IN THE previous issue of The Voice we reported the failed mechanical opening of the Irwin inlet by the Denmark Shire council in July. Shire CEO Bill Parker admitted that the protocol for opening the inlet had not been followed, and undertook to review the protocol.
In this issue special reporter Karen Buck speaks with several of the area’s longstanding residents and commercial fishers about their concerns for the longterm health of the inlet.
COUNCIL’S concession to review its procedures after its failed July 15 opening of the Irwin inlet has been welcomed by Peaceful Bay locals but has done little to appease their anger about the shire’s earlier action.
They have accused council of not caring for the environment of the inlet, and instead focusing its concern on Peaceful Bay road which, they claim, has suffered no perceptible damage from floodwaters over many years.
Low levels of water in the estuary due to poor winter rainfall, the lack of strong flow from the Bow and Kent rivers which feed into the inlet, and weather forecasts of big ocean swells in the days following the opening guaranteed that the breach would fail, they say.
The bar closed within days of the opening. The inlet opens naturally at levels between about 0.9m and 1.3m according to local commercial fisherman Paul Benson, whose family has lived and fished in the area for more than 100 years.
“I don’t think there’s any thought given to the ecological health of the estuary.”
This year it was breached at 0.59m, a level that he says is ridiculously low. “When the levels are high enough there is a good strong outflow and deep scouring of the channel, and it stays open for at least a few months,” he said. “If it doesn’t open long enough it doesn’t get enough of a water interchange, so a lot of the marine organisms and fish that would normally live there won’t survive or won’t even get in there, and the effect is quite disastrous.”
“On two occasions in the past it stayed open for years after natural openings – once for three years and once for two years. “A good breach sees the outflows as strong as a rideable wave – in fact a few years back there were blokes riding it out on body-boards.”
There had been a decline in crab, prawn and fish stocks since the shire’s forced openings over the past two years, Mr Benson said.
“In 2017 it was breached at about 0.77m and only stayed open for a short period. “Combine that with this year’s early closure and it means the estuary has little chance of recovery.
“It may be some time before the long-term implications are clear but I don’t think there’s any concern being given to the ecological health of the estuary, and I think it’s reasonable to assume that’s detrimental to the inlet.”
Another commercial fisherman in the area, Stephen Rule, agrees that fish stocks are suffering. “Since the shire started playing around with the openings there’s no crabs and there’s definitely less fish,” he said. “It’s not just the commercial fishermen who are affected – we’re only there six months of the year, but in summer after a good opening it’s a great place for all sorts of recreational use. “The water is beautiful and clear, kids can go swimming and plenty of people can get good feeds of whiting and other fish. “That inlet is a living system, and the damage to it can’t be easily fixed. You get one go to get it right.”
Peaceful Bay Progress Association president Hayden Jones said that his group had requested the shire review its protocol in consultation with local people. “It’s good that is going to happen, but there’s really no reasonable explanation why the shire failed to follow its own protocol or listen to the advice of those on the ground,” Mr Jones said.
“On the day of the opening even their own staff were saying it shouldn’t be done.” “They’re supposed to be looking after the health of the inlet but the negative impact of this sort of disaster can’t be overstated.
“There’s impact on the fish, crab and prawn stocks, and then commercial folk don’t do so well – then there’s the possibility of algal blooms in summer. “There’s nothing that can be done now to rectify the stuffup – they’ve meddled with mother nature and they can’t get it back.”
Shire CEO Bill Parker responded by suggesting that it would be good to check the science, to see if such strong statements could be backed up. “I’m not sure if there is, and I certainly don’t have the expertise to declare if that’s the case,” he said. But council’s Irwin Inlet Sandbar Opening Protocol clearly validates some of the points highlighted by the fishers, emphasising the need for ‘achieving adequate inlet levels to ensure scouring of the inlet mouth channel to allow for good inlet outflows, and sustained marine exchange for estuarine fish populations, recruitment and breeding cycles’. It also states that persistent low levels of water can result in poor water quality outcomes, with potential algal blooms and fish kills.