Roebuck Bay Marine Sanctuary Offers Many Benefits

Opinion Piece printed in The West Australian on 19th August 2014


At the last election Premier Barnett re-iterated his promise that the Government would create a series of marine parks to preserve and protect the “spectacular and pristine” Kimberley region, which he described as, Australia’s great wilderness frontier. The stage is now set for the Government to demonstrate its resolve to protect this region in a meaningful way for future generations.

Roebuck Bay is the gateway to the Kimberley and it is here that the Government is being urged to act next. In recent months a flurry of activity in Broome has led a large number of scientists, fishers and tourism businesses to write to the Premier supporting the Roebuck Bay marine park, but also to ensure the Bay is properly protected.

I first started fishing Roebuck Bay in 1979 as a kid. We caught Threadfin Salmon hand over fist off Broome’s Town Beach, using rusty hooks and rotten bait. It was exhilarating and somewhat smelly, but locked in my lifelong love of fishing. This experience is now long gone, however the Bay remains relatively healthy. And spectacular. To sit on Town Beach today, watching the massive ten metre tide roll in across the mudflats is to enjoy a visual feast, black schools of bait-fish jumping from the water to escape marauding Salmon and Barramundi, hundreds of thousands of migratory sea birds, turtles and dugong, pods of Australia’s rare dolphin, the Snubfin, cruise for a feed or play with the Bottlenose Dolphins who share the Bay. Roebuck Bay is on the National Heritage Register, is listed under the RAMSAR convention and has the fourth largest bird observatory in the world! It is a spectacle of an abundance of life, now rare in the modern world.

But this abundance is increasingly threatened. Studies by two separate universities have shown that the population of Snubfin Dolphins has declined from around 161 in 2010, to 137 in recent surveys. Genetic evidence that is to be published soon, will further suggest that the Roebuck Bay Snubfin Dolphins are a subpopulation, not migrating and rarely inter-breeding with others, and would thus qualify for listing as “endangered” under the guidelines of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. They are true Roebuck locals, oozing with character, and have developed their very own spit-fishing technique, squirting a powerful stream of water at bait fish, tricking them to jump right into their open mouths!

Recently, the Government made a first step towards helping Roebuck Bay by buying out the commercial gillnet fishery that was a key suspect in the decline of Barramundi, Threadfin Salmon and Snubfin Dolphins. This was rightly lauded by the community. But there is a danger in complacency. It is only a first step and as Broome’s population grows and development expands, pressure continues to mount. A marine sanctuary is vital to a healthy future for the Bay, and to ensure there are plenty of fish for both fishermen and dolphins to share.

A sanctuary zone would be most effective on the isolated eastern shores of the Bay, simply because this area is a huge nursery, densely forested by mangroves and lies adjacent to the vast Roebuck Plains. Every wet season enormous volumes of nutrient-rich freshwater floods off the Plains into the Bay. This sparks the explosion of life and fuels the immense bait-fish schools that wash out to sea, feeding everything from Barramundi in the creeks to the offshore packs of Sailfish. Protection of this area guarantees that the ecological powerhouse of the Bay continues to function at full throttle.

A marine sanctuary would also boost the local economy. As a local Broome business owner, I have experienced first-hand, the importance of promotion in Perth. In 2011, a rave review from The West’s Rob Broadfield led to a flood of visitors from Perth to my restaurant and kept me booked out for months. Proper protection and promotion of Roebuck Bay has the potential to do the same for other tourism businesses. Creating a highly protected marine sanctuary will encourage people to stop a little longer and add a Snubfin Dolphin cruise, or a fishing trip, to their itinerary. Exmouth and Coral Bay have experienced the environmental, economic and fishing benefits of world class marine sanctuaries on their doorstep. Broome deserves the same opportunity.

The Premier’s decision to protect the Kimberley is the right decision and is very welcome. But detail matters. A marine sanctuary in Roebuck Bay is essential to meaningful delivery of a legacy for the long-term future.

Jason Fowler is the owner/chef of Broome’s highly acclaimed 12 mile café, which received a big boost in 2011 when Rob Broadfield rated his 3 Eggplant Sambal the second best restaurant dish in WA, and advised every apprentice chef to come and work in his certified organic cafe. Jason is also a marine scientist who now works promoting conservation in Broome, and assists visiting scientists in their studies of Roebuck Bay’s Snubfin Dolphins.


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