This time last year AusOcean was in the midst of a series of expeditions to Smith Bay on the North Coast of Kangaroo Island. If you are new to our blog, Kangaroo Island is Australia's 3rd largest island, and lies off the coast of South Australia and Smith Bay is the site of a proposed wood chip port. Kangaroo Island's marine environment remains pristine and is part of the Great Southern Reef (GSR), a region as diverse as that other Australian marine marvel, the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). Yet there is much we don't know. Only recently 400 new species were discovered in the deep waters of the Great Australian Bight. How many more species await discovery?
Between December 2018 and March 2019 AusOcean conducted three expeditions to Kangaroo Island, 16~22 December 2018, 14~18 January 2019 and 19~22 March 2019.
The log entry from 22 December 2018 reads:
The first of our Kangaroo Island expeditions is well underway. After a rough stormy night, the sun came out today providing perfect conditions for our dive and tech teams. A number of marine life surveys have been undertaken along the North Coast in some of the most diverse and pristine waters Australia has to offer. Our tech team is assembling and testing an underwater towable camera sled to gather footage of the benthic flora and fauna which we can later compare to diver surveys. Tomorrow we set sail for Smith Bay where will continue to asses the diversity of marine life in areas not yet explored.Our Smith Bay Marine Ecology Report describes our initial findings, including multiple species in the protected Syngnathidae family (Leafy Seadragons, Weedy Seadragons and Pipefish) and spectacular large temperate corals (such as Plesiastrea versipora).
Fast forward one year, and half of Kangaroo Island has been ravaged by fires. In addition to the loss of life and the devastation of Flinders Chase National park, over 90% of the plantations of pines and Tasmanian blue gums have been burnt. While lightning strikes caused the fires, there is little doubt that the timber plantations carried the fires and made them harder to stop. The owner of these plantations, Kangaroo Island Plantation Timbers Ltd. (KIPT), are the proponents of a port development at Smith Bay.
What should one make of these fires, that many people have described as "unnatural"? Unfortunately nature is changing. Climate science tells us Kangaroo Island’s climate, along with Southern Australia’s, is drying. Extremes of temperature and wind will become more common, water resources further stretched, and fires such as we’ve recently encountered will increase in ferocity. A windswept island such as Kangaroo Island, already disadvantaged in terms of infrastructure and challenging access for emergency services, is no place for timber plantations. Neither is it a good place for a wood chip facility on the coast. The 100,000 tonne wood chip pile just outside of Eden, NSW has been ablaze for weeks!
There is very little positive about these tragic bushfires on Kangaroo Island, but perhaps the destruction of the plantation timbers has a silver lining. We have an opportunity to return the land to its historic uses, such as farming and bushland, activities that are much better aligned with a sustainable and bright future for Kangaroo Island.
The Island and Islanders are resilient. The bush will come back, and so will the farms. The timber plantations however should not be allowed to come back.
PS The photo is of stunning Western River Cove, part of the island ravaged by the fires.