On March 2nd, it was publicly announced that the expansion of Port Bonython on the Point Lowly peninsula had been granted Major Project Status by the SA Government. Despite claims from State Government ministers John Rau and Patrick Conlon to the rigor of the forthcoming approval process, this should come as alarming news for anyone interested in securing the future of the Giant Australian Cuttlefish breeding aggregation which occurs at the same site each winter.
The expansion plan, presented by the Spencer Gulf Port Link consortium, includes a new 3 kilometre jetty, which if approved, will run parallel with the existing Port Bonython jetty. The existing jetty is currently used exclusively by Santos, for the purposes of shipping their hydrocarbon products to customers around the country. Gas is extracted from Moomba in the Cooper Basin, piped to Stony Point and refined at the Gas Fractionation Plant there.
Port Bonython vs. the Cuttlefish – a 3 kilometre jetty, right through Stony Point reef
The heel of the proposed jetty would be located at Stony Point, on the western side of Weeroona Bay- directly over the most popular location for the Giant Australian Cuttlefish to court and mate. It is reasonable to expect that the development of the new jetty would also create additional public exclusion zones, revoking tourism and scientific access to this important site. It will disturb the habitat significantly during the construction of the jetty, which would involve driving piles through the animals’ rocky reef habitat. There is also the possibility of dredging, which is yet to be publicly discussed. It is known that cephalopods are highly sensitive to noise pollution, so construction of the jetty, should it go ahead should be limited to the months of October through to April. The effects of noise pollution on the eggs once laid has not yet been studied, and since both male and female cuttlefish die after mating and laying, this renders the population extremely vulnerable during this gestation period. It may be that ‘safe’ submarine construction activities may need to be limited to less than three months of the year. Something tells me the visiting whales and local dolphin pod won’t be too pleased about this either.
No official counts released, no EPA prosecution for existing contamination at Port Bonython
Presently, the only scientists with access to the waters around Port Bonython and the Stony Point Gas Fractionation plant are those working under Santos directly as contractors. Annual cuttlefish counts are conducted within these waters, though data from 2011, a disastrous year for the animal’s population, has not been publicly released. BHP Billiton, proponents of the recently approved 280 megalitre desalination plant are also yet to release count data from 2011. Santos currently have a problem at their site of groundwater contaminated with hydrocarbons, for which they are directly responsible. The EPA will not be prosecuting, and a Santos employee has informed us that ‘remediation is ongoing’. What does this say about the EPA’s ability to regulate and protect the area’s environment from industrial impacts?
Santos’ track-record at Port Bonython includes a shipping accident at the Port Bonython jetty in 1992 which resulted in 300 tonnes of bunker fuel oil tipping into Upper Spencer Gulf. The occurrence demonstrated that the facility was underprepared for such an event, and by the time equipment and expertise had been sought (from as far afield as Geelong and Port Adelaide) the damage was already done. The oil washed into the mangroves south of Port Pirie, killing the majority (hundreds) of affected birds, and knocking out hectares of mangrove habitat. Locals have informed us that for years thereafter, globules of oil were found rolling about the seabed (encapsulated in dispersant) and the impact of the oil in worm and crustacean burrows could be seen when taking a shovel to the sediment around the affected mangroves. Even ‘minor’ spills leave impacts which can last decades.
So what do the Port Bonython cuttlefish need?
So what do the cuttlefish need from us? Well, they don’t need humans to tamper with their water chemistry, create more underwater noise, bring in ships from international waters (carrying with them invasive marine pests) or spill minerals or petrochemicals into their habitat. The Upper Spencer Gulf is a slow-flushing system and subject to dodge tides, meaning contaminants entering these waters likely to settle in the sediment rather be dispersed out to open ocean. These waters also provide habitat for juvenile snapper, one of South Australia’s prized table fish, and if we pollute their environment it will end up on our dinner tables as it bio-accumulates its way up the food chain.
We understand that the incoming South Australian mining boom requires improved export facilities, but choosing an environmentally suitable location is imperative. Bean-counters and beaurocrats assess projects by cost and convenience, and to date the notion of honest ‘triple bottom line’ assessment of such projects by the South Australian Government remains a pipe dream.
If you believe as we do, that the expansion of Port Bonython is environmentally inappropriate, be sure to write to Ministers John Rau and Patrick Conlon and express your grave concerns.