[via Sydney Morning Herald April 14, 2012] In the early light of morning, I back the dinghy into the water, jerk it free of the trailer and leave my father holding the painter while I park the vehicle against the dune. As I walk to the water’s edge I see the bait truck rolling onto the jetty a few metres away beneath a haze of gulls. Out at the edge of the lagoon, a cray boat steams in through the passage in the reef.
The old man has the outboard running, but he’s still standing in the shallows. He’s over 80 now and climbing aboard isn’t the simple matter it once was. We get him in, one stiff leg at a time, and before I can leap in after him there’s a swirl and a huff behind me as one of the local dolphins surfaces an arm’s length away. It sidles in, cocks an eye at me, and familiarity being what it is, I haul myself aboard without a backward glance. The dolphin drifts alongside, rises on its tail, and lets off a few shameless squeaks, but I’m immune to all entreaties. Still, before I can put the motor into gear it leans its scarred head into the boat and tries one last time to charm its way into a free feed. “Go on, you lazy bugger,” I say. “Get your own.” As we get under way, the dolphin shadows us, jumps, flashes ahead to ride the bow wave. But none of the old moves pay off and eventually it peels away to join the others rounding up herring in a pack along the bay.
We skate across the lagoon with its mottled seagrass pastures and anchor in a sandy channel to fish for whiting. “How many are we allowed these days?” asks the old man. “Thirty,” I say. “Only 30?” “Dad, 30’s still a good feed.” He shrugs. I guess things seemed better, freer in the old days. As kids in the ’30s and ’40s, he and his siblings caught crays and herring and silver trevally from the shore. They collected their own maggots for bait and humped their catch home in hessian sacks. Sometimes, as the stories have it, they caught more than they could carry. Back when there was so much more coast than there were people living on it, the sea was livid with fish. “I s’pose 30’ll do,” he says. I cut bait and look out over the water, the hulking white dunes, and the low roofs of the hamlet in the narrow margin between them.
The good old days may be long gone, yet here we are, as ever, launching a boat from the beach in a quiet bay, under cloudless skies, bobbing on clean water. In an hour we’ll have enough sweet-tasting fish to feed two households. Not so long ago we’d have fished until we ran out of room in the Esky. Now, thank God, 30 whiting will do. Since I was a teenager, when I first began to write stories for a living, I’ve stayed close to the wild shores of Western Australia where desert meets sea. The littoral – that peculiar zone of overlap and influx – continues to sustain my spirit and fuel my work. In the early 1990s I wrote a little memoir called Land’s Edge, to describe the coastal existence I was clinging to and the natural world that inspired me. Back then I was the father of young children. I loved introducing my kids to the lifestyle I knew as a boy and which my parents and grandparents had enjoyed before me. We lived in a fishing community of 600 people. The school was over the road, the beach was a block away and dunes towered over everything, strange and changeable as the sea itself. In many ways the conditions of our life together as a family were very modest, but I’d lived in Europe and seen just how constrained a prosperous life could be.
So I was conscious of how privileged our coastal existence was. Every day as a matter of course we did what other folks did on their holidays: we pulled craypots before breakfast, snorkelled with sea lions in the lagoon, and bombed off the jetty at sunset. We surfed uncrowded waves and caught our own food – squid, crays, abalone, 10 kinds of fish. I was lucky and my kids were lucky because we inherited a living ocean. We did nothing to earn it; it was simply passed down to us, and for that gift I will always be grateful. This summer just gone I took my granddaughter into the sea for the first time. She wasn’t walking then, so she clung on like a barnacle as I waded in with her.
It was lovely to feel her shudder with the strangeness of all those competing stimuli – the surges of current and light and noise, the spill of waves across her delicate skin. What a thrill it is for a sun-damaged old beachcomber to initiate another generation, to feel that I’m passing on a kind of saltwater birthright – a healthy sea. Yet only a fool could suggest this little girl’s coastal inheritance is secure. It’s no longer controversial to say the world’s oceans are in peril; it’s been the consensus view among scientists for a long time. Many great fisheries have collapsed. Ninety per cent of the biggest pelagic fishes are gone. Coral reefs are in strife.
Land-clearing and rapid coastal development have put insupportable pressures on many marine ecosystems, and as terrestrial sources of mineral wealth are exhausted, the oceans become the new frontier. The world’s population has exploded and all the fishing, drilling, building and dumping is catching up with us. Even before we consider the prospect of acidification from global warming, we’re headed toward a situation where the oceans can no longer tolerate what humans dish out. Hunting and gathering are in my blood. Fishing is an integral part of my family culture. I have lived most of my life in communities where most people either fish for a living or fish to simply feel alive. But I’ve also lived long enough to witness a diminution in the seas, and to notice a fragility where once I saw – or assumed – an endless bounty. I was slow to comprehend all this; the image of the slowly boiling frog fits me perfectly. In the ’90s I got used to diving longer and deeper to find abalone where, not long before, getting my quota had been easy work.
Prize species of fish became locally scarce, and all around me boats got bigger as recreational fishers ventured further and further out to sea to catch a feed. You didn’t need to be any sort of boffin to know something was wrong; every time you donned a mask and fins the evidence was right in front of your face: there it was – more and more of less. And I wasn’t merely a witness. I was a part of the equation. As was every person I knew. The worst of what was happening at sea was not happening in my backyard. By world standards, what I was seeing was relatively mild. Europe and Asia had dead zones already. In the Pacific, plastic gyres the size of cities were beginning to appear.
Some of history’s most catastrophic oil spills dominated the news. Just as these disasters had once been conveniently obscured by distance, the wider problems facing our marine environment were suddenly no longer over the horizon. We needed to change our behaviour, to reduce our consumption and set aside areas of sanctuary for regeneration. It was this slow realisation, the recognition of trouble at home and the science pointing to much larger strife abroad, that drove me to activism. But I was, to say the least, an unlikely recruit.
To the battle-scarred Birkenstockers of the movement I was a redneck. Actual rednecks, on the other hand – friends and neighbours, some of them – thought I’d lost my mind. The people I came to meet in the conservation movement seemed pretty representative of suburban Australia. Any church or footy club has the same ratio of hard nuts and oddballs. By and large, especially in the realm of marine conservation, they’re firmly in the mainstream. Year by year, oceans claim more of the middle ground in the public imagination, and 2012 is set to be a defining year in this regard. The first powerful evidence of this mainstreaming was the campaign to save Ningaloo Reef in WA in the early 2000s. It was also the first time I found myself in a sustained role as a public advocate.
Our longest fringing coral reef, Ningaloo hugs the shore for 260 kilometres at the continent’s western edge and thanks to the annual appearance of the ocean’s biggest fish, the whale shark, it’s become one of the world’s great eco-tourism destinations. At Ningaloo, with the red gorges of the Cape Range just inshore, you can encounter whale sharks, humpbacks, manta rays, turtles and dugongs in the same day. The reef is so close that at many points you only need to step from the beach and you’re in it. The first time I swam with a whale shark, I thought my heart would burst. I never tire of seeing the looks on people’s faces as they climb back into the boat. They’ve seen something miraculous, something a human cannot build or simulate, a creature to be confounded by. Ningaloo is a special place, but being so close to shore, it’s vulnerable to human impacts. Its only historic defence has been its remoteness.
Just as the reef was “discovered” and a sustainable eco-tourism industry became established, a business syndicate began planning a luxury resort midway down the reef. It was a development in the old white-shoe tradition featuring a huge marina and golf course, a massive imposition on the landscape where the desert meets the coral. The dredging and blasting in the construction phase would have been a disaster, but the long-term intrusion into the inshore habitats of whales, turtles, mantas and sharks was worse. In an area eligible for World Heritage status, the resort proposal was completely incompatible with its environment. Yet the plan had great support in state parliament and many boosters in the WA media, so the odds of halting or even modifying it seemed remote. In 1997 I published a little book called Blueback in which an old woman and her son fight off a development juggernaut. It was a only a fable but there were times during the Ningaloo campaign when I felt I was inhabiting a grisly and far less wishful version of the same story, that it was a tale I might never escape.
For there I was, all of a sudden, a reclusive lone dog with no political experience, forced by circumstance to be not just part of a team, but one of its most visible players. Speeches, cameras, high jinks of every cringeworthy sort. During the battle for the reef I learnt a lot about how power works and where it resides in our culture. How the media operate, how hard and long money will talk. But also how much Australians love their country, what real patriotism is. It was a couple of years that often seemed to be going to waste, but which I’m glad I endured, and in that period, although I did make a few powerful enemies, I found many more friends and comrades. Thousands and thousands of people spoke up for the reef.
They rallied, they marched, they wrote letters to government. These were citizens of all stripes; they were not a fringe element. And having declared itself, this new mainstream prevailed. In 2003, in a move that defined his government, WA premier Geoff Gallop knocked back the resort proposal and rewrote the laws for coastal planning in WA so that inappropriate development was discouraged, not wooed as it had been previously. The marine park was enhanced so that a decent percentage of reef was off limits to drilling and fishing. Last year, the Ningaloo Coast was finally added to the World Heritage List. Since that momentous campaign, I have tried to return to the reclusive life I enjoyed before, but one contest quickly segues into another and I find myself more or less permanently enmeshed, as if I never will climb out of that little book.
But I still go to the water every day to surf, wet a line, set my craypots. I’m not the gung-ho fisher I once was, yet whether it’s a few squid, a quick snorkel or a sunstruck idea at the jetty, I’m still feeding off the ocean in every possible sense and I owe it a debt. Over time it’s been heartening to feel the shift in how Australians consider their marine environment and it’s exciting to have been a small part of this sea change in our culture.
In a few weeks the Australian government is expected to announce a chain of marine parks from the Southern Ocean to the Coral Sea. Just as our forebears set aside terrestrial reserves for respite and study, for non-extractive recreation and as a form of prudent planning for future generations, marine parks are mooted to preserve representative ecosystems, iconic habitats and vulnerable areas.
The initiative is broadly popular. Polling suggests an overwhelming majority of Australians support the establishment of marine parks, so it’s not a plan that should polarise citizens. Again, the scientific consensus is substantial. It’s not a matter of fisheries management; it’s about the preservation of ecosystems. The Gillard government has a massive opportunity to create an enduring legacy.
It also has a chance to distinguish itself politically, to define itself in a polity obsessed with reactive, short-term twitches and fixes. This is a moment for the future, so you expect to hear the voices of the past rail a while. You can still meet the odd geezer whining that he can’t shoot roos in a national park. Sixty years ago there were more of them. And in 60 more you’ll doubtless find anglers who cannot accept that some bits of the ocean are for fish and not fishing, but there probably won’t be many. Most recreational fishers are philosophical about marine parks.
Most of them are people with a sense of justice and proportion. When they see that most coastal waters will remain open to fishing, they can’t see what the fuss is about. There will, however, be commercial casualties in this process and it’s vital that affected fishing operators are bought out on just terms with dignity. Government must ensure it finds the will and funds to achieve this.
And it has to show a bit of courage in taking on some of the bigger vested interests at sea, not just industrial fishing but the big players of oil, gas and coal whose activities can hardly be said to be without serious impact on the marine environment, as recent explosions and horrific spills have shown both here and abroad.
Few Australians have any idea how much territory is locked up in oil and gas tenements off WA, for instance. They encircle every iconic coral reef from Ningaloo to the Montebello Islands, from the Pilbara to the precious Rowley Shoals. The public is only just beginning to see the threat the Queensland coal industry poses to the future of the Great Barrier Reef as port expansions explode.
Environment Minister Tony Burke has hard decisions to make about how much habitat he reserves inshore on the continental shelf – where fishing pressures are most extreme and where most Australians interact with their marine environment – and how much territory he’s brave enough to deny short-term industrial interests. There’s already an emerging emphasis on reserving abyssal waters at the expense of the contested grounds closer to shore, as if the low-hanging fruit of large offshore zones might make up for how little protection our inshore waters will be afforded – a case of Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Width.
My instinct is that Tony Burke genuinely cares about the outcome. My hope is that he’ll resist the urge to fudge. At such a prosperous moment in our history, with so much more at stake for the Australian people than the next political cycle, the boundaries the minister sets may not simply speak to the character of the Gillard government but to the kind of legacy my granddaughter and her kids will meet after he and the government and I are gone.
Now and then, when things get bleak and it feels as if nothing really changes, I think of a hole I once swam in at the Montebello Islands, north of Ningaloo. It’s a crater, a kilometre across, left by a British nuclear bomb in 1952. A strange place to go for a snorkel, I know. Not much to see down there but glassy sand and weird, white worms. Only a few years before I was born, this wanton destruction seemed necessary.
To secure world peace there was an urgent need to blow islands from the sea and to irradiate entire ecosystems. Today the Montebellos are nature reserves. Their coral reefs teem with dugongs, whales and spangled emperors; parcels of them are sanctuary zones that should be extended. But the shift of mindset, the cultural sea change required to get from bombing to preserving – all in the span of a single lifetime – is immense. People do change – individuals, families, nations – and the pace of transformation need not be geological.
It seems odd to say that a swim in a radioactive hole can be restorative, that it can engender hope, but that’s how it felt, and I suppose it’s indicative of just how unlikely my journey has been – which is only as unlikely as the place that made me. Author of 22 books, Tim Winton is the patron of the Australian Marine Conservation Society.