PARK WATCH Article November 2022 |

Shannon Hurley shares exciting plans for the future health of Western Port Bay’s community and nature.

Tuesday 30 March 2021 was a truly historic day for Western Port Bay. It was the day the Victorian Government ruled out AGL’s plans to build a giant polluting gas import terminal because of the unacceptable risk it would pose to nature. It was a milestone moment – not many projects under the scrutiny of the state’s Environmental Effects Statement process had previously been denied. Glasses were raised and celebrations had by the community who fought so hard in the months and years leading up to the decision. The decision was not only a great relief, but a chance to think deeply about the future of this important wetland bay.

Since then, we’ve joined with local community groups and Environment Victoria to reignite discussions for what Western Port Bay and community livelihoods could look like. It was agreed that it was time for a new long-term vision for the future health of the bay and all who depend on it. We wanted to imagine what it could look like with better planning and management and without relentless and inappropriate industrialisation and development.

VNPA put together a list of tools under existing legislation that could be used to deliver a new vision. Some of these included national and marine national parks, marine spatial planning, an environmental management plan, threatened species protections, and various tools under local planning laws.

After many discussions, meetings and workshops, it became clear that no one mechanism that could deliver our vision, but a variety of integrated could work. To explore this further, a smaller steering group was established to move things forward, with representatives from VNPA, Save Westernport, Phillip Island Conservation Society (PICS) and The Western Port Biosphere Reserve Foundation leading the charge.

After hundreds of hours of groundwork, which included input from local councils, government agencies, tourism and recreational groups, and local and conservation groups, the steering group developed a proposal called ‘A Strategic Framework For the future of Western Port Bay: protecting Victoria’s wetland biodiversity and sustainable marine and tourism industries’. It captures our vision, the problem, the solutions, and three key asks for the State Government.

With 2022 being an election year we saw this as another big moment for Western Port Bay – and an opportunity to give Port Phillip Bay’s poor cousin, who often misses out on the action, some love and attention. The highlights from the framework are: Our vision: to effectively manage, restore, and legally protect the marine and coastal environment of Western Port Bay and establish an ecologically sustainable economy for the future.

The problem

As population growth and inappropriate development continues, the health of Western Port Bay declines.

Western Port Bay has the highest number of deteriorating environmental health indicators in Victoria (out of the areas that have data for), according to the State of Marine and Coastal Environments Report. This includes declining populations of snapper and waterbirds. Exacerbating this is the substantial land use changes that are altering the quantity and quality of river discharges into the bay. So much so that Western Port is identified as having a serious water quality problem, with five of the nine estuaries flowing into the bay rated as ‘very poor’. The Cranbourne-Pakenham area is experiencing the fastest urban expansion in the state, with the population of the Western Port catchment expected to double over the next 20 years.

These biodiversity and environmental health indicators and projections are urgent signals that action and collaborative management are needed. Yet current planning, protection and management arrangements for Western Port are inadequate, with decisions often siloed and fragmented, and no cohesive or overarching guiding framework over the whole bay.

Western Port has long been under pressure from heavy industrial development – the community are fed up and want more collaborative action!

Caption: White mangroves (Avicennia marina) in Western Port Bay. | Photo: Stacy Chillcott

The solution – A new ‘whole bay’ approach

After seeking guidance from community, Traditional Custodians, land managers, tourism, fishing and other recreational bodies, we are proposing a ‘whole of bay’ integrated management framework that promotes environmental protection and economic sustainability for Western Port Bay, its coastlines and hinterland.

This management framework has three core elements:

  1. A new strategic plan for Western Port Bay – bringing together objectives, actions and programs into a coordinated planning and management tool that recognises the natural values of Western Port and the future economic prosperity of the region.
  2. A new collaborative management partnership – bringing together Traditional Custodians, community representatives, government agencies, councils, local business and industries, fishing and recreational groups, to develop the plan and oversee implementation.
  3. A dedicated Western Port fund to deliver the plan – with annual funding to deliver its objectives (at least equivalent to the Port Phillip Bay Fund).

We like to think of as this as the ‘what’. As for the ‘how’ to implement it, the management framework and its three core pillars can be delivered under existing marine and coastal legislation. For example, an Environmental Management Plan with marine spatial planning integrated would go a long way to achieving our objectives.

In the earlier iterations of our proposal, we suggested an alternative option to create a new Western Port Bay Act, allowing for more flexibility and geographic scope for what and how this planning and management would look like. However, it was felt by some in the community that having this additional option would be too hard to achieve and get a commitment for, and confused the proposal, so was removed at the last minute.

An important distinction to make is this is not at about excluding the marine industries that already exist, but rather working together across sectors to ensure that Western Port Bay health is cared for now and into the future. We also recognise the role of the current management agencies who have undertaken some fabulous work, and various plans and strategies (including catchment management plans and programs, marine national park management plans, industry and port strategies, and fishery and Ramsar management plans) that exist to govern so far.

Our proposal speaks to the need to bring together all of these interests in a more coordinated way with ecology at the forefront.

How can we make this happen?

We’re calling on the next Victorian Government to publicly commit to the new Framework for Western Port Bay, as an election policy, and its implementation in the next term of government.

The framework consists of three pillars:

  • A new strategic plan for Western Port Bay.
  • A new collaborative management partnership.
  • A dedicated Western Port fund to the deliver the plan.

How can you help?

If you support the vision, we need your help to spread the word so our proposal for the new framework is adopted by the next Victorian Government. You can show your support whether you are an individual, a business or group, a tourism operator, or recreational or industry representative, by signing up to support the proposal.

Find out more and act now for Western Port Bay by visiting

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