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Gardner, M 2016, 'A socio-ecological marine history of east Australian subtropics: from reconstructing baselines to assessing resilience', PhD thesis, Southern Cross University, Lismore, NSW.

Copyright 2016 Mary Gardner


The historical marine ecology of a place and the reconstruction of baseline populations for its marine animal are preliminaries for ecosystem-based management. The Resilience Alliance provides a model by which the course of these local histories may be analysed as stages in an adaptive cycle. This thesis presents an assessment of resilience focused on socio-ecological systems of subtropical Byron Bay and neighbouring places. These are located on an eastern Australian coastal strip that stabilised approximately 6000 ago. The historical and scientific publications available reflect a tangle of knowledge around four themes: place, marine animals, different peoples and nature. Case studies, critical discourse analysis and close reading informed this research’s narrative exposition.

The case studies used here investigated four culturally and ecologically important marine animal groups: bivalve molluscs (oysters, surf clams, burrowing clams), sea turtles, sharks and rays, and marine mammals. In terms of the resilience model, the subtropics experienced a gradual regime shift from early 1800s. In the centuries before, Bundjalung people, as did other Aboriginal Australians, took a kincentric approach to their roles as knowledge holders, law makers and fisher farmers of coastal land- and sea- scapes. Analysis of their practices identified philosophical decisions and practices, which helped protect marine wildlife and enhance animal habitats.

As British and Australian law replaced Bundjalung Law, demographics changed. Inexperienced settler fisher farmers acted according to a strongly anthrocentric philosophy. In the subtropics, the different animal populations declined sharply and at different rates, but from 1850 to 1980, every group was negatively affected. Direct impacts were due to exploitation and indirect impacts due to habitat degradation. Driving these declines from around 1880 was the development of a maritime port, prioritising export production for a cash economy. Through the 1960s-80s, the port of Byron Bay collapsed, and settler fisher farmers were in crisis. Their economy and local knowledge segued from primary production to real estate development and tourism. Such values highlight significant contrasts between kincentric and anthrocentric regimes, depicted here as two culture webs, integrating philosophical differences with structure and impacts of the socio-ecological system.

By 2000, with only humpback whales increasing in numbers, Byron Bay was still in the dissipative stage of the adaptive cycle. The revival of kincentric knowledge and governance, as exemplified by the Japanese Satoumi movement, may assist a new generation of fisher farmers in developing practices based on reciprocity, transforming place and reversing declines in marine animal populations.