Toondah Harbour is not beautiful in the traditional sense—it’s wet, brown, and damp, not much more than a bland expanse of mangrove-ridden mudflats just east of the Queensland town of Cleveland.
As part of the larger Moreton Bay, Toondah Harbour is home to dugongs, dolphins, sea turtles and seven species of threatened migratory shorebirds.
Although it is a protected wetland under international Ramsar conventions, Toondah Harbour could be under threat from a substantial construction development by developer Walker Corporation.
Walker corporation is run by billionaire and island owner Lang Walker, who wants to build a $116 million, 3600-room apartment complex and waterfront boulevard in Toondah Harbour, covering almost 50 hectares of water and 18 hectares of land.
There is debate amongst the residents of Cleveland over the necessity of this project. According to research compiled by Mr Hunter, most people recognise that Toondah Harbour needs a revamp to assist with travel to Stradbroke Island and to boost the local economy.
However, most people feel that Walker Corporation’s plans may be excessive considering it would interfere with internationally protected wetlands and put the critically endangered eastern curlew and threatened bar-tailed godwit at risk.
Toondah Harbour is part of the Moreton Bay Ramsar site, recognised under the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty taken by more than 171 countries to protect wetlands considered of great ecological importance.
BirdLife Australia conservationist campaigner Andrew Hunter said the legislation surrounding Ramsar sites in Australia was confusing but crucial in deciding whether the Walker project would be allowed.
“Ramsar Wetlands are considered a matter of environmental and national significance under the Environmental and Biodiversity Conservation (EBPC) Act … Australia’s key piece of legislation for protecting [the] environment,” Mr Hunter said.
The Ramsar convention itself is not binding, but Australian national environment law protects all Ramsar sites.
Mr Hunter said there were two ways Australia could develop land protected under the EPBCA Act, the first requiring Walker Corporation to prove their development is in the urgent national interest of the nation.
“Usually that is like a major infrastructure project, like a military base or airport or seaport, which you could demonstrate that if that country does not build that within the Ramsar boundaries that it would hurt the and all of its citizens,” Mr Hunter said.
They were trying to prove that a 3600-apartment complex is in the urgent national interest of Australia, which is a very difficult argument to win.
“We [also] understand that they’ve been told by the Ramsar secretariat that proving this is pretty much impossible.”
The second option Walker Corporation could use to construct on Toondah Harbour is called the Wise Use of Wetlands, which Mr Hunter said is an action or construction within Ramsar boundaries that won’t significantly impact the ecological character of the wetlands.
“Generally, when an action is proposed within Ramsar boundaries, it’s really low impact, like traditional hunting or fishing actions,” Mr Hunter said.
“As far as we know, there has been no private development that’s ever been approved within Ramsar boundaries that proves that it’s within the wise use of Ramsar wetlands.”
The Walker Corporation’s proposed development, which has a secretive history of political donations, government pressure and non-disclosure agreements, has been met with a fierce response from many Cleveland locals and Queenslanders, who protested at a “line in the mud” event on the wetlands.
Mr Hunter said the protest turnout was “amazing”.
“We were expecting 100, 150 people, and then we turn out on the day and there’s 500 plus,” he said.
About 80 per cent of the local community do not support this proposed development.
“They believe that the ferry terminal needs to be upgraded and there needs to be rejuvenation of the CBD and local economy.”
“The scale of the project that’s proposed and the fact that it’s going out into internationally important wetlands, and within habitat of threatened species, is not supported by the community from what we’ve seen.”
The eastern curlew has become the poster bird for the conservationist campaigners at the Toondah Wetlands. It has suffered an 80 per cent population reduction over the last 30 years because of coastal development.
Toondah Harbour remains a significant feeding ground for the eastern curlew after making the sometimes 10,000km journey from Russia. Conservationists fear the destruction of these feeding grounds would see the population continue to dwindle.
“Our position, as any destruction of breeding for a critically endangered species, is absolutely a full-stop no-go, like, this bird is critically endangered for a reason,” Mr Hunter said.
They’ve seen their feeding habitat and roosting habitat all across the flyway being destroyed … and once feeding habitat is destroyed, then it’s destroyed forever.
Just north of Toondah Harbour lies Raby Bay, which used to be one of the largest roosting and feeding sites for curlews in Moreton Bay.
Unfortunately, the development of mudflats occurred before Moreton Bay was Ramsar listed, and that development has affected the region’s eastern curlew population.
The Toondah Harbour project approval deadline remains uncertain. However, Walker Corporation is expected to send out an environmental impact statement within the next few weeks or months, allowing 20 days for submissions before then being referred to the environment minister for their decision.
Walker Corporation was contacted for comment but didn’t respond by the deadline.