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Wetlands become focal point of environment-renewables balance

Opinion Piece – by Geoff Brooks, Biosphere Foundation Director

Awareness of Western Port’s internationally renowned Ramsar wetlands is about to receive a significant boost thanks to the recent decision by the Federal Environment Minister, Tanya Plibersek, to veto of the Victorian Government’s plans for a renewable energy terminal in Hastings.  

Ms Plibersek’s reasons for blocking the Victorian Renewable Energy Terminal (VRET) proposal made protection of the Ramsar wetlands the centrepiece of what will be an inevitable political and potentially legal stoush between the federal and state Labor governments.  

The Victorian Government, industry stakeholders and environment groups were caught off guard at the speed of the federal decision, which did not await the results of the state’s Environmental Effects Statement (EES) process.  

The first political salvo from Victoria came the day after the federal announcement, with Victorian Premier, Jacinta Allan, declaring the energy transition which underpins her government’s aim to achieve 95% renewable energy generation by 2035 ‘must take precedence over protecting internationally renowned wetlands’.

This statement confronts the rationale for Ms Plibersek’s decision, which is not subject to appeal and may now only be challenged through the courts. It is an attack on the core tenets of her decision, which was informed by sections of the Environment and Biodiversity Conservation Protection (EPBC) Act 1999 

Specifically, and correctly, Ms Plibersek noted that the Western Port Ramsar wetlands, located 60km south-east of Melbourne to the north of Phillip Island, meet seven of the nine Ramsar listing criteria. In a nutshell, these identify listed wetlands as a ‘representative, rare or unique’ example of a natural or near-natural wetland that supports ‘vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered species or threatened ecological communities’. There are also references to the preservation of biodiversity within these special regions and their role in sustenance and breeding of flora and fauna. 

The task now is to ensure the Western Port wetlands do not become the Western Front and a winner-take-all model for negotiating an appropriate balance between environmental protection and the necessary transition to renewable energy. The Western Port wetlands are just one point of engagement for this debate, with real flashpoints developing around the nation as environmentalists, farmers, NIMBY lobbyists and others attempt to direct wind and solar infrastructure development to other ‘more suitable’ locales. 

Add this to the emerging Federal Opposition push for an alternative transition to ‘clean’ nuclear power and we risk being sucked into a vortex of an irrational and compromised mishmash of solutions.  

In fairness to the Victorian Government, the federal minister’s pre-emptive strike on the VRET proposal derailed its EES process, so its aggravation may be justified. But the risk is a rapid and perhaps angry reaction may also undermine the intent of an EES, which is to identify and define actions to protect valuable ecosystems, species and biodiversity. It is not so long ago that this same process contributed to the non-approval of AGL’s liquid petroleum gas terminal proposal for Crib Point. 

With the political fuse lit, it is impossible to predict where the VRET proposal will land. Certainly, the Victorian Government will challenge the federal decision and major stakeholders like the Port of Hastings which submitted the proposal to the federal Environment Minister, are considering their options. 

For the Victorian Government, a first step must be to define more fully what it means when it says the energy transition must take precedence over the protection of internationally renowned wetlands, because the term ‘renowned’ understates the level of Australia’s legal obligation to preserve them.  

As a signatory to the international Ramsar Convention, the Australian Government has legal obligations to protect these and other listed wetlands. By delegation, state governments also inherit responsibilities for these areas. 

Was Premier Allan suggesting that the Western Port Ramsar wetlands can be sacrificed, if necessary, in pursuit of renewable energy transition and the achievement of its 2035 renewable energy target?  

There is no doubt that the reclamation of areas of Western Port’s seabed for wharf construction and related infrastructure, as well as dredging to deepen sea channels will impact its wetlands. Other issues identified include the risk of importing detrimental flora and fauna and disease with fill for reclamation, changed shoreline and hydrodynamics and pollution from construction and on-going operations. 

It is encouraging to see reports that the Victorian Government has been in discussions with the federal government since the Plibersek announcement and that the Premier is talking about seeking alternative solutions with appropriate mitigation strategies. It will be interesting to see the alternatives presented, including evaluation of alternative locations for the proposed terminal. 

Ms Plibersek’s explanatory document acknowledges that the Victorian Government has commissioned an EES and that some details of the proposed development are still to be finalised. However, her rationale suggests she believes that the scale and scope of the VRET proposal are beyond the project’s capacity to mitigate risks to the Ramsar wetlands. 

The Western Port Biosphere Foundation’s position prior to Ms Plibersek’s statement was that the VRET development should be subject to a rigorous Environmental Effects Statement (EES) process and subsequent regulation to minimise any impact on the wetlands which lie at the heart of our UNESCO Biosphere. 

This would be made much easier if there was a Strategic Framework for Western Port to provide context for all planning and development for this marine environment and its surrounds. Without this, stakeholders are playing a game of ‘whack-a-mole’, each issue being dealt with on an ad hoc basis, with little overarching evaluation or understanding of the interrelationship between decisions and outcomes.  

These most recent developments suggest there is a real risk of Western Port’s Ramsar wetlands becoming swallowed in the faultline between the tectonic plates of environmental protection and the energy transition.  

We argue that both need to be accommodated in the interests of mitigating climate change and maintaining healthy biodiversity – the symbiotic twins that are crucial to ensuring a bright future for the Western Port Biosphere and the world beyond its boundaries. 


Community Investment Program- Bendigo Community Bank Hastings

 

For 15 years the Bendigo Community Bank Hastings has been helping our local Biosphere Reserve community to thrive. They return our profits to the people and communities that generate them. Bendigo Bank’s network of Community Bank branches have pumped almost $300 million back into Australian communities. More than $800,000 of that has been right here, in and around Hastings. From youth leadership programs to art shows, community radio to community houses, children’s basketball to bowls clubs, swimming lessons to programs to keep the reserve tidy, together they are building a stronger, healthier and more resilient community.

The ethos of the Community Bank Hastings is based on the belief that thriving communities share a sense of common purpose and self- belief. Both the Western Port Biosphere Reserve Foundation and the Community Bank understand that connected and engaged communities become greater than the sum of the parts, and that working together brings meaning and mutual benefits to all.

 

We are thrilled to announce that we to have been one of the many successful recipients of the Community Investment Program. Alongside many other wonderful community groups doing great things for the reserve, we were invited to the Funding awards night November 21st, held at the Hastings Club, to receive our certificate and meet the other recipients.

We thank the Community Bank Hastings and look forward to sharing more about the Investment program over the next year.

 


Plain sailing

By Catherine Watson – December issue of Bass Coast Post
Photos: Geoff Brooks 
In a previous life, I passed the Tooradin inlet every day on my long commute to work. I sometimes daydreamed about skipping work and turning left off the highway, towards the old fisherman’s cottage and the BOAT HIRE sign. In my dreams I rowed a small dinghy through the mangrove channels until I reached the bay and was rocked by the gentle waves.

Perhaps it’s just as well I never gave in to temptation. As I found out last month, navigating the Tooradin channels is no job for the blissfully ignorant. At low tide, almost half of Western Port is exposed mud and seagrass. The captain of the Tidemaster remains on full alert as he beats a path for the bay through emerging mudflats.

The Western Port Biosphere Foundation has organised the cruise to bring together blue carbon experts and other stakeholders, providing an opportunity to visit the coastline of French Island and explore the seagrass meadows of Western Port.

On board the Tidemaster is a precious cargo: champions, defenders and experts on Western Port, and a few extras like me. Fortunately the collective has been divided into two sailings, so if the boat sinks with all hands, we’ll only lose half of the expertise.

Amidst the sightseeing, birdwatching and morning tea, we hear the latest from the Blue Carbon Lab scientists who are mapping the distribution of blue carbon habitats across the bay. With its wealth of carbon-absorbing marine habitats, including mangroves, tidal and salt marshes, and seagrasses, our bay could play a crucial role in a nature-based solution to climate change.

OzFish uses an underwater drone to show us the seagrass meadows, though today is not a good day as turbidity clouds the view.

Dr Hugh Kirkman Photograph: Geoff Brooks

That’s actually an insight into the impact of turbidity on the seagrass meadows, as Dr Hugh Kirkman explains. It’s a thrill to meet this world leader in the ecology of seagrass who worked on the influential 1975 Shapiro Report into Western Port, commissioned by the Dick Hamer Liberal Government. Thirty-eight years later, Hugh is still working to protect this bay.

We also hear about the challenges ahead in relation to abysmally low rates of survival in mangrove rehabilitation on the eastern side of the bay, around Grantville and Queensferry. Those of us from Bass Coast can only look at the virtual mangrove forests around Tooradin in envy.

 

As Ian Stevenson of the Western Port Seagrass Partnership says, there’s no real common denominator.  What works at the northern end of the bay doesn’t work at the east. Perhaps the winds are too strong, or the tides. What works in one inlet won’t work in another. We are still learning. Our local Landcare crews are experimenting with various planting methods to determine which has the best survival rate.

Earlier Adrian Flynn of Fathom Pacific has tested our general knowledge. “Why is Western Port designated as a biosphere reserve?” Of course everyone on board knows the answer: “Because of the migratory seabirds and waders.”

Adrift on Western Port, it all makes sense. As the tide recedes, more mudflats appear and the birds arrive in droves:  red-necked stints, curlew sandpipers and eastern curlews.

Heading back to the Tooradin inlet, there’s an “All hands on deck” moment. We are a little aft-heavy and in danger of becoming marooned on a mudflat. The captain politely requests some of his passengers to move fore and a marine disaster is averted.

Some people dream of sailing from San Francisco to Tahiti; others of cruising the Rhine. For me it was a cruise through the Tooradin mangroves.

A final special touch: as we disembark the pelicans briefly look up then resume feasting on the mudflats.


Some bellies are more important than others

By Geoff Brooks, Biosphere Foundation Board Director

 

Take it from me, there are bellies you’d like to get rid of and there are those worth preserving. Both require a lot of willpower and effort and, to date, the Biosphere Foundation’s efforts to support the Orange Bellied Parrot program at Moonlit Sanctuary are way ahead of my other schedule.

Both efforts are consequential for our Biosphere, but progress on restoration of the threatened Orange Bellied Parrot population is considerably outweighing the effort for reduced consumption of some of the excellent produce from our farmers and vignerons.

Enough of the frivolity, let’s set Project B(elly) to one side, pour a glass of pinot and ponder the extension of our support for the critically endangered Orange Bellied Parrot.

 

It is one of only three migratory parrots in the world. Breeding in south-west Tasmania during spring and summer, Orange Bellied Parrots migrate to the southeast coast of mainland Australia, where they spend the autumn and winter in Victoria and South Australia.

Numbers of Orange-bellied Parrots have declined from perhaps several thousand in the late 1800s. Threats to the species include past and ongoing loss and degradation of habitat (including non-breeding habitat), loss of genetic diversity and inbreeding, stochastic environmental events, and predators and competitors.^ Principally a ground feeder, the parrot eats seeds, fruits, flowers and berries.

According to our partners at Moonlit Sanctuary, the wild population numbered less that 20 adults at the start of the 2017/18 breeding season. Thanks to breeding programs, including Moonlit’s, the returning population reached 70 individuals at the start of the 2021/22 breeding season, with optimism that this would result in about 140 parrots returning to the mainland.

The Biosphere Foundation has supported Moonlit’s program with two tranches of funding, the first courtesy of the Federal Government’s just-concluded Environmental Restoration Fund (ERF) and the second enabled by our public donations.

The first provided monitoring equipment to help understand the relationship between the temperature in parrot nesting boxes at Moonlit Sanctuary and successful breeding and fledgling nurture.

The second advances this foundation work, assisting Moonlit to purchase cameras to not only record temperature, but also visually record the behaviours and any other influences that maybe contributing to inconsistent fledging duration.

Normally, the Orange Bellied Parrot breeds mainly within southwest Tasmania’s Melaleuca region. Birds typically begin to arrive at Melaleuca in late September. Nests are occupied from mid-November, with nesting occurring in artificial nest boxes or, where available, hollows of eucalypt trees (typically Eucalyptus nitida).

Pairs do not mate for life. The female stays in the nest for several days before the first egg is laid and clutches average 4.6 eggs (range 1–6). Only the female incubates the eggs during the 21-day incubation period. After hatching, the female remains on the nest for 10 days, being fed by the male.

After the 10-day brood period, the chicks are fed by both parents before fledging at four to five weeks of age. Fledglings are fed by both parents until the adults depart on the northern migration in February–March. The fledglings typically depart between March and April. Juveniles are also individually colour banded (using leg bands) from nest boxes each year which forms the basis of population studies.*

Moonlit Sanctuary is one of several facilities running programs to ensure the Orange Bellied Parrot can be brought back from the brink. However, the Moonlit team is also gaining important insights into the role that saltmarsh habitat, which abounds in the Biosphere Reserve, can play in the bird’s survival.

This could provide valuable insight into the importance of saltmarsh preservation, which our Foundation is evaluating as part of the major blue carbon assessment and works undertaken with support of the Victorian Government and the Bunurong Land Council’s environment team.

It highlights the importance of on-going public donations to the Foundation and how their impact can be amplified as knowledge from a single project feeds into the wider matrix of work to preserve our Biosphere Reserve for future generations.

As for dealing with that other belly, the less public donations the better!

^ https://www.threatenedspecieslink.tas.gov.au/Pages/Orange-bellied-Parrot.aspx

* https://nre.tas.gov.au/conservation/threatened-species-and-communities/lists-of-threatened-species/threatened-species-vertebrates/orange-bellied-parrot/about-orange-bellied-parrots

 

 


Why I love our buffer zones

By Geoff Brooks, Biosphere Foundation Board Director
Photos- Geoff Brooks 

There are some wonderful and occasionally pristine habitats comprising the core zones of the Western Port Biosphere. Among these are our internationally acclaimed Ramsar wetlands, multiple national and marine parks and areas yet untouched by our urban spread.

Protecting these areas lies at the heart of what we do. In the conjoined battles against climate change and biodiversity loss, the preservation of these wilderness areas will be critical to ensuring future generations will enjoy the natural aesthetics and healthy living environment that we enjoy today.

While acknowledging this, perhaps the greatest potential for achieving our vision lies in the buffer zones with the Biosphere Reserve. UNESCO recently endorsed the significantly expanded tracts of land designated as such within our reserve.

The richness of their potential lies in the fact that these former terrestrial forests and grasslands have been re-purposed to support urban demand for agriculture, tourism, recreation and out-of-town residences, all of which lend themselves to application of improved practices and behaviours supportive of our goals.

We already have evidence of how we can engage with the mostly private landholders who ply their business within the buffer zones. Over the past year, we have worked alongside many property owners and businesses to optimise water management through our water stewardship program.

With access to fresh water essential for dealing with a progressively hotter and drier climate for our Biosphere Reserve and its surrounds, maximising water capture, reducing its consumption and better managing waste water are central to what sustainable water stewardship is about.

Our team has demonstrated that what is good for the environment often improves profitability. Investment in prudent use of water can be as rewarding as prudential financial management.

At our ‘All things Western Port’ forum in Hastings, held and hosted with support from Melbourne Water, we heard how building biolinks on private land is producing bottom line dividends.

Mornington Peninsula Landcare’s Project Co-ordinator, Greg Holland, told the audience how his organisation was making great gains with its construction of a biolink ‘spine’ for the peninsula, primarily due to word-of-mouth referral from landholders, including farmers, who were spruiking the benefits of environmental restoration to neighbours.

We are engaged in similar conversations on the other side of Western Port, partnering with the Bass Coast Shire and activist groups like Save Western Port Woodlands, to persuade sand mining companies to ensure allocations of land to biolink construction – something that can allow some expansion of their commercial operations, while preserving and connecting terrestrial forests areas designated as ‘nationally significant’.

We have yet to engage closely with the tourism sector, clearly one with a substantial and growing footprint across the Biosphere Reserve. It is something of a no-brainer that a UNESCO-recognised region has huge potential for development and recognition as one of Australia’s premier ecotourism destinations.

As an industry that traverses both agriculture and tourism, the region’s wine industry is already playing a key role in attracting visitors into the region. Add a quality-focused boutique brewery industry, a growing array of food and cultural festivals and some of Victoria’s best hiking, biking and boating experiences, and it is evident that balancing business opportunity with environment risk management will be a growing focus for the Biosphere Foundation’s engagement in planning and advice for the tourism sector in coming years.

While the latter may impact on core habitats within the reserve and increasing numbers of visitors must be educated to tread lightly, the bulk of the action will be in our buffer zones, as people flock to enjoy the amenity of high quality tourism facilities, attractions and infrastructure.

It is from our buffer zones that the impacts of modern society flow into our wilderness. Whether it be people traversing from urban to nature, water flowing from towns and farms into rivers and bay, silt eroding into our estuaries and wetlands, or microplastics being transferred almost by osmosis from modern consumables into animal consumption, it nearly all must negotiate the corridors of these intermediate zones.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about our Biosphere buffer zones is that the people who live and work within them are perhaps the most empowered in our community to have huge impacts on the long-term future of our special region.

In preserving the future, we must think beyond simply the preservation of our core ecosystems. It is essential that we partner with those who control the destiny of our buffer zones to develop solutions and practices to enhance what feeds and nurtures our Biosphere Reserve.


Water Stewardship 2023/2024

By Lucy Kyriacou- Project Manager

Following in conclusion of the Environment Restoration Fund funding in June 2023, we are in the process of applying for grants to fund the next round of our Water Stewardship program. However, we are continuing to support the Water Stewards in our network with their plans and activities through some of the money we gratefully receive through memberships and the public.

For the latest Water Stewardship newsletter, which has information about becoming a Water Steward and the importance of water conservation and sustainable practice for healthy catchments, ecosystems, and biodiversity, as well as a case study to celebrate one of our latest Water Stewards, you can find the newsletter here: Water Stewardship News- 2023.

For more information please contact:

Lance Lloyd – [email protected]

Lucy Kyriacou – [email protected]

Or visit Water Stewardship – Western Port Biosphere

 


The Koala Habitat Restoration Project

By Kelly Smith – Koala Awareness Project officer 

Formally the Tyabb to Tooradin Bio-link, The Koala Habitat Restoration Project is now extended to cover Tyabb ALL the way to Bass. This decision has been made to include the Western Port Woodlands within the projects target area. A recent genetic study by The Western Port Biosphere Foundation discovered 3 koalas of the hugely important Strzelecki genome. It is essential to enhance, protect and preserve koala habitat in order to strengthen their genetic diversity and to allow movement. More habitat = more koalas and more biodiversity of the Woodlands.
 
In addition to this extension of the project area, all landowners who revegetate their properties in 2024, will receive two free entry tickets to Moonlit sanctuary plus 2 free Koala encounters, valued at $108. We thank our partners Moonlit Sanctuary for their generous support.
Connect with Kelly to register or find out more about this project: [email protected]

Planning for the future of Blue Carbon ecosystems across the Western Port region

In a significant stride toward environmental preservation and climate action, the Western Port Biosphere Foundation received $700,000 in funding from the Department of Energy, Environment, and Climate Action for Blue Carbon ecosystem preservation. An additional $500,000 is allocated for a collaborative project with the Bunurong Land Council and the Bushbank Team to protect coastal wetlands.

With an impressive 24% of Victoria’s coastal wetlands situated within the Western Port UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, this region holds immense potential in the fight against climate change. Its wealth of carbon-absorbing marine habitats, including mangroves, tidal and salt marshes, and seagrasses, forms the foundation of highly productive coastal ecosystems. These ecosystems play a pivotal role in storing carbon within plants and sediments, positioning them as integral components of nature-based solutions to climate change.

Building on the success of the Blue Carbon Opportunities mapping project undertaken by the Foundation in collaboration with the Blue Carbon Lab in 2022/23. The project aims to forge stronger connections with stakeholders around Western Port, design comprehensive management plans for the protection and restoration of blue carbon sites and execute on-ground initiatives and monitoring efforts across the bay.

All aboard- Ben Cleveland and attendees

Utilising historical data and spatial mapping, the Blue Carbon Lab mapping project determined the distribution of blue carbon habitats across Western Port, tracking changes and losses over time due to human impact. A crucial milestone in the ongoing project was the second Stakeholder Working Group meeting held on November 23rd during the Tidemaster Cruise in Tooradin. The event brought together stakeholders and blue carbon experts from around Western Port, providing an opportunity to visit the coastline of French Island and explore the seagrass meadows of Western Port.

Andy from OzFish and underwater imagery from the UROV

Key to the success of this groundbreaking initiative is the collaborative effort between stakeholders and experts across Western Port. By working collectively, the aim is to identify the most valuable sites for management plans, on-ground works, and monitoring. The recent cruise featured updates from the Blue Carbon Lab, Seagrass Partnership (Ian Stevenson and Hugh Kirkman) and insights from Ben Cleveland of Cardium Marine along with Adrian Flynn of Fathom Pacific. Attendees were treated to Andy Foudoulis of OzFish, who used an underwater remotely operated vehicle (UROV) to explore the seagrass meadows of Western Port.

Dr Hugh Kirkman of Seagrass Partnership

The Western Port Biosphere Foundation’s commitment to environmental stewardship and climate resilience shines through this project, marking a crucial step toward the sustainable protection of blue carbon ecosystems. As these efforts unfold, the Western Port region stands as a beacon of collaborative environmental action, showcasing the power of partnership in tackling climate change.

 


Healing Water Country Project

 

The Western Port Biosphere Foundation and Willum Warrain are thrilled to announce the completion of the first phase of our Healing Water Country Project.

This initiative aims to establish a biolink along the water course between Willum Warrain’s pun pun (wetlands) and the Warrangine.

In collaboration with Willum Warrain, the project emerged from conversations in early 2021, fostering a partnership to design, plan, and implement a project supporting the conservation of the local waterway. The goal is to transform it into a thriving habitat corridor, contributing to ongoing conservation efforts.

Funding from Esso’s Community Engagement and Partnership Program, aligned with UNESCO’s vision for Biosphere Reserves, has been instrumental in kickstarting this transformative venture. The first phase, supported by Mornington Peninsula Shire Council, involved weed removal and native plantings. Community involvement has been paramount, with input from Willum Warrain members and supporters shaping the project’s design. This collaborative effort ensures engagement and ongoing support for the restoration and protection of our environment.

A recent milestone meeting at the Healing Water Country site brought together representatives from Willum Warrain, Western Port Biosphere Foundation, Esso Australia, and Mornington Peninsula Shire’s Natural Systems team. The occasion was marked by a smoking ceremony led by Uncle Alvin Rajkovic, accompanied by beautiful artwork from Willum Warrain artists Sammy Trist and Bree Webster.

As we celebrate this achievement, we eagerly anticipate the future stages of the Healing Water Country Project, grounded in the principles of community, connection, and conservation. Together, we’re creating community, connection and conservation.

Read more about this project here

 

 

 

 


AGM and 20th Anniversary Celebrations

 

We held our Annual General Meeting and 20th Anniversary Celebrations on Wednesday 29th November at the Hastings Club. At the AGM we had the opportunity to highlight our impact during the 2022-23 financial year, our focus for the future and share key elements of our new Strategic Plan. We heard from Chair Jo McCoy, Treasurer Geoff Brooks, CEO Mel Barker and team members Lucy Kyriacou, Glenn Brooks-MacMillan and Jess Brady.

You can read our new Strategic Plan here.  To read more our work during 2022-23, our inaugural Impact Report and Financial Statements are available here.

The 20th Anniversary Celebration’s began with a beautiful Welcome to Country from Jillian West. Jillian is a proud Palawa woman from the Islands of Bass Strait and Proud Bunurong woman from Point Nepean.  She was born in Victoria and has had a lengthy career supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in work, education, and support in their life journey – we thank Jill for her generous Welcome.

Amy Campion from Hastings Bendigo Bank then spoke about the power of community investment. Guest speakers on the evening included Rob Gell AM, the inaugural Biosphere Foundation Chair, and Dr Gillian Sparkes AM, Victoria’s Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability.  You can read Rob Gell AM report here. Find Dr Gillian Sparks AM report here.

We heard from Uncle Peter Aldenhoven, CEO at Willum Warrain Aboriginal Corporation who joined a panel alongside Rob, Gillian and Mel, speaking to the current operations and future challenges for the Reserve and the Foundation.

We were so grateful for all those who attended the evening, and for the many people that have shaped the Foundation from its inception in 2003. It was a great evening, with many stories shared of times gone by, as well as conversations about securing the future of this unique and special place. 

             

We would like to thank Hastings Bendigo Bank for their generous sponsorship through their Community investment program which enabled the event.