Who’s got Spencer Gulf by the tentacles?

A globally unique mass cuttlefish aggregation occurs annually in the shallow waters of South Australia’s upper Spencer Gulf. Exploited by commercial fishing in the late 1990s, residents of the steel-making town of Whyalla struggled to protect their breeding habitat. Ecotourism and scientific interest in the animals flourished, but the cuttlefish population continued to decline.

Public speculation followed as possible causes of the population decline were raised. Was it predators, pollution, fishing pressure, disease, habitat degradation or multiple threats combined? Despite public outcry, scientific studies of the population’s vulnerabilities were few. Filmmaker Dan Monceaux makes it his personal quest to understand the threats surrounding the cuttlefish in the face of government inaction.

Giant Australian cuttlefish aggregation near Point Lowly - Dan Monceaux

Giant Australian cuttlefish aggregation near Point Lowly

Conflict over cuttlefish conservation reached a head with the proposed expansion of the Olympic Dam mine- a major copper mine and the world’s largest known single deposit of uranium. Its owners, the multinational resources company BHP Billiton planned to expand the mine which would make it the world’s largest open pit. It would also require water, and in the driest state on the driest inhabited continent, it was decided that desalinated seawater would provide, drawn from the neck of Spencer Gulf.

The Olympic Dam mine expansion promised economic prosperity for South Australia, with thousands of potential jobs and a string of major new construction projects. The state government’s greater plans for Cuttlefish Country are revealed, as Spencer Gulf becomes surrounded with proposals for new ports, desalination plants and aquaculture operations. Interview subjects include divers, marine scientists, politicians, indigenous and non-indigenous community members and farmers.

BHP Billiton's Olympic Dam Mine Site 2011

BHP Billiton’s Olympic Dam Mine Site, circa 2011

The cuttlefish aren’t the only animals caught in the middle, as port proposals threaten remote coastal habitats which support breeding seabirds, including the iconic little penguin. If new ports are built, the recovering southern right whale population will also have to share the gulf’s waters with dramatically increasing shipping traffic.

The environmental consequences of coastal and marine industrial development are called into question as past and projected impacts are examined. The cuttlefish stand to lose the most, as their limited rocky reef habitat sits squarely in the path of a new mineral export precinct featuring a wharf, a diesel distribution hub and the largest seawater desalination plant proposed for South Australia.

Little Blue Penguin in burrow on Lipson Island

Little Blue Penguin in burrow on Lipson Island

The efficacy of planning policy in South Australia and the vulnerability of marine science to fall prey to political and economic pressure is examined. Monceaux questions the acceptability of environmental risks and seeks to understand how projects have been facilitated in such close proximity to sensitive coastal and marine ecosystems.

Proposed industrial expansion in Spencer Gulf has implications for the health and survival of giant Australian cuttlefish, little penguins and southern right whale populations. Do alternative economic opportunities exist which could allow these animals to flourish? Can compromise be struck in Cuttlefish Country, or will these natural wonders pay the ultimate price in the name of progress?

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