When reports surfaced recently of lesions on flathead caught in Port Phillip Bay, alarm bells rang yet again for the health of the bay. As Melbourne’s recreational playground, signs of a sick Port Phillip Bay are a big issue for millions of people - and the marine life that depends on a healthy bay.
With the Port of Melbourne’s channel deepening project due to begin within weeks, the bay’s health is set to get a lot worse.
Dredging toxic sediment from the north of the bay, the legacy of years of industrial pollution of the Yarra River, then dumping it back into the bay, is hardly a cure for the bay’s ills.
Digging up the rocks at The Heads, the site of unique sponge gardens, will not improve the bay’s health. It is difficult to predict precisely what impact the associated increase in tidal flows will have on wetlands, beaches and coastal infrastructure, but it is certain to add to the pressures already being felt by coastal development and climate change.
Spurting sediments out the back of a very large dredge could significantly reduce light to seagrass meadows, the nurseries for commercial and recreational fish, and undermine the economic viability of the bay’s fishing industry.
The cumulative effect of these and other likely impacts could see the bay’s vital signs flatline. Maintaining Port Phillip Bay’s health should be more about prevention than cure, but our planning and management frameworks are ad hoc, disintegrated and narrow. What is needed is a far stronger set of environmental laws that have marine protection and sustainable marine planning, management and use as their main purpose.
If our environmental laws were better, projects like channel deepening would be more vigorously and rigorously assessed and monitored against a broader set of principles and objectives that considered all values, uses and users.
Over the past 200 years, Australia’s oceans laws have developed into a patchwork of statutory and regulatory measures attempting to manage the activities of particular sectors such as fishing, shipping and the gas and oil industries as they have emerged.
This patchwork is inadequate for resolving many marine problems - overfishing, climate change, habitat loss and damage, water pollution, introduced pests - that demand an integrated and national response.
An Australian Oceans Act would provide a better foundation and process for integrated, ecosystem-based regional marine planning and protection across State and Commonwealth waters. It would also provide transparency, consistency, certainty and security for the community and industries that rely on healthy oceans - like commercial fishing and tourism - and drive improvements in other laws.
One of those laws is the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, (EPBC Act), which is in urgent need of an overhaul because it is not protecting Australia’s irreplaceable wildlife and ecosystems.
When Federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett assessed channel deepening under its provisions, he probably saw his options were limited. However, to protect the bay’s marine life from the project’s worst impacts, and help satisfy our international biodiversity obligations, he could have more comprehensively utilised the Act’s provisions and set more stringent conditions for use in the environment management plan.
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