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April 22, 2024

What happened to the crabs around Lennox Head?

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Crab-free intertidal zone north of Lennox Head. Photo supplied.

Long term local resident Donald Opie is worried about the loss of shellfish, seaweeds and crabs north and south of Ballina Shire Council’s Skennars Head outfall, near Boulder Beach.

Mr Opie is concerned that rising levels of oils, microplastics and other contaminants are finding their way through the water system and affecting marine life, particularly in the intertidal zone and on the headlands, with small shellfish like barnacles and periwinkles increasingly hard to find.

He has been taking water samples from affected areas, and getting them scientifically tested. While fecal colifirm counts so far have been low, he’s noticed increasing numbers of rainbow bubbles which don’t occur naturally in the marine environment, and suspects they can’t be explained away by boat sources.

Having been walking around the rocks of Lennox Point, Shelly Beach and Skennars Head for decades, Mr Opie has noticed big changes, especially in the last few years, with the crabs that once jumped off every rock when he was going for a surf now almost gone, and ‘not a single crab’ at Shelly Beach.

Map from National Outfall Database showing Skennars outfall (right) and Lennox Head Treatment Plant (bottom left).

Going going gone

He says seaweed species are also vanishing locally, such as Neptune’s necklace, which is still growing happily around unspoiled Sandon River, further south, both in the water and in the rocks which are exposed at low tide.

Further north, Mr Opie says that while there have been impacts around Wategos and Cape Byron on rockpool life over the years, he’s found recently that there are still crabs there, along with periwinkles and the usual seaweeds. He says that Flat Rock, by comparison, is missing many once common species.

He says some seaweeds there look like they’ve been ‘burned’, with a strange white residue on some rocks and others with an oily surface which Mr Opie says was unknown in the past.

He worries that Ballina Shire Council’s water treatment system is not keeping up with the pressure of so many new residents, along with new chemicals entering the system. He says the changes can’t all be explained away by warming oceans, because places like Sandon River (one of the cleanest rivers in the state) are still clearly healthy.

Donald Opie accepts that he is not a marine scientist, but says his many years as a teacher and resident of Shelly Beach, together with his decades of observation of the local environment, should not be discounted. He says further research is needed on what is going on.

‘It’s just outrageous,’ he said. ‘It’s incredible, what’s happened.’

EPA

In February Mr Opie contacted the NSW Environmental Protection Authority, officially noting the local decline in smooth-shelled black rock crab numbers, along with seaweeds and small fish in rock pools..

EPA documentation notes, ‘The caller attributes this change to sewer outfalls along the coast. Increased use of pesticides for farming crops such as blueberries and macadamias in the area may also be a causative factor. The caller is very concerned that the loss of this endemic crab species is indicative of a severe problem, and requests that officers assess and take water samples etc to try to find out what has happened and how to fix it…

‘Location pinned to the Lennox Head STP, but note concern is for a much broader coastal area. ‘

Mr Opie told The Echo that the EPA responded to this by saying, ‘”We don’t have any scientists,” which astounded me.’

They said there was no evidence of a pollution event, and suggested he should contact NSW Fisheries, but ‘I’d already done that, and the guy there just said to me, “everything’s changing, Don.”‘

Healthy underwater environment. Pixabay.

Echoes

Readers who remember George Greenough’s pioneering 1973 surf film The Crystal Voyager, which has a soundtrack by Pink Floyd, will know that it was partly shot around Lennox Head. You can check out an extract on YouTube here.

Donald Opie is struck by the section in the film where Mr Greenough says he can’t get to the surface because of the kelp, and also remembers having trouble with the same kelp as a surfer in the past, because it was so thick, wrapping round his legs 6-8 feet from the bottom.

‘That was inside the point, and that’s all gone,’ he said. ‘So something has dramatically changed.’

He says the rainbow bubbles he’s seeing in the ocean now must be from either oil or detergent, with many once safe rocks now too dangerous to step off, when going for a surf, because they’re too slippery.

Mr Opie would like to see some response from local and state government on the issue, including a proper scientific investigation.

All mention of the Skennars Head outfall has disappeared from Ballina Shire Council’s website recently, but according to the National Outfall Database it is still operational. An earlier version of Ballina Council’s website said ‘the quality of the treated wastewater being released into the ocean is monitored by the NSW EPA to ensure there are no threats to the environment.’


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2 COMMENTS

  1. Yes he is right about the crabs and shells the are rock clingers. Flat Rock I have noticed even since 2000 there are not as many…. WHY IS THIS?

  2. It is a worry when marine species disappear from an area. You don’t have to be an ‘expert’ to note the changes. You have to be a concerned local who has known the area for years, like Donald Opie. Very frustrating and concerning when the people in a position to investigate can’t be bothered to investigate.

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