Media Release Marine Conservation

NSW surfers, divers, rec fishers & conservationists oppose land clearing

February 24, 2023

An alliance of surfers, divers, recreational fishers and conservationists are calling for an end to land clearing in NSW, saying it too heavily impacts our coast and marine environment.

Land clearing has increased 13-fold in NSW since 2016, when land clearing regulations were replaced with self-assessment codes.

The alliance has made a submission into the statutory review of the NSW Native Vegetation Codes currently underway and demands the review takes into account the impact of clearing on the water quality of our coastal waters and marine life.

Australian Marine Conservation Society Marine Parks Campaigner and North Coast-based surfer and diver James Sherwood said NSW’s self-assessment codes, which give landholders the power to decide whether they are following the rules, has led to mass land clearing, threatening our freshwater and marine ecosystems, vital systems that support both the health of humans and vulnerable marine life.

“Land clearing often leads to more intensive farming practices that results in increased sediment and chemical runoff, which has a harmful effect on marine life,” Mr Sherwood said. “The proposed scope of the review is too narrow, missing an opportunity to explore the serious issue of poor water quality and the impact on our marine ecosystems. The review should be an opportunity to look at the impacts of land clearing on water quality and improve regulation.”

Dane Wilmot, president of the Bateman Bay-based Nature Coast Marine Group and a recreational fisher, said our waterways are important breeding sites for aquatic animals and flush out into our oceans and marine parks, and special refuges for NSW’s vulnerable marine life and habitats.

“The millions of taxpayer funded dollars being spent on riparian revegetation and on blue carbon is a waste of money as long as the land clearing laws are so lax that land clearing rates are soaring, rather than going down,” Mr Wilmot said.

Surfrider Foundation’s national campaign manager and North Coast-based surfer Drew McPherson said clean, natural, healthy flowing waterways are important for tourism, water security, and recreation, including for surfers, divers, swimmers.

“United, our alliance makes up the bulk of hundreds of thousands of members who are keen to see the government clean up our waters. Our group alone represents nine branches spanning the north and south coast of NSW,” Mr McPherson said.

Richard Nicholls, president of the Dive Industry Association of Australia and owner of Manly Dive Centre, said divers are concerned for the health of marine life.

“We also want to see an end to poor water quality, because runoff is bad for business,” Mr Nicholls said. “It muddies the water, creating bad visibility, impacting on our bottom line. Less people dive when the visibility is poor. It’s time to clean up our oceans for the future of human health and wellbeing, and the survival of vulnerable habitats and species, like seagrass and sea turtles. We hope the outcome of the review is to put an end to large-scale land clearing.”

The submission shows that water quality in some of our biggest waterways has been impacted by land clearing.

For example, the Richmond River discharges into the southern waters of the Cape Byron Marine Park and around Ballina’s popular surfing beaches, an issue that the local marine committee has expressed concerns about in the past.

In 2016 utility company Rous Water, in partnership with the University of New England, released an examination of the health of the Richmond River catchment, giving it an overall poor health rating of D+ on a scale from A-F, citing land clearing, grazing in riparian zones and the dominance of noxious weeds as the cause of poor river conditions.

The Clarence Rivers discharges near the popular surfing spots of Yamba and Angourie, a national surfing reserve.

In 2022 an independent study commissioned by the Clarence Valley Council found the most significant threats to the Clarence River catchment include native vegetation clearing and increased sediment and nutrient loads. It found sediment and nutrient runoff from cleared land contributed to poor water quality.

The clearing for blueberry farming and associated runoff has caused pollution problems in Hearns Lakes, whose waters flow into the Solitary Islands Marine Park near Coffs Harbour.