Timothy F Smith, CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems
Michael Doherty, CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems
prepared for the 2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee, 2006
To succinctly describe the state of coastal Australia affected by the ‘sea change’ phenomenon is a difficult task. In terms of natural processes, coastal ecosystems are inherently dynamic. In the case of the east Australian coast, the constant northward migration of sand is the key to understanding coastal processes, including the formation of the dune systems in Myall Lakes National Park in New South Wales and the formation of Fraser Island in Queensland. The northward migration of sand is also important to understanding beach accretion and erosion processes, and the interaction of recent human modification of coastal landscapes with these short, medium and long-term dynamic processes.
Coastal systems include aspects important to biodiversity (for example, habitat and nutrient cycling) and also provide recreational opportunities for residents and visitors. The environmental impacts of intensive coastal settlement occur across a wide spectrum—from water pollution through to air pollution and the destruction of prime habitat including mangroves, saltmarshes and freshwater swamp communities . Many national parks have been established around the Australian coast including the World Heritage areas of the Great Barrier Reef, Fraser Island and Shark Bay. These represent only a small sample of coastal ecosystems and do not in and of themselves protect all values found along the coast. Indeed, given the dynamic nature of coastal ecosystems, it would be nave to ignore the interconnectedness of the national parks with their rural and urban surroundings.
While research exists that examines the state of various aspects of coastal systems within an urban setting (for example, research undertaken by the Centre for Research on Ecological Impacts of Coastal Cities, University of Sydney), the research is not unique to ‘sea change’ communities per se. In fact, both existing urban areas (re-urbanising) and suburbanising coastal environments are affected by similar impacts, such as resource extraction (for example, fishing), tourism, and development. It is the rate of change, the intensity or concentration of activity or input, the transformation processes, and the sensitivity of the receiving environment or impacted species that are the critical variables. Because many coastal communities have not anticipated the surges in both migration and tourism, the state of hard infrastructure (such as roads and bridges) and soft infrastructure (such as infrastructure for research, training, innovation and technology) is under enormous pressure.
Similarly, the economic state of ‘sea change’ communities is also variable—temporally and spatially (within and between coastal communities). Many coastal communities experience boom and bust cycles, due to the influence of external forces, such as demand for investment properties, tourism, and the viability of primary industries. Furthermore, many of the smaller ‘sea change’ communities once perceived little need for integrated strategic planning relating to issues such as landuse and development (Shepherd 2005). Consequently, the current state of hard and soft infrastructure and the capacity to control provisions for development is often lacking.
From a social perspective, Burnley and Murphy (2004) raise a number of potential problems arising from the population changes in coastal regions. Low-skill employment seekers move into ‘sea change’ communities where a job shortage may already exist and become competition to ‘local’ job seekers. One reported impact of this issue is the manifestation of conflict between the school-aged children of those competing for work. In addition, Burnley and Murphy highlight a number of other social problems, including: the disconnection from family and friends of retirees who move to ‘sea change’ areas and require greater community service support as they lose their independence over time; and social and economic inequities resulting from the gentrification of traditionally lower-income communities. Similarly, as real estate values increase rapidly in many coastal communities, local first home-buyers can be priced out of the market and may also need to relocate.
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