The Pumicestone Passage is a shallow enclosed waterway located between the mainland and Bribie Island. Under the influence of the tides this shallow narrow water body provides a wide range of habitat types including salt marshes, mud flats, seagrass beds and extensive mangrove systems including the largest area of orange mangrove (Bruguiera gymnorhiza) in South East Queensland.
These habitat types support a wide range of plant and animal species including endangered species such as dugong (Dugon dugong), loggerhead turtles (Caretta caretta), green turtles (Chelonia mydas) and the water mouse (Xeromys myoides. The Pumicestone Passage is home to a large number of bird species with over 370 species known to occur in the area including more than 50 migratory species protected under international treaties.
The environmental significance of the Pumicestone Passage has long been recognised by local, State and National governments and the Passage is protected under a variety of legislation. The Passage is part of the Moreton Bay Marine Park and sections of it are gazetted fish habitat areas recognising its importance as a breeding ground for fish species of both commercial and recreational interest,
The Passage and much of its catchment are listed on the directory of nationally significant wetlands and both the migratory bird species and endangered species that live in the area are protected under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (1999).
The Pumicestone Passage has been recognised as an internationally significant wetland and is protected under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.
The primary driver of ecosystem health in the Pumicestone Passage is water quality. Water quality impacts on every level of the food pyramid from the tiniest algae and invertebrates to the largest mangroves, dolphins or iconic bird species such as the black swan and pied cormorant.
The first significant studies of water quality in the Pumicestone Passage were undertaken in the late 70’s and early 80’s. The science of water quality monitoring was only just evolving in those days and there was little baseline data to make comparisons or identify trends at the time.
However a national study conducted in 1992 was able to examine trends in water quality and associated ecosystem health. It came to the alarming conclusion that: (‘a change in estuarine water quality is observable in the period 1978-1980 to 1991 which suggests that changes in pollutant exports associated with changes in land use and management practices are already well in excess of sustainable levels.’(Integrated Management Strategy for Pumicestone Passage 1993)
There has been significant further changes in land use and management since that time with major changes in agriculture, forestry and urban development. A recent study undertaken by Sunshine Coast Council in preparation of its Pumicestone Passage and Catchment Action Plan 2013-2016 found that the five main sources of impacts on water quality are:
- Agricultural inputs
- On-site sewage systems (septic tanks)
- Urban sewerage
- Urban development
The ongoing impacts of these land uses have been monitored on a monthly basis since 1993. During the last 14 years this had occurred under the auspices of the Environmental Health Monitoring Program (EHMP) which produces an annual report card for all waterways in South East Queensland. During the last decade the Pumicestone Passage has received a C average (Fair: Conditions meet some of the set ecosystem health values in most of the reporting region; some key processes are functional and some critical habitat are impacted).
Environmental Protection (Water) Policy
There is legislation in Queensland to protect our waterways from being further negatively impacted upon by human activities. The Environmental Protection (Water) Policy (EPP) stipulates that activities that will negatively impact upon water quality must either mitigate their impacts or must be avoided.
The objective of the EPP is to maintain and improve the condition of waterways in Queensland. To do this it provides specific numerical targets for key parameters of water quality (e.g. dissolved oxygen, total nitrogen and phosphorous, chlorophyll a etc.). The EPP recognises that there are large differences between different water bodies in terms of their ecological character and the level of historical impact and it provides different target values for different water bodies and even for different areas within a specific water body (click here to view the water quality objectives for Pumicestone Passage).
The water quality objectives in the EPP were established (and are continuously reviewed) through a rigorous scientific process. It is important to note though, that they were established after extensive consultation with industry and community stakeholders. They are not ‘pie in the sky’ targets but express what is required to deliver on the communities aspiration of having healthy, thriving waterways and what is realistically achievable after social and economic factors have been considered.
It is also important to note that, when introducing the current version of the legislation in parliament back in 2009, the minister made it clear that without legislation, and without enforcement of that legislation, the objectives of the EPP would not be met: Self-regulatory approaches and market-based instruments …..have not demonstrated effectiveness in achieving coordinated environmental outcomes and in isolation would not achieve the policy objectives.(Explanatory note EPP 2009)
Future of the Pumicestone Passage
Although we have an excellent legislative framework in place for the protection of water quality in the Pumicestone Passage; and although we have known for over 20 years that the impacts of current land use and management is unsustainable; and although we have a world’s best practice monitoring regime the experience since 1993 shows that all we are doing is monitoring ecological decline with an ever greater level of sophistication.
Unfortunately this does not look like it is about the end for the Pumicestone Passage with the approval of Caloundra South, a city of 50,000 people that will drain directly into the Pumicestone Passage. The development has been conditioned by the State and Federal government to require a world’s best practice approach to Water Sensitive Urban Design but as the developers own documents show this will not actually ensure that the development will comply with the water quality objectives of the EPP (click here to learn more about water quality management at Caloundra South).
We should not jeopardise the future of the Pumicestone Passage any further by planning more urban development is such close proximity. The Passage is to important both in terms of its ecological values and in terms of what it provides to our region in scenic amenity and recreational space for the Caloundra community and in competitive advantage for our tourism industry.