HERE’S a question for Post readers. What’s Bass Coast’s most endangered species? The orange bellied parrot, the bandicoot or the southern right whale? We humans should be chuffed that such rare and spectacular organisms are still to be found locally, despite our best attempts to consign them to extinction. In fact, the mantle of our “most critically endangered” species belongs to a tiny fish.
The Tasmanian (Australian) whitebait is a small (75mm) long member of the galaxid family. It’s usually found in the estuaries of Tasmania where it’s harvested and turned into whitebait patties, a fried local delicacy. Our Kiwi neighbours also have a taste for them. You simply net them as they school on their spawning run up the estuaries, mix them with an egg and deep dry, adding some salt and pepper. The enthusiasm for whitebait patties almost led to their extinction and today there is only a very limited recreational harvest allowed in the estuaries of our southern state.
How does this relate to parrots and whales? Well, it appears there is a population of them in Andersons Inlet. They have been sampled by fisheries researchers on a number of occasions since 1994 – most recently in 2014. They have been found nowhere else in mainland Australia, and not on the Bass Strait islands. This makes these finny residents a member of the critically endangered club in Victoria.
Their lifestyle adds to their vulnerability. Each year the adults head up into the brackish upper estuarine waters and lay their eggs on hard, rocky or timber surfaces. Then 99 per cent of the adults die, leaving the eggs to hatch and be washed out into coastal waters as larvae. They feed and grow until some natural signal compels them to follow their ancestors back up into the estuary to once again spawn and complete the lifestyle – all this while dodging a range of piscivorous and avian predators waiting to feast on them. The annual variations in rainfall and water temperatures ensure the spawning grounds probably differ each year.
Given that this population is isolated from their Tasmanian relatives, it is likely that our own Bass Coast whitebait is becoming a new species – there are no other known local populations with which to interbreed and mingle their DNA.
The lifestyle of the Bass Coast population of Lovettia sealii is poorly known – research into tiny fish obviously comes a long behind politicians’ pay rises – but there is a Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning management plan in place. Most of it involves pleas for more knowledge. Responsibility lies with DELWP and West Gippsland Catchment Management Authority.
Construction – marinas, breakwaters, piers, other port constructions. Land use changes – residential/ commercial development, dredging Coasts - impairment of tidal movements
The estuarine spawning sites and egg deposition substrates in the upper tidal portion of rivers, including key larval and juvenile habitats within inlets, can be damaged, reduced or eliminated by development which physically alters habitat, flow and tidal regimes and alters or eliminates natural spawning cues. This is a particularly high risk in a small isolated population which cannot be supplemented by recruitment of individuals from adjacent populations.
There is also reference to threats from siltation and a stated objective “to secure populations of Australian whitebait from potentially incompatible land use or catastrophic loss to improve conservation outcomes”.
This mercifully short action plan states clearly that any potential threats will need careful consideration by state and local government for any proposed developments – which neatly brings us to the proposed marina and residential development at Mahers Landing, smack bang in the middle of the only mainland habitat of a critically endangered fish species.
Councillors will have to carefully weigh up the sanity, or otherwise, of developing a new town on low-lying coastal land. Mother Nature/King Neptune is already objecting to many of our man-made intrusions along the Bass Coast – Cowes, Grantville and Inverloch, to name a few. History reveals that our intrusions on the intertidal zone are fraught with expensive and futile “solutions” to sea level rise. We will need to weigh up any perceived benefits against the expensive and damaging consequences of future coastal follies.
Our community is well versed in dealing with plans for “improving” our coastal home – desal plants and the proposed industrialisation of Western Port spring to mind. Our many concerned residents can spot a dose of greenwash from afar and are adept at standing in front of bulldozers, metaphorical and physical.
I hope Jason Yeap and former Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu are aware that promises of “jobs and growth” won’t wash with the “local yokels”, especially where our magnificent coast is concerned.
There was once an environmental battle cry of “Save the whales!”” perhaps now it should be paraphrased as “Save the whitebait”.