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Roebuck Bay Working Group in action

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Kandy Curran, the Roebuck Bay Working Group Project Coordinator, believes that Roebuck Bay, on the shores of the rapidly growing town of Broome, is a wetland wonder in urgent need of management, protection and scientific study to understand its complex ecology and fill in gaps of baseline information necessary for effective management into the future.     
Yawuru, the Traditional Owners of Roebuck Bay, secured an historic native title claim in 2008. As a result Yawuru are now working with the Department of Environment and Conservation to develop a draft plan for a marine park in Roebuck Bay. This is a great opportunity to recognise the full suite of cultural and environmental values in the Bay. There are few wetlands like Roebuck Bay. Coincidences of geography, history and especially large tides that rush out at speeds up to 20 cubic metres per second on an outgoing tide, expose almost half the Bay, or about 190km2 of mudflats. These extraordinary mudflats are recognised as some of the most productive in the world, supporting an extraordinarily rich benthic invertebrate community. These mudflat-dwelling critters in turn support support one of the largest aggregations of shorebirds found anywhere in the southern hemisphere.

Exceptionally beautiful Roebuck Bay with its high biodiversity and international listing as a Ramsar site, confirms its reputation as one of the wetland wonders of the world @ Rod Hartvigsen, Murranji Photography.    

Much of the Bay is Ramsar-listed, largely due to its international importance for migratory shorebirds. The values of the Bay extend beyond birds however - the soft coastal mudflats, creeks, estuaries, mangrove forests and seagrass meadows support marine species of high conservation significance. These include dugong and a number of dolphin, turtle and sawfish species. Humpback whales are also seen in the Bay on their northern migration to calving grounds further along the Kimberley coast. There are three dolphin species known to inhabit the Bay, including Australia’s only endemic dolphin, the Australian snubfin dolphin (Orcaella heinsohni).

Roebuck Bay is a ‘hotspot’ of concentration for the endemic snubfin dolphin, with 154 animals identified in Roebuck Bay. © Deb Thiele, 2009.

This is the first new dolphin species to be recognised worldwide in over 50 years (Beasley et al. 2005). Other dolphin species are in decline throughout much of their range in coastal Asia due to a range of threats. Remarkably, the largest known population of this EPBC-listed Australian species is found in Roebuck Bay – 154 individuals recorded to date (Thiele 2010). The extensive mangrove communities (‘mangals’) lining its shores act as an important nursery area for prawns, mud crabs and fish (RBWG 2011). Moreover the seagrass meadows, which are an important storehouse of carbon, provide food for turtles and dugongs, protect young fish and stabilise the coastline.

The Broome Community Seagrass Monitoring Project conducts scientific monitoring of Roebuck Bay’s seagrass meadows and the presence of Lyngbya (which smothers seagrass), to map the health status of seagrass over time and providing data for improved coastal management. © Fiona Bishop, 2009. 
The Roebuck Bay Working Group formed in 2004 and has been involved in developing management plans for the Bay, something that is urgently needed with Broome’s rapid development. Each wet season now sees Lyngbya (or blue-green algae) spreading in the Bay, so a focus on water quality is a priority. There was once an abattoir on the edge of the Bay discharging effluent and there still is a waste water treatment plant which has in the past overflowed into the Bay during cyclonic conditions.

The drainage structure in Broome also contributes to the inflow of nutrients from the town site, with older drains narrow, eroded, weed infested and without structures to slow down the flow of nutrients and sediments going into the Bay. The Roebuck Bay Working Group has initiated a campaign, Keep Our Bay Clean. Using bookmarks, stickers, tattoos, fridge magnets, displays and letters addressing all the possible sources of nutrient inflows, the campaign provides useful information and tips, especially around the use of fertilisers and prevention of pollution from entering the town’s drains.

Planting a native garden, for instance, foregoes the need for fertiliser, lowering polluting run-off into the Bay. Businesses, the Shire and schools that have large areas of lawn, are being surveyed on fertiliser use as the blue-green algae thrives on the nutrient-rich run off and smothers seagrass causing a massive die off. With 53 members, the Roebuck Bay Working Group together with the Traditional Owners or Roebuck Bay, the Yawuru people, has successfully included all of the stakeholders in the area, from environmentalists and government to industries such as fishing, pearling, shipping and tourism. The group has made presentations to the Marine Parks Reserve Authority and Science and Conservation Strategy on the need for marine park status, has written to the National Heritage Council advocating for National Heritage Listing of the Ramsar site as well as writing to scientists to consider the Bay as the site for research.

2009/10 outbreak of Lyngbya on the northern shores Roebuck Bay was the most severe with large swaths on the inter-tidal mudflats, in the waves at high tide and in thick drying mats left by the receding tide. © Chris Hassell, 2009.     
Given that the Roebuck Bay wetlands are internationally recognised as a Ramsar site, there seems little doubt that protection is urgently needed. A cultural management plan is being developed by the local Yawuru people, an important step in the marine planning process for a marine park. They have also negotiated large tracts of coastal land fringing Roebuck Bay to be set aside as Coastal Conservation Estates and looked after by their own indigenous rangers. The Roebuck Bay Working Group won a state Coastal Award in 2007 for its community efforts, a tribute to their passion and diligence in developing management plans and educating the whole community about the importance of caring for Roebuck Bay. To further its reach, the Roebuck Bay Working Group has established a website (www.roebuckbay.org.au) with information about Roebuck Bay, its flora and fauna, the Lyngbya problem, as well as ways to help reduce nutrients from your home or business, and how to volunteer for various research activities underway, such as monitoring of seagrass, turtles, benthos and shorebirds.

Despite all this activity, efforts to understand the scientific importance of Roebuck Bay are still only in the early stages. There is no scientific understanding of ocean water circulation and tidal flushing, what triggers Lyngbya blooms or longitudinal scientific studies to understand the effects of developments, such as the proposed gas hub at James Price Point on the western side of the Dampier Peninsula and less than 40kms from Broome. The likely impacts from a proposed gas hub at James Price Point to the marine ecosystem include ongoing turbidity and sedimentation generated by the extensive dredging of a channel, for port facilities, reclamation, pipeline and optic fibre cable laying, and dredge spoil disposal in an area of exceptionally high tidal movements. The proposed channel dredging is likely to be a continuous requirement.

James Price Point is the proposed site of an LNG industrial hub. @ Rod Hartvigsen, Murranji Photography.        

The waters from Cable Beach to Camden Sound are whale breeding and calving grounds for Humpback whales, dugongs, turtles and dolphins that feed on seagrass beds at the site are also likely to be impacted. An oil or gas spill at the proposed gas refineries 40 kms north of Broome is of great concern as the pollutants could spread along the coast very quickly. It is important, then, that the Roebuck Bay Working Group is vigilant on Bay watch.

Kandy Curran was interviewed for A Question of Balance by Ruby Vincent. Images supplied by Kandy Curran and individual authorship is stated. Summary text prepared by Victor Barry, August 2011

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