Over Autumn/Winter 08, farmers were given permits to shoot dozens of native Black Swans who were moving from the Gippsland Lakes’ onto farm paddocks to graze. Why? Because the Lakes have become so sick and contaminated that much of the area is dying, including the Swan’s food, the water grasses.
The issuing of permits to shoot hungry swans was a lazy response to a deeply serious problem. The Bairnsdale Department of Sustainability and Environment’s wildlife officer didn’t think beyond a packet of bullets.
About 100 Black Swans were shot up to July, but more hungry swans kept moving onto farmland. EEG and the Gippsland Environment Group became very vocal; there was a huge public outcry; the media took DSE by the throat and the Swans were given a reprieve in a matter of weeks. A rare win!
The swan killing story generated much media attention and urgent meetings were held in Melbourne and locally. The positive spin-off was that the condition of the Lakes soon became the spotlight of concern. The government wanted neither issue scrutinised.
After this short campaign, the state government amended the Wildlife Act 1975 to allow farmers to control wildlife by using non-lethal methods. Wildlife officers can now issue authorisation to “disturb” wildlife rather than “destroy”.
While this was going on, one creative farmer tensioned fencing wire across his paddock at intervals making it difficult for swans to land and take off. It worked well.
Congratulations to everyone who sent messages of outrage to the Minister’s office and DSE in Bairnsdale. Newspapers, ABC radio, 3AW, Crikey and even YouTube all picked up on it.
Gippsland Lakes take centre stage
The 400 square kilometre Gippsland Lakes are a listed Ramsar wetland – meaning they are internationally significant and support rare migratory birds. They are Victoria’s version of SA’s Coorong. The Coorong Lakes at the mouth of the Murray River in SA are also Ramsar listed and have suffered from exploitation, pollutants and lack of fresh water to the point of being near dead.
The catchment of our Gippsland Lakes stretches from Warragul in the west to Nowa Nowa in the east and up to the Alps in the north. This huge once-forested catchment has been extensively cleared, farmed, logged and has many industries and towns along its rivers. The Latrobe Valley has the biggest thirst for freshwater. The Thompson Dam has also had an impact on flows since it was built in the 70s.
Blame the fires
The Gippsland Coastal Board and Catchment Management Authorities (CMAs) refuse to do decent testing for contaminants or to reign in agricultural run-off. Of course, the logging industry is even more of a sacred cow and hardly rates a mention in management plans. The Lakes have been in a sorry state for decades but these authorities are blaming the recent bushfires and floods for dumping nutrients into the Lakes. This would have some impact but when put into an already ailing ecological system could be the tipping point.
Freshwater algal blooms have been an annual problem since the 80s when nutrient input increased, affecting aquatic life and scaring off tourists. In 2007, a new saltwater algal bloom spread through Lake Victoria forming a light barrier. Not long after, all mussels, barnacles, sandworm and sea grass died, removing a large part of the food chain.
Barnacles not bureaucrats
There is no quick fix for this problem. Denying the problem or blaming the fires makes life easier for bureaucrats but not barnacles. There needs to be proper management of the entire catchment. This includes reigning in the most damaging catchment impact – clearfell logging and associated roading. It means the chemical and pharmaceutical inputs from dairy farm run-off has to be identified and dealt with, and the heavy industrial use of water from rivers in the west needs to be put under a spotlight.
Fire retardant adds to the load on the Lakes
Just recently, there has been some uncovering of the make-up of the fire retardant Phoschek, of which hundreds or thousands of tonnes was dumped in the catchments during the fires. The more the problems are compounded, the more the authorities announce another study, publish another glossy report, make soothing statements and do nothing.
A packed public meeting was held in November organised by Habitat Network East Gippsland. Five experts spoke on the condition of the Lakes and this has embarrassed local authorities.
Let’s hope the swans didn’t die in vain – and that they have started a ball rolling that will hopefully get some action happening for the Lakes.