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Welcome to this blog, the story of a great big Australian adventure. It documents my travels, life in Australia, and a subject close to my heart – environmental conservation. 

Swan Lake: birds at risk in Bris

Swan Lake: birds at risk in Bris

An old friend came to stay a couple of months or so ago, and we spent several sun- and fun-filled hours in the Port of Brisbane. We both wanted photographs of containers, and there was plenty of scope in Australia's fastest-growing container port. There were stacks and stacks of coloured boxes: we were in our element.

While we were searching for the Visitors Centre and cafe, we came across a small lake by the roadside where there was an impressive variety of bird life. I returned a few days later with someone rather more bird inclined. As well as the usual suspects – pellies, black swans, ducks, cormorants, grebes – there were spoonbills and a duck we thought we'd only seen previously in Far North Queensland. What a joy to come upon so many birds in the midst of an industrial landscape.

Imagine my dismay when I learned that the Port of Brisbane is proposing to drain the lake and turn the area into a car park for imported vehicles awaiting distribution to dealers. There is already a huge area given over to this purpose, but no, the Port needs the relatively small ad-on of  'Swan Lake', so called because of its large number of shy black residents.

The lake was created during dredging for port expansion in 2000. In the Impact Assessment Study beforehand it was presented as an environmental benefit for the community as well as part of a storm water management system. Then in 2012 came a review of the Brisbane Port Land Use Plan 2010* 'with a view to making a small number of amendments designed to more flexibly accommodate customer demand and trade growth, particularly for the motor vehicle and project cargo industries'. There followed a Statement of Proposals (SOP) that included the land-use change to Swan Lake, now referred to by the Port as a 'retention pond'. Public submissions followed.

Not surprisingly, environmentalists and wildlife support groups are unhappy. They've formed an Alliance that includes the RSPCA, Queensland Conservation, Birds Queensland, Pelican and Seabird Rescue, Animal Liberation Queensland, Wildlife Queensland, the Australian Marine Conservation Society and Bat Conservation & Rescue. They are inviting the people of Brisbane to join them for an Information Day and family picnic on Sunday 13 October from 10 till 4. There will be bird tours, stalls and entertainment at Port of Brisbane Lakeside, Curlew Crescent (rather appositely), at the Visitors Centre, where you will be able to park. 

Areas with such a concentration of birds are to be treasured and protected. Vast parks of imported cars are a blight. Storage methods need to be rethought: how about stacking?

I have spent some hours over the last couple of days trying to determine where the decision-making process has got to with regard to Swan Lake's fate. The Port of Brisbane had to consult with or inform the Minister of State Development, Infrastructure and Planning; the Minister of Transport and Main Roads; senior officers in the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection; senior officers in the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry; and the Lord Mayor of Brisbane City Council. I was told by the office of Neil Symes, Member of the Queensland State Parliament for Lytton, that this is not a straightforward process, which I do not doubt.

As of this morning, I have an answer from the Department of State Development, Infrastructure and Planning, who manage the proposal processing and make the ultimate decision together with the Department of Transport and Main Roads. At the moment, they are waiting to hear what Brisbane City Council's Planning and Development Assessment committee has to say. The chairperson's office have confirmed they are finalising their comments and will be sending them to the Port of Brisbane shortly. I believe BCC have concerns about the loss of the Lake in the Port from the point of view of biodiversity.

My interest here, apart from the conservation of a small bit of bird paradise, is the fact that this lake on the former Fisherman's Island was initially seen as a 'benefit' of industrial development; not an 'offset' as we know it but of great relevance to the biodiversity offsetting debate. This man-made lake was originally put forward by the Port of Brisbane as an environmental sweetener. Now they're proposing to take the sweets away from us, they can't be surprised if we throw our toys out of the pram. And is this a foretaste of things to come, in the Galilee Basin in Central Queensland, for example, where rich mining companies promise as yet unproven, or even identified, offsets for unique remnant ecosystems to be swallowed up by mega mines?

As the Queensland governmental departments come to their conclusions about Swan Lake, they're going to have to tread carefully, bearing in mind the importance of the offsetting issue in resource development projects – and court cases pending – all over this state.

Readers of this blog will know that I don't rate biodiversity offsetting. I see no proof of its success yet in conserving valuable ecosystems destroyed by mining or dredging or construction or whatever. Where are the research findings to back up promises in Environmental Impact Statements? Who monitors the monitoring of offsets in order to independently evaluate their success and their compliance with the conditions of approval?

The Port of Brisbane points to a recently constructed bird roost just down the road from Swan Lake. But the Lake is fresh water and the roost is saline, which makes a difference to some bird species. Neither is the roost site freely accessible to the public. You have to collect a key from the Visitors Centre, and you can only do that during office hours. I didn't find the place terribly appealing (below), and the Centre was closed on the public holiday when I went. 

The Port of Brisbane has signed a deal with Landcare to 'offset' the loss of the lake with four projects over five years to the value of more than $250,000. These include a weed-cleanup, revegetation and landscaping in the local area. It remains to be seen if these are comparable with Swan Lake?

If you'd like to know more, and see the birds enjoying this waterhole while they can, come along on Sunday. It's not too late to let Brisbane City Council and the relevant state government departments know what you think.

* A prerequisite of the privatisation of the Port of Brisbane under the terms of a 99-year lease from the Queensland government
This post was last edited on 21 November 2016

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