limited, they did close the 4WD access track at Patchs Beach in June 2020, as well as writing to the state government to request that South Ballina Beach be closed to the general public driving 4WD vehicles.
Last month Richmond Valley Council resolved to close Broadwater Beach from Boundary Creek through to the Coffee Rocks (the southern 6km of South Ballina Beach).
More closures seem likely to follow, but recreational fishers have said they would like to continue to have 4WD access to South Ballina Beach either by annual permits or a key system operated by clubs.
Ballina’s Councillor Keith Williams has publicly supported the recreational fishers, but Stephen Totterman said, ‘Recreational fishers are a minority group and do not represent the broader public interest.’ He says a survey of 4WDs on South Ballina Beach on weekends in Oct–Dec 2020 found that only 14% of were recreational fishers.
Mr Totterman has also pointed out there’s nothing to stop anyone from joining a recreational fishing club to gain 4WD access to South Ballina Beach.
Keith Williams responds
Cr Keith Williams has responded by saying he has a long history of trying to get positive outcomes for endangered seabirds and other wildlife on South Ballina Beach via his hands-on involvement with Australian Seabird Rescue in the past.
He said recreational fishers were important environmental allies at that time and could continue to play that role going forward.
‘They are the people most likely to see injured marine wildlife,’ said Cr Williams. ‘They are also the least likely to report it, if their experience is that they are given a hard time for doing so.
‘I know many good hearted recreational fishers,’ he continued. ‘People that help look after the place. People that have pitched in for more volunteer riparian re-vegetation projects in Ballina Shire than any other group.
‘A permit or a key system operated by fishing clubs promotes stewardship and community responsibility. It puts local people (not police) on the beach with a vested interest in ensuring good behaviour.
‘I would rather have 100 or even 200 locals keeping an eye on the place, reporting camps in the dunes, speeding and erratic driving, and reporting injured wildlife.’
Cr Wiliams acknowledged that ‘we do need to stop thousands of vehicles treating the beach like a race track and a free camp’ but ‘we don’t need to alienate a large section of the community who feel they are being punished for the actions of others.’
He said that while he believed it was important to stop the ‘environmental carnage on South Ballina Beach’ it was important to bring the community along too; ‘Not winners. Not losers. But as a community that cares about this wonderful place where we are so lucky to live.’
View from Coastal Defenders Network
In response, Stephen Totterman said he agreed that recreational fishers (as well as many other beach drivers) were generally good citizens, but Cr Williams had not addressed his concern that anyone could join a fishing club to gain 4WD beach access.
He also said Australian Seabird Rescue’s project to improve beach user behaviour and protect wildlife on South Ballina Beach was a failure, with the pied oystercatcher breeding population in steep decline since that time, and dogs, dune driving and camping all increasing.
‘What good do recreational fishers do for Australian Pied Oystercatchers?’ he asked Cr Williams. ‘Have you not noticed oystercatchers with fishing line entangled around their legs? Some of them end up losing limbs. Surely, you are aware that discarded fishing line is a huge problem everywhere.’
Mr Totterman said that police were unwilling or unable to do anything about most illegal activites in the dunes and in National Park areas, and that recreational fishers would be wasting their time in reporting non-compliance.
He said that there was no intention to ban recreational fishing on the beaches, and that people could access the beaches on foot.
‘Fishing is more enjoyable without the nuisance of passing vehicles,’ he said.
Both sides now?
Mr Totterman said that the idea that there were two sides to the beach driving ban, with winners and losers, is too simplistic.
‘Recreational fishers and other beach drivers are not losers if they understand that they are giving up the privilege for the greater public good.’
He said the cumulative effect of large numbers of 4WDs on the beach continues to be misunderstood by pro-4WD interest groups, who are largely serving the interests of those driving in from outside the area to use the beach as a ‘playground’.
According to Mr Totterman, continuing the process of closing the beach is an evidence-based decision with broad support.
‘The authorities and politicians should beware that to allow public beach driving to continue would show that they prioritise 4WDs over people and threatened species.
‘That kids can’t run free on the beach because it’s a 4WD highway and drivers rule. It’s a bad look,’ he said.
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