By Paul Gamblin, Director, Protect Ningaloo. 

OPINION: Exmouth Gulf’s future will be determined to a large extent by the decisions we make right now. It’s at a turning point.

Proponents of the ‘Gascoyne Gateway’ deepwater port proposal have sought to make their case in this newspaper under the headline: ‘Gateway a chance to unlock region’. That neatly captures just one of the numerous concerns that so many people in the region already have about the project. An industrial port for fuel tankers, cargo ships and oil and gas service vessels, among others, to ‘unlock’ the region: A gateway for industrialisation at Exmouth Gulf, Ningaloo?

Should we fling open the doors of Exmouth Gulf to all-comers in industry, and risk the outstanding natural assets of the area and the reputation that the tourism and hospitality sectors in particular have carefully nurtured over the last 20 years? Or build on what’s working well, and encourage economic activity that fits with this stunning environment?

Regarding promises of infrastructure, we know that Horizon is already planning a transition to renewables for Exmouth, and we expect progress on water infrastructure too. So why risk sacrificing the unique environment and social amenity the area provides, in order to get infrastructure that will come anyway? It’s simply an unnecessary trade-off; Exmouth doesn’t need the port to get the new infrastructure it deserves.

Anyone who knows Exmouth Gulf understands that it’s an incredible place with rare levels of wildlife diversity and abundance. Ningaloo and Exmouth Gulf are ecologically connected in so many ways that the Gulf is often referred to as Ningaloo’s nursery. The whole ecosystem needs to be managed with great care because what we do in the Gulf can impact the Reef too.

The deepwater port would be built across a much-loved, natural beach in the remarkable Qualing Pool area 20km down into the Gulf. A large concrete and rock wharf would intrude almost a kilometre into the Gulf. The area where the port would operate features impressive seagrass meadows where threatened dugongs feed, an array of coral bombies and colourful sponges, a great diversity of fish, and it’s where humpbacks rest and nurse their calves. It’s a place to go for a snorkel with the kids, have a BBQ or drop a line in the water in a peaceful, natural setting free from the overbearing presence of industry.

To be profitable, this private port will likely need to attract a high number of new vessels to an area famed for its whales, dugongs, dolphins and other wildlife vulnerable to impacts from marine traffic. We understand the proponents would also dredge the Gulf’s seafloor both during the construction phase and repeatedly thereafter to keep it clear. Given the port would likely operate for up to a century, we’d be condemning many future generations to the project’s impacts.

Gascoyne Gateway would actually lock in impacts and risks that add pressure to the area’s incredible but fragile nature, and diminish its recreational opportunities and character.

The way to unlock the region’s full potential is to secure its reputation and that of the businesses which have prospered in the area. A recent economic analysis by Deloitte confirms the important contribution Ningaloo, including Exmouth Gulf, has made to the State economy from tourism (the area’s largest jobs provider), as well as other environment-based activities such as research and recreation. Is it economically sensible to risk what this precious place has provided to our economy and will continue to deliver in future if we look after it?

Exmouth is becoming the go-to location to undertake cutting-edge marine research, which will bring all kinds of new jobs, training and associated economic activity. There will also be opportunities in educational and cultural tourism, and conservation management. What these activities have in common is compatibility with the natural environment. This is the moment to forge a smart direction for Exmouth Gulf of which we can all be proud and not to be tempted by gateways that could undermine its future.

A version of this opinion piece was published in the Pilbara News – WA Newspapers on Tuesday 1 June 2021.

This piece was written in response to Gascoyne Gateway’s opinion piece ‘Gateway a chance to unlock region’ published in the Pilbara News – WA Newspapers group Tuesday 18 May 2021 (online version of this article can be viewed here)

Image: Oceanwise