(Text and Images by Rosie Leaney)

Let your imagination take you back 300 years, to a small sheltered bay on the east coast of Australia. The bay is tucked in behind a headland which protects it from the ocean swell, it is fringed by palm trees and its golden sands lead into inviting turquoise water. Beneath the surface there are luscious kelp gardens, seagrass beds and tumbling rocky reef – home to a myriad different creatures. A young Aboriginal woman is launching a canoe made from tree bark. She is equipped with fishing line which has been hand-made from natural fibres, tied to a hook carved from shell. This bay is sacred in her culture and has incredible natural beauty. There is a plentiful supply of fish here, but she harvests only what she can carry home to her family of fellow hunter-gatherers.

Now jump forward in time to the late 1980s. This bay is now known as Cabbage Tree Bay and is located only a 30-minute ferry ride from Sydney’s iconic Opera House and Harbour Bridge, in the bustling suburb of Manly. The alluring natural beauty of the bay remains, but beneath the water the scene has changed. The Aboriginal clans have been all but decimated by European colonisation, and their sustainable harvesting practices lost with them. Modern commercial fishing has come and gone, depleting the bay of the abundant marine life that attracted it there in the first place. The bay is now popular with recreational line and spear fishers due to its calm waters and easily accessible location next to the city. However, there is concern amongst locals that the fish are being taken faster than they can regenerate. To add to this concern, a sewage outfall just off the headland has caused dangerously high pollution levels. The main beach in the bay, known as Shelly Beach, has been dubbed “Smelly Beach” for this very reason, and swimmers fear for their health.


Something had to change. Fortunately, in 1990 the New South Wales government spent AUD300 million (USD224 million) on upgrading the sewage management system, diffusing the waste over a larger area three kilometres offshore. This improved the quality of coastal waters and minimised the environmental impact of the sewage.

Around the same time, the local community voiced its concern to Manly Council that Cabbage Tree Bay was becoming stripped of marine life by heavy fishing. The beautiful bay was being “loved to death”, and a small no-take zone needed to be in place to allow marine life to recover. More fish would have a chance to grow and breed, building much-needed resilience into local fish populations. Passive activities like snorkelling and diving would be encouraged, as well as sustainable research with the purpose of better understanding the local marine ecology.

A beautiful bright yellow weedy seadragon (Photo by Rosie Leaney)

Numerous meetings began being held. The progress was slow and not without strong opposition. Proposals for the no-take zone were knocked back many times but supporters were persistent. Scientific surveys determined that the bay was becoming depleted, and also confirmed that it was still a vital habitat for threatened species including the black cod, weedy seadragon and little penguin, as well as the partially protected eastern blue groper. On this basis, and with growing evidence from other parts of the globe that no-take zones were effective at restoring biodiversity, the case for protection grew stronger.

Persistence paid off, and in March 2002, Cabbage Tree Bay was declared a no-take aquatic reserve. This meant that fishing of any kind, as well as collecting organisms, living or dead, was now banned in this small bay. A vision that many of the local community had fought for, for over a decade, had finally become a reality.

Read the rest of this article in 2018 Issue 2 Volume 150 of Asian Diver magazine by subscribing here or check out all of our publications here.

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