As the story goes, in 1842, Britain’s appointed governor to Queensland, Sir George Gipps, visited Cleveland in Moreton Bay to formally announce the town as Queensland’s capital. At that stage it was already considered the commercial capital, off the back of convict and Aboriginal labour. Brisbane was also well-established, but being 30 kilometres away was considered too distant and its river access unreliable. However, plans changed when the governor, possibly entranced by the beauty of the bay, with its islands, birds and tidal mangroves, had his dreams tested when he sank up to his ankles in mud. Mud, meant Brisbane became the capital.
Nevertheless, the bay area was, and is, more appealing to other animals. Between July and November, humpback whales can be seen breaching in Moreton Bay on their annual migration to and from Antarctica. Below the surface, dolphins, dugongs, loggerhead turtles and almost 1,200 species of fish weave around the coral and seagrass beds. Along the muddy, mangrove strewn coastline, some 32 species of shore-birds return from their awe-inspiring annual northern migration; the endangered bar-tailed godwit flying some 13,000 kilometres non-stop from the Arctic.
Moreton Bay marks a stopover on the East Asian Australasian Flyway – one of only two sites in the world where the young of the critically endangered eastern curlew mature and get enough sustenance to make the 6,000 kilometre journey to Siberia. Insufficient nourishment means that during the flight they die and fall into the sea.
A quietly worded statement on a plaque hidden among mangroves further north in the bay, records that in 1979, Senator John Faulkner, the serious-minded minister for the environment, made Australia the first signatory of the International Ramsar Convention for globally significant wetlands. Ramsar represents one of the first modern, global, multilateral environmental agreements and remains the only one devoted to a specific critical ecosystem.
Cobourg Peninsula in Victoria was designated the first Ramsar site in Australia in 1974; Moreton Bay in 1993. Australia's 65 Ramsar sites today cover more than 8.3 million hectares, forming an impressive estate of diverse wetland types, embracing three climatic zones, indigenous country and sacred sites.
The Moreton Bay site meets all nine criteria for the designation: ‘wetlands of international importance’. Its size and diversity of habitats – many of which are connected across wetland types and host a variety of diverse flora and fauna, including threatened species and specific ecological niches – make Moreton Bay a meeting point for tropical and temperate zones.
The site includes one of the most extensive intertidal areas of seagrass, mangrove and saltmarsh on the eastern coast of Australia and is valuable for supporting fisheries resources and marine megafauna such as whales and dugongs. If you are lucky, you may see an acid frog or a water mouse – if you are really lucky, an endangered Illidge’s ant-blue butterfly.
Today however, this Ramsar-rated wetland is threatened by an extravagant development proposed by the Walker Corporation – an Australian-based privately owned property development company. The Toondah Harbour apartment and retail development would involve dredging and reclaiming about 40 hectares of the wetland to make way for to a marina, hotel, shops and more than 3,000 apartments.
Being a Ramsar signatory incurs national responsibility for protection of the area. Despite this, the Queensland government declared the proposed development a Priority Development Area (PDA) in 2013, following which a minister quietly expanded the PDA by a factor of three without gaining cabinet consent.
PDAs are exempt from state environmental assessment, though still require environmental authorisation at the national level. Rezoning Ramsar territory for commercial use, as suggested in the PDA, requires federal approval based on ‘overriding national interest’. Brisbane’s airport runway extension into Moreton Bay was declared exempt for this reason. But, as Birdlife International’s Judith Hoyle says: ‘It’s hard to envisage why privately built development which will consume 40 per cent of this major Ramsar site, bringing with it noise, traffic and the destruction of bird and marine habitats, could be defined as being in the national interest.’
For grey plover, which migrate up to 12,000 kilometres in one trip, and which use Toondah Harbour’s tidal flats to gain enough weight over summer for their epic journeys, the development could spell disaster. The proposal consumes most of their remaining roosts, while the light and noise created as a result of the 3,600 apartments, shops and hotels proposed, as well as the 400-berth marina, additional traffic and parking bays may spell the end for any who survive the initial assault. Globally, breeding and feeding sites are rapidly being reduced by coastal developments. Eventually, if coastal areas are merely seen as real estate, these tiny miracles, which Andrew Darby, in his book Flight Lines, describes as weighting ‘two tablespoons of sugar’ on arrival, will simply vanish. Further additions to the national list.
Initially, on advice from the Department of the Environment, the national government repeatedly refused to agree to the development, taking its international responsibilities seriously. However, in 2017, former federal environment minister Josh Frydenberg reportedly rejected advice from the environment department that the project was ‘clearly unacceptable’ and sent it to the next stage of federal environmental assessment.
Time will tell whether the development goes ahead. As reported by the Guardian, a department spokesman said the government is committed to the protection of internationally important wetlands and Australia’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act prevent it from approving a project if it is inconsistent with Australia’s obligations under the Ramsar convention. Walker Corporation is expected to publish its draft Environmental Impact Assessment for public comment by the end of 2020.
However, with the government appearing supportive, the fear is that a win for Walker will pave the way for greater destruction in the future.
More extreme Southern Oscillations, rising sea temperatures and consequent sea level rises are already being felt in the bay. Redland City Council is working with a projected sea-level rise figure of 0.8 metres by the year 2100. The rise may be greater. Natural features of the bay channel destructive winds and waves directly into the project area, causing coastal erosion and storm tide inundation. While the company is rich and well connected enough to be insured, there is less surety for individual boat, business and apartment owners.
Walker Corporation have countered claims of these risks by saying they will use silt, dredged from the Ramsar site, to raise the level of construction by three meters. About half-a-million cubic metres of seabed and wetlands will need be dredged to achieve this. This itself spells serious danger for coastal stability and all the bay’s marine life.
So what does this mean in terms of the inexorable march of climate chaos and, in particular, Australia’s willingness to listen to science, or even take on board the concept of citizen’s and Indigenous People’s rights?
There are four mobs (clans) living around the Ramsar site, the longevity of their occupation evidenced by shell middens, carbon-dated at 26,000 years. Norman Enoch, a traditional elder from the district says that the majority of indigenous people are strongly opposed to the development and that there are many rituals and sacred places in the area. ‘There are places for women’s business, and places for our rituals for fishing.’ He confides that those reportedly representing indigenous issues are not from the area and that many divisions have arisen.
Back on the mainland, Redlands2030, a citizen’s group opposing the development recently sent off a petition with 7,000 signatures. The Koala Action Group has gathered similar numbers of supporters in an attempt to save the last of the koala’s coastal habitat. According to Debbie Ponting from the group, the greatest dangers are increased traffic and destruction of the last of their trees.