Report by Environmental Justice Australia
At the end of the Great Ocean Road, in the charming town of Port Fairy, you can meet a population of migratory shorebirds who stick to the Aussie tradition of living by the seaside.
This population of Latham’s Snipe roost and feed in the Powling Street Wetlands complex from late August to early April each year. Having rested and built up their energy stores, they fly along the East Asian – Australasian Flyway to their breeding grounds in Japan.
Their seaside home at the Powling Street Wetlands complex is a short stroll from Pea Soup Beach where locals from the South Beach Wetlands and Landcare Group have observed overtopping of coastal dunes by ocean waves during high seas.
The Latham’s Snipe’s home has been threatened by a proposed 32 lot housing subdivision which would destroy three ephemeral wetlands within the wetland complex.
Local residents Don Stewart and Jodie Honan, represented by the Environmental Defence Office (EDO) of Victoria, have won their fight to have the Powling Street Wetland complex recognised as significant habitat for the Latham’s Snipe. In the hearing they were also able to provide valuable local knowledge of wave overtopping of the coastal dune.
The decision approves the development with significant amendments including that now 9 of the 32 lots are required to be transferred to the local council for annexure to the main part of the wetland. The Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal Administrative Division (VCAT) found that this would achieve three complementary functions –
1. avoiding development in an area that is subject to short term risks of coastal inundation;
2. providing stormwater retention; and
3. providing habitat to support the Lathams Snipe.
The VCAT decision accepted the evidence of ecologist Dr Birgita Hansen and recognised the importance of the entire area of the Powling Street Wetland complex to the Latham’s Snipe. VCAT found that the land marked for housing subdivison, and the adjacent council owned permanent wetland was an area of ‘contiguous habitat used by the same group (of birds) that includes multiple feeding and roosting areas.’ [at para 85]
This decision is a vindication of the importance of local communities being involved in the decisions that are made about their local environment. Without the tireless efforts of the South Beach Wetlands and Landcare Group monitoring the birds and reporting the bird counts to Birdlife Australia, the importance of this site would never have been recognised. Without the photographs and anecdotal evidence from locals of wave overtopping of the dune, which coupled with sea level rise could bring sea water to flood the site, the experts likely may not have accurately assessed the coastal inundation risk.
Don Stewart and Jodie Honan, supported by the South Beach Wetlands and Landcare Group, had real concerns about the development, which were supported by experts. These concerns have now been vindicated by VCAT.
So what does this mean for the birds who like to live beside the Port Fairy seaside?
VCAT heard evidence from Dr Hansen that if disturbance exceeds a certain threshold (which is currently un-quantified) birds may eventually abandon the area to move to less preferred and more marginal habitat.’ [Dr Birgita Hansen – Expert Report – P. 4]
Although the development has been scaled back, only time will tell if it disturbs the Latham’s Snipe to the point where they abandon their wintering home.