Monday, 21 April 2014

Scuba Video of Manta Rays off Point Lookout

This video taken while scuba diving at Manta Bommie, just off Point Lookout was submitted by a recent visitor to North Stradbroke Island.

Manta Bommie is a good site to see the mantas up close, as they come in from the deeper water to this well known cleaning station, and the little cleaner wrasse get to work removing parasites and dead skin from the mantas. You can see a couple of the cleaners going into the mouth of the larger manta from about 1:00 into the video.

This was a very surreal experience, the mantas are a bit spooky and it took some time before they would approach us, while we waited on the bottom. After a few minutes it seemed like their curiosity took over, and they came much closer to check us out. At one point, the larger manta got so close that I had to pull the camera out of its way.

The larger one was about 3.5 metres wide, the smaller one about 2 metres.

This species (manta alfredi, or reef manta) can grow as large as 5.5 metres wide!

Sibelco breaches bushfire prevention undertakings

The serious risks to human life, property and to flora and fauna associated with out of control bushfires on North Stradbroke are obvious.

The miners’ Environmental Studies Report (2003), required before mining could commence under Queensland law at the Enterprise mine acknowledges the risks:-

“Bushfires frequently occur on North Stradbroke Island as a result of both natural (eg lightning strikes) and human induced events (eg arson). Periodic low intensity fires are essential for the reproduction processes of many native vegetation communities on the island. However high intensity or unnaturally frequent fires can result in loss of property, human life and significant harm to native flora and fauna communities” (ESR section 3.2.6)
Considering its enormous profits are derived from mining and permanently damaging an internationally recognised, sensitive sand island, most people are likely to consider that Sibelco should strictly comply with its bushfire obligations. Its mining leases still cover around 50% of the island.

Front page article continued…Incredibly, an examination of Plans of Operations and other official documents submitted by the mining companies to the Queensland government over the past decade expose Sibelco and its (now) subsidiary CRL as thumbing their noses at Queenslanders, yet again.

The formal, written undertakings to the Queensland Government are contained initially in the Environmental Management Overview Strategy (EMOS 2003). These are repeated in the Plans of Operations submitted each year by the miner to government for approval to continue mining operations. Two of the undertakings are relevant:-

UndertakIng No.2 – "Sibelco Australia Limited will mine in accordance with its non-standard EA and the undertakings made in this Environmental Management Overview Strategy.”

Undertaking no. 21 – “Sibelco Australia Limited will operate in accordance with, and regularly review, a Bushfire Management Plan specific to its operations on North Stradbroke Island”.

Astonishingly, year after year, since at least 2003, the Plans of Operations have claimed that the mining company is “currently developing” a Bushfire Management Plan (BMP).

This is an extract from the 2012 Plans of Operations for example:-
4.2.11 Land Resources – Bushfire Management
Undertaking no. 21 - Sibelco Australia Limited will operate in accordance with, and regularly review, a Bushfire Management Plan specific to its operations on North Stradbroke Island”
Control Strategy
Sibelco is currently developing a Bushfire Management Plan (BMP)”.

Curiously, as if conscious of the non-compliances, in the 2013 Plans of Operations, for the first time, Sibelco did not set out its undertakings or control strategies. Instead, under the heading “EMOS undertakings and control strategies”, it simply stated in section 4.2.1 :- “No changes to control strategies have occurred since the 2012 plan of operations report”. 

Year after year, the company’s Plans of Operations have acknowledged that a BMP should include:-
  • Identification of fire risks areas;
  • Dedicated 4WD ‘slip-on’ fire response appliance;
  • The use of controlled burns to reduce fuel loads;
  • Fire break management; 
  • Bushfire response procedures. 
But despite all the known facts, by their own admissions, neither CRL (before the takeover in 2009) nor Sibelco, concluded developing a BMP. Why weren’t these breaches of undertakings challenged by government before approving, annually, the following year’s mining plans and before renewing expired mining leases?

Many other questions arise, such as:-
  1. How much did the recent fires cost the taxpayer?
  2. Did the Newman government carry out ‘due diligence’ before deciding its sand mining policy?
  3. If so, did it discover that Sibelco did not have a concluded bushfire management plan in place, or that it has also breached its undertakings to eradicate pests (such as foxes) and weeds on its leases? If not, why not?
  4. If Sibelco had operated in accordance with undertaking no. 21 what was the likely impact of compliance on the extent and intensity of the recent bushfire? 
  5. Will the government require Sibelco to re-vegetate the burnt, previously mined areas to assist post-fire recovery in these biodiversity poor areas?
  6. Should there be an independent investigation into the fire, the impact/s of Sibelco’s non-compliance with EMOS undertakings no. 21 and no.2 and the re-planting of the mined areas?

Bushfire – The Aftermath & Photos of Recovery

A photograph of the recent bushfire on Stradbroke Island by Soren Martensen
Stradbroke is no stranger to bushfire. We all have our recollections of fires of past years, power cuts and close shaves. Many an interesting conversation on the island gets on to how different areas are recovering: Blue Lake regenerated quickly after the fire of ’95, but the slopes near the S-Bends had bare trunks visible for many years. But the fierce 2014 fire will go down in history and will, we hope, be a turning point in the adoption of proper fire management strategies for the island.
Fire adapted Banksia aemula
Although the bush looks devastated in parts, the natural processes will in time bring it back. In areas where the natural biodiversity has been replaced by miners’ revegetation the bush is reportedly more severely damaged and will likely need human intervention to replant and keep weeds under control.

Some plants of the coastal bushlands on Stradbroke Island have developed defences to survive fire, for example: pale reflective bark helps the ubiquitous scribbly gum hang on, while the thick insulating layers of warty-barked banksias and rugged ironbarks and blackbutt eucalypts help them tough it out, a multiplicity of delicate layers protect paperbarks. Survival of wetland species is high as long as there is standing water, but if the swamps are dry, peat fires can ignite and do immense harm.

One of the toughest plants on the island must be the amazingly fire resistant Xanthorrhoea johnsonii (grass tree). The trunk contains a protective resin which, when damaged, oozes like blood. But these wounded soldiers are survivors standing sentinel on the bare slopes of the high dunes watching for recovery.
Mallee gums sprouting – Eucalyptus planchoniana

Blackbutt forest survives
New leaves for koalas – Eucalyptus robusta
Conifer Podocarpus spinulosa – regenerating
Large parts of the island have fire dependant ecosystems with different species of plants having evolved mechanisms to reproduce, as they draw sustenance from the nutrient bearing ash bed. An indication of the continuing resiliance of the island bush is the pace of regeneration which has been quite astounding in many areas considering how little rainfall we have seen this year.

No one could help but feel for the poor creatures that had to endure the fire and for those who could not survive the onslaught. Not many dead or harmed animals were found after the fire. While there was no doubt a toll, animals have well known survival instincts and strategies. Faster moving animals have the ability to flee from fires while the slower creatures can sometimes successfully seek shelter by burrowing in the ground, under logs, hollows or in the base of tufted plants. Bushfires are uneven in intensity and moist gullies and creeks can provide nearby protection for a quick escape. According to reports some koalas were found in moist dips after the fire.

Recent scientific research does indicate that fortunately even after intense fires koalas recolonize burnt trees for food and shelter within 3 months. Other good news is that research also indicates that the specialized acid frogs that inhabit coastal wetlands tolerate fires as long as standing water is available.

Fires, it must be remembered, also create habitat. Dead trunks and burnt out hollows in old growth trees become homes for insects, reptiles, birds and gliders.

Clearing for mining and destruction of bushland in extremely hot burns puts recovery of the animals at risk. The fragmentation of habitat that we are seeing on Stradbroke, may prevent effective recolonisation of areas by different species. The best way to ensure the survival of animals and the island’s biodiversity and resilience is to retain large areas of intact and diverse bushland. Only well researched and effectively implemented fire management and cessation of clearing for sand mining can achieve this aim.

Fire management is undoubtedly a hot topic in Australia with preservation of human life always rightly given the first priority. But for those authorities and businesses who are given custody of our natural areas this often comes with a regulated obligation to manage fire regimes and on Stradbroke there has been a breakdown of miner Sibelco’s obligations. There is an urgent imperative for all landholders to develop fire management strategies consistent with their particular responsibilities. After all, out of control bushfires, contributed to by lack of fire management, don’t only threaten bushland but threaten life, homes and probably real estate values.

Traditional owners of the land understood fire much better than Europeans and an increased knowledge of their practices must inform future fire management.

Sue Ellen Carew