Kwinana Beach
This is what can happen when the power of the local community is harnessed.

people and the sea

Almost fifteen years ago, the federal and Western Australian Government set up a program to look after not only the state’s lands and waters, but the plants and animals that live within them. Craig Wilson works for this program – Perth NRM* – and his particular focus is on the coastal and marine areas south of Perth, from Fremantle through Cockburn & Kwinana and on to Rockingham. He’s a good fit for the role and some of the reasons why lie in his past...

Like many people who connect with land and sea, there’s often a connection in childhood. Craig grew up on the Surf Coast of Victoria: “I spent a lot of years on a surf board experiencing the ebb and flow of the ocean along the Great Ocean Road.” Which probably has something to do with his eventual move to Lismore to study Coastal Management at Southern Cross University. The usual string of work placements then followed where he began putting the theory into practice – with state agencies, private consultancies and not-for-profit organisations. Then things got even more interesting.

“I went overseas for six years to work in the Pacific Islands. I spent two of those in Kiribati as part of the Australian Volunteers Abroad Program supporting the government’s environmental program, then another four in Samoa with the UN-supported Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme.”

Returning to Australia, Craig volunteered to support the local indigenous environmental organisation at Nhulunbuy in East Arnhem Land while his wife worked for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. Then came the move to Perth and after a bit of settling in, his current position with Perth NRM.

So why is Craig a great person to gather community groups into being; the person who successfully brings together and gives a focus to existing Coastcare, friends of, school groups and corporate groups? The answer is easy. He’s had the experience – at times gained in exotic locations and, as it turns out, universally relevant.

Take, for example, one of the situations being tackled while Craig was in Tarawa, Kiribati. “Where there was once two to three thousand people living on Tarawa, there are now around 50,000. And with a high concentration of people - living by subsistence - the area was suffering from over-fishing.” Craig and the team were faced with trying to build a buffer around the seasonal spawning-aggregation of fish. In the short term, catches were easy, but at a potentially devastating future human and ecological cost. “They were hammering them.”

The solution lay in getting people to understand the looming problem: to support the locals to find a way to restore balance and have a way forward that could be sustained. “Prior to European involvement, fishing was managed by a system of traditional practices.” Back in the day, there were accepted restrictions on fishing during the annual spawning. “So we worked with local villages and the fishermen to reintroduce something similar – a combination of traditional and modern practices to better manage the fish stocks to achieve a sustainable outcome.”

Craig uses very similar methods of gaining a community’s focus and engagement to this day. Take the Kwinana coast where pockets of green are interspersed with the infrastructure of large industry. One of these is Wells Park, until recently a very forgettable patch of scrappy remnant coastal dune vegetation overgrown with weeds. With limited access, and no appeal, it had potential to be restored to a state of sustainability and biodiversity.

Wells Park Site
Once the woody weeds had been removed, to the unexperienced eye the Wells Park project probably looked worse than when works began. But once local species were replanted, and the weeds kept in check, it wasn’t long before things looked much, much better.
Wells Park Site

With Craig and Perth NRM’s expertise, all that was needed was support from the locals and the City of Kwinana to make it happen. “So we helped form the Kwinana Beach Coastcare Group, then supported them as they prepared the foreshore management plan which would act as a guide in the restoration work, staged over years to come.”

The process that followed was text-book: first a plant audit to identify both the weeds and the local species to keep, then a hands-on phase. Working in a mosaic pattern (to reduce the potential for dune erosion) members of the Group along with support from local schools and corporates would periodically weed and then plant more of the original species into the newly revealed gaps. And the common factor that made this project – or the Kiribati sustainable fish management program – a success, is getting people engaged and informed. It’s what Craig’s role is all about, and it’s part of the job he enjoys.

Of course, he and everyone associated with the Wells Park restoration is happy to see that the dunes have been stabilised, that the weeds are on the back foot, that the natural vegetation is slowly coming back to dominate the landscape, that there’s talk that bandicoots have been sighted, and that there’s now a path through the space to a seat with a view out over the sea. So much has been achieved.