PARK WATCH Article June 2023 |

Nature Conservation Campaigner Shannon Hurley on the latest developments in the bold plan to protect Western Port Bay.

A recent good news story from Western Port shows the way groups can come together for a shared outcome, in this case to protect wildlife they love.

It involves the protection of Short-tailed Shearwaters (Puffinus tenuirostris) and their epic migratory journey between Phillip Island/Millowl and the northern hemisphere. As the chicks emerge from their nests on Millowl, the adults embark on their long flight back across the seas. The chicks follow once they have grown enough feathers and strength.

But light pollution often disrupts the birds’ flyways, scattering them across roads, resulting in many deaths. To help the Shearwaters avoid these fatal distractions, local residents and businesses have agreed to switch off their lights for a few nights during the Shearwaters’ peak fly time.

This story embodies what we are working to achieve: for businesses, government agencies, water user groups, industry, Traditional Owners and community groups to come together with the shared goal of protecting the bay.

Caption: Western Port Bay postcard: Australian Fur Seal (Hannah Gleeson)

After teaming up with the Western Port Biosphere Reserve Foundation, Phillip Island Conservation Society, Save Westernport, and many other local and statewide groups, VNPA efforts have created a ground swell of support, with over 60 businesses, groups and clubs signed on. We’ve also been speaking with local councils, tourism bodies, community groups, committees of management and government agencies.

So far there hasn’t been anyone that’s said it’s a bad idea! Even local MPs Paul Mercurio (Hastings) and Jordan Crugnale (Bass) are supportive. What’s missing is the broader state government commitment.

Government support

With no commitment in the 2022 state election, we tweaked our approach.

We’re now hoping to secure state government support to start the process. This could initially be a small investment to start the scoping process. It might include a staff member or two within the Department of Environment, Energy and Climate Action (DEECA) to develop the Framework VNPA and our partners have begun, prepare a bid for the next state budget and start consulting with relevant agencies.

The threats are too big not to have any over-arching plan and partnership to care for the bay and the businesses and industry that rely on it. This is why our Framework proposes three pillars:

Yet it remains the birthplace of many risky industrialisation projects. A recent example is the trial of the Hydrogen Energy Supply Chain, where liquid hydrogen is produced from coal in the La Trobe Valley exported to Japan through the port of Hastings. The rationale for this project is beyond us.

Another is Esso’s plan for an ethane gas-fired power station at Long Island Point, to burn gas for power generation. Despite significant community and local council concerns, the government has conferred ‘priority’ status on the project, a streamlined process for approvals set up during COVID.

Caption: Western Port Bay postcard: French Island (Justin Boord)

Renewable energy plans

On a more optimistic note, the Port of Hastings also facilitates the Victorian Renewable Energy Terminal, which promotes sustainable industry. There is a lot of positive community sentiment for more renewable energy projects. While there are many studies still be done to assess and mitigate impacts on Western Port’s UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and a Ramsar-listed wetland, the direction towards sustainable and renewable industries and economy is a good thing

The Western Port Bay Framework, once set in motion, will help establish the offshore wind sector and the Bay’s role in it. It’s a powerful tool to guide marine planning inclusive of offshore wind development and its interaction with other uses and interests like tourism, conservation and industry.

If done right, the Framework will provide a thorough process to assess, monitor and minimise harm on the marine environment. It will be a catalyst that brings together different interest groups around the Bay to organise.

We’ve been meeting with the Offshore Energy arm of DEECA to emphasise the need for leadership and collaboration between the energy and environment portfolios. 

Take action for Western Port

In March we launched a Western Port postcard action to grow the groundswell of support for the Framework. Please send your message of support! We’ll transcribe your words onto a postcard featuring mangroves, a seal or the French Island shoreline, and deliver it to the environment minister, or your local MP if you live in the Western Port area.

Send your own Western Port Bay support message