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HomeNewsBattle over boats at Cabbage Tree Bay

Battle over boats at Cabbage Tree Bay

The presence of boats is causing ongoing tensions in the otherwise calm waters at Cabbage Tree Bay, the aquatic reserve between Manly and Shelly Beach.

A popular place for swimmers, paddlers, snorkelers and divers, Cabbage Tree Bay, or “CTB” is a regular topic in local social media groups. Often recreational users denounce the trespass of harbouring boats into the reserve only to learn that it is entirely legal for a boat to be there.  But the question remains, should it be?

About the Bay

Cabbage Tree Bay has been an Aquatic Reserve since 2002 following extensive campaigning from Council representatives and local marine experts and enthusiasts. However, the Department of Primary Industries tells us that boating activities have remained permissible there in all areas except for the swimming zone off Shelly Beach.

The NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI – Fisheries) manages the aquatic reserve, while Transport for NSW (TfNSW) manages boating related activities. Northern Beaches Council looks after everything else such as foreshore maintenance,  recreation bookings, environmental management, and general compliance.

Boats, swimmers, divers, kayaks and snorkelers are all competing for space at the popular aquatic reserve. Photo: Supplied.

While boats are allowed to enter and anchor, they must not do so on the delicate sea grass on the reserve’s ocean floor, a vital part of the eco-system for the reserve’s marine life.  The issue, say local divers, is that boaters are repeatedly ripping up the sea grass either through negligence or ignorance, citing they are unable to see whether there is sea grass below the boat or were never informed it was a rule.

Our image above is from a day in March when there were numerous boats throughout the bay, some allegedly anchored in banned areas. Just for good measure, we are told someone also tried fishing. It was reported to authorities.

“Boaters should avoid anchoring in seagrass beds as harming marine vegetation, including seagrass, is prohibited in aquatic reserves and throughout the NSW marine estate,” a joint statement from Fisheries and Transport stated. However, our request for information on the number of fines ever issued for sea grass damage at the reserve wasn ot answered.

“There are patches of seagrass in Cabbage Tree Bay Aquatic Reserve, but there are also sandy areas of seafloor that can be used for anchoring,” their joint statement continued.

Who cares about grass ?

Seagrass is one of the most important ecosystems on this planet, vital to the overall health of the ocean, according to this fascinating explainer.

NOM NOM: a turtle feeding on seagrass, an image used in Sea Fans dot net which explains the importance of sea grass to the marine ecosystem.

A map of sea grass areas has been provided to us from Marco Bordieri from divers’ group Viz. They mapped the seagrass to share the vital info with their members.

“The regulation of the marine reserve prohibits the boats from anchoring on seagrass, but without providing boaters with evidence of where the seagrass is, the regulation is meaningless,” he said.

Constant confrontations between boats and regular reserve users

One diver, Em, captured the below footage of a boat anchored in the protected sea grass in February. She said the person operating the boat was furious when she asked him to move.

“I asked him to remove his anchor as it’s not legal… he thought I was lying and asked how he would know where to throw the anchor as he couldn’t see the bottom, which they all say,” the diver recalled. “It just needs to change. Either ban boats completely or add one or two anchor points in a safe spot away from swimmers and seagrass,” she said.

Regular CTB diver Peter Hutchins has shared several images showing damage to sea grass from anchors on social media this year. He disagreed with arguments that boats needed access to the bay in order to find “safe harbour” when the weather turned wild.

“If a boater needs shelter they should seek out the biggest harbour in the world – if they can’t find Sydney Harbour they shouldn’t be boating!”

On-site education programs are run by the Friends of Cabbage Tree Bay (now council managed) and include information on how people can continue to enjoy the aquatic reserve while respecting and protecting its ecological values.

Cathy Griffin, a former Manly councillor, was one of the founding members of the Friends of CTB when it started about a decade ago. The group worked with DPI and Council to install the current interpretive signage and place volunteers in the area on weekends to remind people of the rules and educate visitors to the special nature and conditions of the reserve.

Ms Griffin said she did not support the idea of putting permanent buoys or anchor points in the sand and would rather an outright ban.

“The regulation should be amended to prohibit motorised vessels in Cabbage Tree Bay Aquatic Reserve,” she said. “Anyone wanting to take their boat into the reserve can seek permission for their activity or event – safe harbour remains, but only for emergencies, not hanging out there all day.”

It is a sentiment echoed by many in the local diving industry, who say hundreds of swimmers and boats don’t mix.

Manly Observer spoke with Fisheries employee who said there is currently no precedent for banning boats in reserves. “Why shouldn’t people in boats have the same rights to enjoy the area like everyone else,” they told us, unofficially.

Some action underway

We are not aware of any active efforts from local or state government to  ban boats from the Bay, but there are plans to improve education of reserve rules for all users.

A report to Northern Beaches Council in March (Requested by Manly ward councillor Pat Daley), said Fisheries would be installing education signage throughout the Northern Beaches and at Cabbage Tree Bay, in collaboration with Council. It will highlight  “the importance of threatened and protected species as part of their Marine Estate Management Strategy.”

“Council will continue to liaise with Fisheries to support community awareness of the regulations regarding the Reserve in order to achieve improved conservation outcomes. Council has [also] requested seagrass mapping be undertaken by Fisheries at the next opportunity, to review any impacts,” the report states.

Divers’ paradise

The report also looked at the impacts of frequent diving excursions in the bay, with Cr Pat Daley remarking in December that he was concerned about the number of divers on the site “trampling marine life”.  As a result, Council and Fisheries are developing a code of conduct that will require scuba diving and snorkelling businesses to comply with ‘no take’ regulations and minimise harm to the environment.

But divers say they are the ones keeping the bay protected; they are usually the ones posting to social media concerned that boat anchors have damaged the seagrass or alerting rescue groups when turtles swallow fishing line or balloon debris.

Deborah Dickinson-Smith runs a dive travel agency called Diveplanit. She says Shelly Beach is consistently in the top three pages visited on their website each month – and they cover everything from Galapagos to the Maldives.

“The bay really is so busy now, with swimmers, snorkelers, free divers and scuba divers, that boats really are much more a concern than they used to be,” she explains.

“They should not be allowed to anchor in the marine reserve at all – it’s high time this ruling was reviewed. The argument in the past was that it was required as a safe haven from inclement weather, but usually we see boats anchored when conditions are perfect. Another argument is that the surf club requires access to attend rescues – but surely they could be treated as an exemption?”

Deborah Dickson-Smith scuba diving. Photo: Pete McGee Photography.

So what next?

With additional signage and education efforts in train, a harmony may be able to be reached with all recreational users of the aquatic reserve. If not, it is up to our local representatives to actively campaign for change. We are informed Manly MP James Griffin has made queries with the transport minister on the issue but is yet to hear back.

We would love to hear learned opinions from all sides of the issue, and welcome your comments on our various social media channels where this article is shared.

You can read more about rules and regulations governing our aquatic reserves and marine parks here. 

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