I was a child of the 50s when a kid’s summer holidays meant camping on one of the prime beaches at the Gold Coast – a place where these days you wouldn’t get near to pitch a tent. This has meant I’ve always had an affinity for the coast and sea.
This led me to doing a science degree around water quality. That’s the thing that interested me the most. I could see a deterioration happening in our waterways and I could see a lot of distress in our ecosystems due to increasing urban footprints and the economic boom post World War Two.
I was aware there were major hot spots of pollution including from sewage treatment plants. And then coming out of the US was Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and some of those early understandings of the impacts of chemicals on our lifestyles and the environment.
So, it all came together, and that was the start of my journey.
Since then, my entire career has really been about looking at solutions that actually deliver conservation outcomes, as well as sustainability of both lifestyles and livelihoods for all of us who live in this country.
Cairns night survey -circa 1981
Using advocacy and science, the Australian Marine Conservation Society is born
My long-term partner in life has a marine science background, and he and a few colleagues from the University of Queensland started what was then the Queensland Littoral Society. They started working on a combination of science and fish inventory surveys, but also on advocating for improvements in environmental practices.
I joined in with their activities, including the early phases of the Great Barrier Reef campaign.
This kicked off in ‘66 and ‘67 with some applications to mine for limestone on a part of the Great Barrier Reef to provide lime to the local sugarcane industry. We got dragged in, somewhat naively I think, to provide the science advice against that.
Eddie and I led the Littoral Society through the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, but we realised in the end that wasn’t a great brand. No one knew what it meant or what it did, so we eventually changed it to the Australian Marine Conservation Society in the mid-1990s.
Through all that time, our focus was marine and coastal, and we were deeply involved in leading much of the advocacy and lobbying around the Great Barrier Reef. We were also really worried about what was happening about tidal wetlands. We led several early campaigns that involved extensive habitat protection of intertidal areas and stopping the nuclear power plant that was proposed at Jervis Bay, New South Wales in the early 70s.
Very early on, I came to appreciate that if you wanted outcomes on the ground, you needed the good evidence of science alongside very strong advocacy into the public service and politics.
If you have multiple advocates for what you’re proposing, you will always get better outcomes. And this has always been an underlying theme of what I do.
Making the catchment connections for triple bottom-line outcomes
In the ‘80s and ‘90s we had success with some legislation, but we were seeing that there was little understanding of the connectivity between freshwater systems, estuaries, and onshore systems.
I am talking about places like Port Phillip Bay, up here where I live on Moreton Bay in south-east Queensland, the Great Barrier Reef, Spencer Gulf, Peel-Harvey Inlet, Sydney Harbour, and a whole range of environments all around the country. These places are important not just environmentally, but for recreation and economic and commercial outcomes.
Our use of coastal systems was not being effectively managed in part because we didn’t understand that connectivity, and that land-based sources of pollution was compromising the long-term ecological health of important coastal areas.
This is when we started really working around the concept of integrated catchment management, which moved into total water cycle, and looking at the connectivity between land, freshwater, and marine environments.
It’s about understanding the constraints of the receiving environment and working back up in the catchment and looking at the inputs that are causing problems for those receiving environments.
If you can take that approach then you start to see where the solutions need to be, and then it’s working with the technical people to find that solution.
Environment assessment industry emerges with new policy responses
When I look back, I can see that in many ways the entire environmental assessment industry emerged because of the advocacy we were doing in the ‘70s and ‘80s around better environmental management.
Some of the policy responses have included the 1999 EPBC Act (the Environment Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act) and various state and national environmental legislation that emerged starting in the mid ‘70s.
Alluvium’s business in part has been generated because of the lobbying and advocacy work done through the ‘70s and ‘80s and into the ‘90s.
During the 90s, we were really starting to see the emergence of computing power and decision support tools that allowed the information to be drawn together so decision makers—from the private sector, public sector, and the not-for-profits —could see where the solutions might be.
One example of that was zoning plans for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. This was the first step in determining what we can do in a large landscape that’s effectively a multiple use protected area. The first zoning was started in the late 1970s and we were all struggling with the amount of information on the Reef. It’s 2,300 kilometres long and 350,000 square kilometres in total area with 3,000 reefs and 1,000 islands.
Luckily one of our Marine Conservation Society (then Littoral Society) members was one of the early relational computer programmers, and he actually built for us a very early decision support tool called the Great Barrier Reef Inventory. It was a multi-relational database that in the early ‘90s was virtually unheard of. He managed to build it through some work he was doing for the mining industry. We had it as an NGO, and even the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority didn’t have anything like that. In the end, they contracted us to do the database for the entire GBR.
At the same time, I was also involved globally with the IUCN (the International Union for Conservation of Nature), because a lot of our work was looking overseas for examples of how to do things better.
Challenges still exist with land use planning, climate change, and biodiversity loss
Despite seeing some windows of success, Australia still needs to deal with some very big issues. Given the strong development and entrepreneurial spirit in this country, we have never had a fully effective suite of environmental policies. And the exponential growth of social media means it is just so easy for misinformation and miss-speaking to gain traction and credibility than in previous decades.
In an ideal world we would have much stronger land use planning. We could have done a lot better if we’d been more strategic and more willing to commit to good regional planning so we wouldn’t have these constant clashes over proposals that are blatantly not in our long-term interests.
It’s a disappointment that despite early warnings of 50 years ago around climate change and its implications, we’re bogged down in political debates with scepticism about the issues and the solutions, and just downright opposition.
Marine and coastal systems are the proverbial canaries in the cage. We’ve had three extensive coral bleaching events on the Great Barrier Reef within five years; prior to 2016 only two extensive events had been recorded, one in 1998 and then in 2002. The rapidity of ecological change as a result of just a seemingly modest increase in sea surface temperatures and air temperatures foreshadows major challenges.
The biodiversity of this continent has been hugely impacted by feral animals. In the early ‘90s I was involved in developing the first national biodiversity strategy. The loss of species because of the degradation of landscapes and habitats as result of feral animals has left a legacy in this country that’s enormous and very challenging to find solutions.
One exciting thing though that I’m seeing more of is much stronger engagement with First Nations people. And that to me is an emerging highlight. It’s very long overdue, but a really positive change.
Mackay-Whitsunday-Isaacs Healthy Rivers to Reef Partnership 2015
Looking toward a more liveable future that deals with climate change
I think for our industry, including what Alluvium does, the future will be around the liveability of both urban and rural Australia. This will include the long-term prospects for a whole range of agricultural industries, as well as decarbonising our economy and what that looks like. There are going to be some major shifts in our cities unless we’re all just going to live in our airconditioned cubicles.
In terms of extreme weather events, there will need to be a whole suite of measures. On land, that will be around bushfires, both in terms of mitigation and response to bushfires, and the look and feel of communities and infrastructure. We will never have a bushfire-free landscape, but what does a bushfire-ready landscape look like? Similarly, droughts and wet periods will be more extreme, so how does that affect agriculture?
On our coasts, marine and coastal systems are going to look different. Fish species are likely to migrate, and habitats adjust to changing conditions. And depending on where you are it might be advantageous, or it may be very bleak. In my prognosis, places like the Great Barrier Reef are going to be a much simpler, less complex systems, and probably nowhere near as pretty as they are now.
And then there’s the measures in response to habitat changes and sea levels rise. We’ve already seen a coastal squeeze for intertidal habitats, so salt marshes and mangrove areas in our urbanised landscapes are going to be squeezed as the seas come in. What does that mean for a whole range pf biodiversity that’s linked to those systems like shorebirds?
For Alluvium and its work, this is where I think restoration ecology will be important for responding to those big drivers of change in the landscape. The Alluvium group of companies is where the new ideas must start to emerge and come into practice.
There’s going to need to be a whole lot of applied R&D in the business of landscape restoration and water resource planning. This means understanding all the climate change impacts and what they mean for the regions and the people living and working in those landscapes.
One thing we’ve been thinking about at the (Alluvium) board level is collaborative networks and outreach. There are many people in Alluvium that have incredibly wide and well-respected networks. A lot of the big picture ideas and solutions are going to come through a consortium of interested parties rather than through the more traditional individual jobs that we do.
Good policy and management outcomes are driven from a triple bottom line collaborative approach supported by a strong science background.
My experience has shown that there will always be points of dispute and outright opposition to any range of initiatives. But the more you can get a consensus and collaboration beginning with sharing knowledge, then the better the outcomes overall. That to me is the magic mix.