COSMOS Magazine: The Battle for Ningaloo’s Nursery

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Exmouth Gulf is unprotected and in the sights of oil and gas developers. The gulf is home to a globally-unique ecosystem and acts as a nursery for many fish species. But, as Michelle Wheeler investigates, a proposed pipe-line bundling facility could see the ecosystem destroyed.

Wheeler is able to highlight the complex relationship between the need for development and the need to preserve nature.

The article from Cosmos magazine issue 84 and associated activity would be suited to students in years 4–10, studying Biological or Earth and Space Sciences.

Word count: approx. 2000.

Bay of Rest, Exmouth Gulf, Western Australia. Credit: Dr Ben Fitzpatrick, Oceanwise

From the tip of Western Australia’s North West Cape, the desert gives way to the ocean on all sides.

To the left is Australia’s largest fringing coral reef, Ningaloo, home to coral gardens, colourful fish, manta rays and Western Australia’s favourite tourism pin up, the whale shark.

At 300 kilometres long, it is the only large reef in the world so close to the edge of a continent. It is well known and highly valued, and quite rightly enjoys World Heritage listing and status as a marine park.

Arial shot of the Bay of Rest creek. Credit: Dr Ben Fitzpatrick.

To the right is Exmouth Gulf, an area almost 50 times the size of Sydney Harbour yet something of an unknown quantity to all but the marine scientists who believe it is home to more fish species than Ningaloo itself, and acts as a nursery for the reef.

It is unprotected, which has oil and gas developers seeing an opportunity – and green campaigners seeing red.

Now, more research is emerging on this lesser-known side of the cape. In June, a 186-page baseline scientific survey revealed it is home to more than 2000 species, acts as a nursery for the world’s largest population of humpback whales, and is a dugong breeding ground. You’ll also find blue whales, killer whales, dolphins, more than 60 species of sharks and rays, and five species of turtle.

Not surprisingly, Oceanwise director and the report’s lead author, Ben Fitzpatrick, says Exmouth Gulf has globally unique ecosystem values. He points to mangroves living at the extreme of their range, the undisturbed vistas, fossil coral reefs and subterranean stygofauna – animals that have adapted to living in underground waterways. Fitzpatrick, who has been researching Ningaloo Reef and Exmouth Gulf for more than two decades, says there is a high level of species that occur nowhere else.

“All the invertebrates are incredible, lots of endemic species,” he says.

“There’s literally hundreds and hundreds of species of fish – so 850 species of fish in the gulf compared to 550 at Ningaloo. “That’s actually due to the range of different marine habitats that are found in the gulf.”

Blanche D’Anastasi at work. Credit: Graeme Petrie.

To produce the report, Fitzpatrick assembled a team of geologists, ecologists and experts in marine mammals, sharks, fish, coral reefs and benthic species. With funding from the Jock Clough Marine Foundation, a dozen researchers spent two weeks in Exmouth Gulf – in terrible weather – conducting land, sea and intertidal surveys. They searched from above with drones and below with underwater video cameras. James Cook University PhD student Blanche D’Anastasi, an expert in West Australian sea snakes who contributed to the report, says she was blown away by what they discovered.

“It turns out that Exmouth Gulf is a global sea snake biodiversity hotspot in its own right,” she says.

The gulf was found to be home to 15 species of sea snake, including one about to be described and another seven that the genetic data suggests could be unique species found only in Western Australia.

“It’s remarkable to me that even just during the course of conducting the research underpinning this report that [Oceanwise research officer] Andrew Davenport discovered a sea snake that we didn’t even know lived there,” D’Anastasi says.

Other key findings include the discovery that manta rays in Exmouth Gulf migrate around the cape to Ningaloo Reef and Coral Bay, where tour operators run swim-with-manta-ray trips.

The team also recorded fresh sightings of critically endangered sawfish. The final report received backing from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Commission on Ecosystem Management, which says in its endorsement that knowledge of the gulf’s ecosystem was inadequate to predict the impacts of industrial development.

Blanche D’Anastasi with a sea snake. Credit: Graeme Petrie

As a result, it supported the report’s finding that industrialisation was incompatible with the maintenance of the area’s ecological and socioeconomic values.

“[The commission] concurs with previous recommendations of State and Federal Australian Governments that the Exmouth Gulf should be inscribed as a World Heritage Site and zoned a marine park to help preserve these values into the future,” it said.

So what’s the problem?

Scientific curiosity wasn’t the only motive for the baseline study. The report was released as a controversial proposal for a pipeline bundling facility at Exmouth Gulf sat before Western Australia’s environmental watchdog.

The Subsea 7 proposal would see the facility constructed south of Exmouth to carry services for the development of offshore gas fields.

Initially referred to the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) in late 2017, the proposal was revised in February 2019, then terminated in May and resubmitted a day later to allow an expanded footprint to be assessed.

Subsea 7 did not respond to questions from Cosmos, but documents submitted to the EPA show the company plans to build two 10-kilometre-long bundle tracks, along which pipeline bundles will be constructed. The bundles will then be launched into Exmouth Gulf at Heron Point and towed through the gulf between two tugs. The documents say the bundles will be towed at the surface through the Ningaloo marine park and World Heritage area before continuing offshore.

For author Tim Winton, patron of the Protect Ningaloo conservation campaign, the development is unthinkable.

“It’s not necessary that Exmouth Gulf is sacrificed for the fossil fuel industry, or for any other heavy industry,” he says. “There are so many alternatives – we have already modified landscapes very close to the same gas fields in the Pilbara.”

Instead, Winton’s dream is for Ningaloo Reef and Exmouth Gulf to become a scientific research hub.

“We have opportunity to save this place while it’s still in remarkable order,” he says.

Why the interest in Exmouth?

The town of Exmouth, the closest to Ningaloo Reef, is a 13-hour drive north of Perth. It officially opened in 1967 with the arrival of a US Navy communications station, and for a time was like a slice of America transplanted onto the West Australian coast. With the thaw of cold war hostilities, the US withdrew from the base in the early 1990s.

Since that time, much of the Pilbara has become synonymous with high-vis, mining trucks and fly-in, fly-out workers.

Exmouth hasn’t experienced the same level of industrialisation, however, and while conservationists point to the cape’s relatively undeveloped nature as another reason to protect the gulf, there’s another view: that Exmouth and its 2500-odd residents need investment in the town.

Exmouth Chamber of Commerce and Industry chair Barry Sullivan believes there is room for more development on the cape.

“When the Americans left, the town tried to put its eggs in the bucket of tourism,” he says.

Greater blue-ringed octopus (Hapalochlaena lunulata). Credit: Dr Ben Fitzpatrick / Oceanwise

“Tourism is such a fickle industry, it can be up and it can be down… it doesn’t offer a lot of opportunities for apprenticeships and traineeships.

“From the chamber’s perspective, we’re looking at opportunities that will create local employment – full-time employment and opportunities for apprenticeships and traineeships for our youth.”

Sullivan says indications are that the company’s pipeline could bring up to 100 jobs to the local area during the peak of construction. He argues that the gulf has been used by the prawn industry for more than 60 years, causing a significant impact on the seabed.

“I don’t believe [the Subsea 7 proposal] is going to have any further impact than has already been created by human use of the gulf over the years,” he says, adding that Australia has always needed development to keep growing and provide for the future.

“When people from outside of the town start talking about protecting areas… I wonder whether they actually think about where they live themselves, and what impact their quarter-acre block has in downtown Sydney and what might have been there before white settlement.”

Winton and his fellow conservationists have been here before. The Protect Ningaloo campaign is a rehash of one of Western Australia’s most successful conservation initiatives, the Save Ningaloo crusade of the early 2000s. That campaign saw legions of Perth cars adorned with Save Ningaloo bumper stickers, 15,000 people marching through the streets of Fremantle, and supporters showing up to Winton’s book readings on the other side of the planet in Save Ningaloo T-shirts. The campaign led to the expansion of Ningaloo’s sanctuary zones from 10 % to 34% of the reef, making it one of the most highly protected marine areas in Australia.

It also contributed to the Ningaloo Coast being added to the World Heritage List in 2011. Winton says for those who campaigned to protect the reef in the early 2000s, the gulf is a case of unfinished business.

“We were just entranced by the reef… and half the time we had our backs to the gulf,” he says. “Scientific attention was all on the reef and not on the gulf, and I think conservation attention went that way as well. In a way, we’re just playing catch up. We have to make up for lost time.”

Winton says the latest development proposals for the gulf took him by surprise.

“I just didn’t imagine that after everything that we achieved… that anybody would try it on, that they would feel entitled or emboldened enough to try to come into this part of the world and industrialise it”

“I think as Australians begin to find out more about that, they will be rightly horrified and indignant that someone would try this.”

D’Anastasi says Ningaloo Reef and Exmouth Gulf is an incredibly abundant and pristine area, even compared to the Great Barrier Reef.

“It’s epic wildlife everywhere, every day. Everywhere you go there is something incredible to look at in the land or sea.”

“Unlike the Great Barrier Reef, which has been exposed to a lot of coastal development pressure, Ningaloo Reef and Exmouth Gulf is largely untouched. You can really see the difference in the incredible abundance of fish that you can find.”

Fitzpatrick says humpback whales in the gulf have recovered from a population low of about 3000 animals to 30,000 over the last three decades. The animals migrate from Antarctica to the Kimberley in winter, give birth and return to Antarctica in summer, stopping in Exmouth Gulf to fatten up their calves.

An osprey (Pandion haliaetus). Credit: Dr Ben Fitzpatrick / Oceanwise

“They whisper to each other while they’re in the gulf, the mums and the calves,” he says. “If they’re not whispering, there’s killer whales in the area that come and actually kill the calves.

“One of the problems with industrialisation is underwater noise… which means that these little humpies have to start elevating their voices. That can obviously lead to increased predation.”

Disturbance can also result in calves being separated from their mothers.

University of Western Australia fish biologist Tim Langlois, another contributor to the report, has been researching marine parks for 20 years.

“Exmouth Gulf’s a really special place… it’d be a great place to have a marine park and no-take sanctuary zones”

Langlois says while some people might be concerned about a conflict with recreational fishers, the latest evidence suggests otherwise.

“We’ve now conducted studies that demonstrate that, actually, recreational fishers really appreciate having no-take areas and places that are special near where they go fishing,” he says.

For Winton, the campaign is about repaying a debt he owes the Ningaloo coast.

“I’ve got a lot out of this part of the world in my life, in a personal sense, and so I feel enriched and nurtured by it,” he says.

“Also, it’s fed into my work, so in some oblique way I’ve made a profit from it.

“I feel in both senses that I’m obligated, that I owe it some kind of debt that I can repay in defending it.”

D’Anastasi says there are too many globally significant, universally outstanding values in Exmouth Gulf to lose it.

“Quite frankly, developers just can’t have everything,” she says. “They can’t have the last wilderness in the Pilbara.”

Soldier crabs (Mictyris longicarpus) on the move in Exmouth Gulf. Credit: Dr Ben Fitzpatrick / Oceanwise

This article was written by Michelle Wheeler, science journalist based in Perth, Australia for Cosmos Magazine Issue 84.

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