Port of Melbourne lease highlights need to reform nature laws

Oceania’s busiest port is set to become even busier with the Victorian government granting a new 50-year lease of the Port of Melbourne. For the already threatened Burrunan Dolphin, this is likely to mean increased stress from shipping in the Port Philip Bay area.

The new lease has been agreed after a decade of Victorian government inaction to improve protection for threatened species, and a recent election promise to reform the outdated Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act (FFG Act).

This 50-year lease highlights the need for adequate legal protection of endemic populations such as the Burrunan Dolphin, who must now increasingly share their home with enormous container ships in Port Phillip Bay.

The positive news is that it might not be too late to ensure that species like the Burrunan Dolphin continue to exist in the Bay. EJA has just released a report outlining the key steps that the Victorian government must take to reform the FFG Act to give the Burrunan Dolphin a better chance of survival amongst increasing pressures.

The Burrunan Dolphin is a recently discovered dolphin species. It was previously thought to be a type of bottlenose dolphin but is now known to be a separate and distinct species endemic to southern Australian coastal waters. There are thought to be around 100 resident Burrunan Dolphins in the Bay.

While the Burrunan Dolphin’s habitat is on Melbourne’s doorstep, researchers still know very little about the behaviours and movements of the Burrunan Dolphin. Ongoing work is being conducted by the Australian Marine Mammal Conservation Foundation (AMMCF) to collect the scientific data required for full population assessments. What has become clear, however, is that the Burrunan Dolphins in the Bay are genetically isolated, and as such they are less able to adapt to environmental change and have heightened extinction risks stemming from threats such as shipping, fishing and commercial activities.

Three years ago, the Burrunan Dolphin was listed as a threatened mammal under the FFG Act. Despite the listing, it seems that little has been done to protect the endemic species from increasing pressures.

A key failing of the FFG Act is that decision-makers have too much discretion and do not have any binding obligations to take action to protect threatened species. Powerful conservation tools such as interim conservation orders, which can have the effect of directly prohibiting environmental damage, have been rarely used under the FFG Act.

EJA’s report recommends that:

  • the designation of critical habitat for listed threatened species and communities must become mandatory, not discretionary; and
  • a ‘critical habitat register’ should be established, and accompanied by mandatory conservation orders or notices that effectively protect and work to restore critical habitat.

Recommendations such as these are greatly needed to better protect our native species such as the Burrunan Dolphin. We want to ensure this newly discovered dolphin will always call the Port Phillip Bay its home, despite the impact of the greater intensity of shipping from the Port of Melbourne lease.

We call on the Victorian government to fulfill its election promise and end the decade of inaction over the FFG Act.

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