Saving The Reef (by navigating Government) by Phil Colman

My name is Phil Colman and I am a retired marine biologist. During my career I worked for many years at the Australian Museum in the Malacology (or Shell) department. I am also a resident of Warringah Council and have lived in the area my whole life. You could say that I am very much an engaged citizen when it comes to my local area, especially in regards to environmental issues.

Back in 1980, I was one of a group of local residents and scientists (lead by the esteemed Australian marine biologist Isabel Bennett AO) who campaigned to have 76 hectares of a coastal reef just north of Dee Why (NSW), made into an aquatic reserve. As an aquatic reserve the area would be protected by State Legislation, much like a National Park is. It was very important for this foreshore to be protected because it is one of the most extreme bio-diverse intertidal platform on the coast of Australia (an intertidal platform is an area that is above water at low tide and below water at high tide). It is also used by many universities and institutions for environmental education purposes and quite uniquely situated, being just 15km from the biggest city in Australia, Sydney.

The campaign to have the area made into an aquatic reserve lasted many years as new legislation had to be passed through State and Local levels of government. Thankfully it was successful and this area is now known as Long Reef Aquatic Reserve. It was the first aquatic reserve in NSW.

As an Aquatic Reserve the area now has State laws that protect it. Because the reserve is part sea and part land, it is governed by two different State authorities. The first is the State branch of the National Parks and Wildlife Services. The second is  Fisheries. The former with powers above high water mark and the latter below. This means that Fisheries rangers as well as State park rangers can police the area, enforcing the laws of this particular aquatic reserve.

Image courtesy of Brett Pearson

As an aquatic reserve, Long Reef falls under the Fisheries Management Act 1994. Each aquatic reserve has their own legislation enforcing different levels of protection depending on the fragility of that particular area. For example, at Long Reef you can’t take your dog there. You can’t collect, destroy, disturb any marine life, dead or alive (such as seaweed, shells etc) except fin fish (which you may only fish by line or spear, but you have to bring your own bait in.) If you are caught doing any of those things you will be issued with a fine for breaking the law.

As Long Reef is a relatively small area when compared to most other State governed National Parks, it is not feasible for it to be managed by a dedicated team of National Parks & Wildlife rangers. Therefore, whilst it is under State legislation, the management of the area goes to the Local Council, with Local Council rangers given the power to enforce the State laws of the reserve. However, these same Council rangers have many other responsibilities in the municipality of Warringah Council, such as keeping the peace in parks or beaches, controlling dogs, making sure building sites are kept in safe condition and don’t cause local pollution, parking infringements, etc.

As a result of this, it is impossible for the laws of Long Reef Aquatic Reserve to be policed around the clock and poaching of shellfish has become a problem. I personally have seen poachers many times and have rung the council each time, but only occasionally have rangers been in the nearby area and been able to respond to my call fast enough. The only solution I can think of to stop poachers in the future, is for the council to employ more rangers. Even one or two would make a big difference.

Back in May 2012, I arranged to meet with the Mayor of Warringah council, Mayor Regan, as this is the Council that manages Long Reef Aquatic Reserve and I hoped that by speaking with the Mayor he might be able to employ some more Council rangers to patrol the area.

A good mayor is one that responds to community concerns and Mayor Regan is a good mayor. He listens! He came out to Long Reef for a brief visit. Just enough time for me to explain the full extent of the environmental issue, that shellfish are an important link in the aquatic food chain and poaching of them could have long lasting effects on the environment. I told him of the many times I have seen poachers in the area over the years and that out of all those times I have only occasionally seen a group of poachers caught, which clearly is not enough of a deterrent to stop poachers and therefore more rangers need to be employed. The Mayor turned out to have a sympathetic ear to environmental issues, but like any mayor, Mayor Regan can’t just wave a magic wand and fix things on his own. He has to go through the proper Council processes to resolve a community problem like this.

After speaking to a member of the community about an issue, the Mayor would then speak to various other councilors to find out what their opinion on the matter might be and encourage them to play a part in the decision making process at the next Council meeting. Then at the meeting, the Mayor would raise the issue as a minute so that the Councillors could discuss and debate possible solutions. At the end of the discussion each Councilor has to vote either for or against the proposal until there is a majority of votes and a resolution reached.

Along with the Council’s General Manager, the Mayor is responsible for making sure that the Council’s budget is managed efficiently. So at some point in this process the Mayor would meet with the General Manager and see if the Council can afford the new expense of another ranger. As a ranger’s annual salary is about $50, 000, this is a significant increase in expenditure and might be something that would have to go into the next financial year’s budget estimates. When I spoke to the Mayor about needing more rangers, I didn’t expect it would be something he could resolve immediately. If I had a more minor concern – like increasing the frequency of lawn mowing in a park (which might only mean an extra $50 a week) I would expect that the Council might be able to respond to this quicker. Each issue is treated differently depending on the amount of community interest it has and what the costs involved are.

If there are enough members of the community with the same interest and opinion on an issue it is best to form a community interest group, such as was done in 1980 which resulted in making Long Reef an aquatic reserve. Only one person asking for something to be done is usually not enough of a reason for the Council to invest Council resources resolving the issue. Media interest can also make sure that the council pays attention. Thankfully, the poaching issue at Long Reef has received a good deal of media.

If you want to find out more about Long Reef and its marine and plant life, click here for booklet published by Warringah Council.