Whose beach is it anyway?

When it comes to cities’ natural areas (or national parks, or beaches, or ‘green spaces’, and so on), it can be difficult and controversial to define their purpose. By purpose, I mean: Is the area set aside for nature conservation? For the protection of a particular species? For human recreation and enjoyment? A combination of these? Something else?

I think about this a lot; when I’m bushwalking, or scuba diving, or bike riding through the forest, or swimming at the beach, or photographing natural settings. I believe wholeheartedly that we need areas that are entirely protected from human activities. But, clearly, I like to use and enjoy natural areas as much as the next person. For the most part, cities’ natural areas are going to have some degree of human disturbance; it’s about figuring out what level of disturbance we’re ok with - for which we need to understand the area’s purpose - and whether it can be managed to lessen the impacts.

Take a recent example. Two days ago, my partner and I spent the early morning birding at Bradbury’s Beach on North Stradbroke Island. This small and otherwise unremarkable beach happens to be an important site for shorebirds in Moreton Bay. Here you can observe a number of species roosting, preening or hunting for prey. We sat at a considerable distance from the birds (with binoculars and a telephoto lens at hand) to minimise disturbing them as much as possible. We saw many pied oystercatchers, eastern curlews (a long-distant migrant from the northern hemisphere), and a couple of Caspian terns. There was no one else on the beach. The birds seemed to be behaving naturally, not too bothered by our presence. All was well.

Unfortunately, this story doesn’t end well for the birds. As we were leaving, a man and his medium-size dog came onto the beach for a morning walk. Probably without thinking, the man let the dog off leash. In a minute or two, most birds were gone. The curlews, the most skittish, were the first to leave. Only a few brave oystercatchers stuck around, but at a distance.

Pied oystercatchers ( Haematopus longirostris )

Pied oystercatchers (Haematopus longirostris)

It is little known that shorebirds are a highly threatened group of animals, and that Moreton Bay – on the doorstep of the major city of Brisbane – is a critical terminus in the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (one of nine major global flyways). Many species from the northern hemisphere (some all the way from Russia) fly here to winter during our warmer months. Think of the energy expended in making that journey!

Sadly, most waterbirds in Moreton Bay are considered to be in decline, including the three species we observed. Of those, the eastern curlew is the most threatened globally. Its conservation status was uplisted to endangered last year, with habitat loss in Asia’s Yellow Sea region cited as the primary driver of its decline.

Notwithstanding, the demise of shorebirds has been a death by a thousand cuts: habitat loss, coastal development, four-wheel driving on beaches, altered sedimentation regimes, climate change, egg predation, pollution. The list goes on. While single events might seem inconsequential, the man-and-the-dog instance can be seen as yet another cut for the species; we can be sure that many more seemingly trivial events are happening day in and day out.

Nine global flyways (Image from  EAAFP )

Nine global flyways (Image from EAAFP)

Witnessing the disturbance of the-man-and-the-dog, however small or unintentional, stirred something in me. My immediate thought was that dogs should be banned from the beach altogether, or at least mandated to be on leash. But since human presence alone can affect the birds, should we also be restricted? I like to use this beach, and I’ve seen other people act considerately towards the birds, so restricting human activity might not seem fair. Perhaps this is simply a case of the uneducated; if the man knew better, he’d act differently.

This comes back to defining the purpose of the beach. What level of disturbance is ok here? Are we aiming for the best protection of these shorebirds, some of which are threatened with extinction, or is this rightfully a space for people to enjoy? Whose beach is it anyway? These questions are not easy to answer, but they ought to be discussed.

High tide roost

High tide roost

Eastern curlews ( Numenius madagascariensis ) at ebb tide

Eastern curlews (Numenius madagascariensis) at ebb tide