May 31, 2023
Featured image: Migaloo white humpback whale and Wollumbin © Craig Parry
(BYRON BAY, NEW SOUTH WALES, AUSTRALIA) –
An 8-hour drive north from Sydney, Australia rests the small coastal town of Byron Bay, appreciated by its 9,000 residents for its sparkling blue waters, golden sands and epic surf breaks. The area encompasses the Cape Byron Marine Park and the Julian Rocks Nguthungulli Nature Reserve, which represent the ecological, cultural, and economic importance of the region. In recent years, Byron Bay has become a popular tourist destination, with 3 to 5 million annual visitors. However, this added pressure comes with a downside: much like many marine ecosystems around the world, the area struggles with the negative effects of pollution, runoff, and increasing coastal development, which has caused habitat degradation of the local marine life. Alice Forrest, marine biologist and wildlife guide and Dr. Elizabeth Hawkins, Founder and CEO of Dolphin Research Australia, are working to bring the public and Australian NGOs together to influence formal change to protect the marine ecosystem and the diverse life it sustains to ensure a healthy, lasting future for all in Byron Bay.
Mission Blue recognizes Byron Bay as Australia’s 11th Hope Spot, with Alice Forrest, marine biologist and wildlife guide, and Elizabeth Hawkins, PhD, Founder and CEO of Dolphin Research Australia as the Hope Spot Champions in honor of their work to secure future protection of the region’s marine biodiversity.
Dr. Sylvia Earle, Founder of Mission Blue, says, “This Hope Spot hosts a high level of biodiversity, supporting crucial habitats for over one thousand marine species. Australian humpback dolphin, Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin, zebra shark and gray nurse shark call this Bay home along with five species of sea turtles, many seabirds, migrating humpback, and southern right whales. Thank you to Alice Forrest and Elizabeth Hawkins for doing what you’re doing to protect this important blue pocket on Earth.”
Dr. Hawkins adds, “The Byron Bay Hope Spot will help to work towards having long-term protections in place to ensure the conservation and wellbeing of cetaceans and marine life and healthy, functioning ecosystems.” She continues, “The Hope Spot will provide a foundation to improve public appreciation and awareness of the unique values of the region.”
Looking to the near future, the Champions’ key focuses are currently on connectivity and collaboration between like-minded organizations, support for research and citizen science opportunities, along with public education and community engagement. There is currently a Facebook page dedicated to fostering these connections.
Forrest explains, “The Hope Spot celebrates the wonder and value of Byron Bay’s marine life, promoting connection, respect and support for ongoing research and creating custodians for the ocean now and into the future.”
On the horizon is creating resources and opportunities for ocean lovers to learn about the marine park and how they can be involved in research and conservation. This involves an Ocean Volunteer Hub to direct locals and tourists towards availabilities for hands-on conservation or citizen science with local organizations – right now that includes research into local species including turtles, manta rays, dolphins and more. They’re also working on educational resources for stakeholders of the Marine Park. “We want to create opportunities for ocean connection for those who live in the area but have never experienced what’s under the surface”, explains Forrest.
The Hope Spot Champions see the Hope Spot designation as a way to ensure the marine park meets its goals to protect ocean life. Forrest says, “Through greater public appreciation, awareness, and international recognition, the Byron Bay Hope Spot will add pressure on policymakers to improve protective measures with long-term conservation goals.”
While the area is currently classified as a Marine Park, the designation does not necessarily mean current or long-term protection for the local waters. “27% of the park is protected as a sanctuary zone, the highest level of protection where no fishing can occur. However, Cape Byron is a small park, and some key areas are not included. This is why our Hope Spot expands the boundaries southward to include the highly influential Richmond River, in line with calls by earlier proponents of the park. In addition, we are concerned that some sanctuary zones were opened to fishing in the 2013 amnesty, where the NSW Government turned a blind eye to fishing in sanctuaries.” While most of these have been restored, there are still two sanctuaries open to fishing.
The Byron Bay Hope Spot has tremendous support from like-minded constituents. Lorna Parry, Co-Founder and Managing Director, Underwater Earth and Champion of the Sydney Coast Hope Spot, says, “As Sydney Coast Hope Spot Champion as well as a founding member of the Australian ocean conservation charity, Underwater Earth, I and the team at Underwater Earth would like to demonstrate wholehearted support for the designation of the Byron Bay Hope Spot.”
In the Northern Rivers of NSW, there are several organizations, businesses, researchers and local governments who are working to protect the coast. The Hope Spot is partnering with them to work together to support the local marine protected area and surrounding coastline into the future. “We want to further coordinate with these groups and inspire connections within our coastal community to the Hope Spot”, says Dr. Hawkins.
This Hope Spot is supported and endorsed by Australian Seabird and Turtle Rescue, Byron Bird Buddies, Positive Change for Marine Life, Green Heroes, Byron Coastal and ICOLL Centre, National Parks Association and Australian Marine Conservation Society. Supporting businesses include Out Of The Blue Adventures and Apnea Art. It is also supported by prominent scientists such as Professor David Booth with the University of Technology, Sydney.
Forrest describes how important a community protecting Byron Bay is to her. “I have had the privilege of watching whales from my kayak as they undertake their huge migration and floated eye-to-eye with manta rays. I’ve had my mind blown, repeatedly, by the wonder and magic of this place and the incredible wildlife that rely on it. So now, I’d like to give something back. The ability to do this would bring me so much hope.”
The Byron Bay Hope Spot is Mission Blue’s 153rd Hope Spot and 11th in Australia. Dr. Sylvia Earle says, “From a psychological point of view, having more and more Hope Spots will keep motivating everyone to protect our oceans. From a purely physical point of view, we are literally protecting ourselves and those we love by protecting the oceans – with the carbon being pulled out of our atmosphere, and the oxygen being produced for us to breathe, all coming from the ocean.”
If you’d like to support the Byron Bay Hope Spot, follow their Facebook page for updates on opportunities to get involved with citizen science and stay up-to-date with policy developments and local marine conservation news.
Dolphin Research Australia is a grass-roots marine conservation charity dedicated to the conservation and protection of dolphins, whales and marine life, through research, education and advocacy. For over a decade, Dolphin Research Australia’s long-term research programs have continued to increase the ecological understanding and conservation needs of cetaceans and other marine megafauna species. Dolphin Research Australia’s ocean education and outreach programs connect people with nature, empowering action and stewardship of the environment. Through increasing knowledge, awareness and positive actions, Dolphin Research Australia is helping to ensure the conservation and protection of our fragile marine life and oceans for many future generations to come.