Manly Lagoon: A state disgrace

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AT the northern end of NSW’s iconic Manly Beach you’ll find Manly Lagoon, described on Manly Council’s website as “one of the most polluted waterways on the East Coast of Australia”. Despite having a fancy children’s playground in the park adjacent to the lagoon’s entrance, signs around the lagoon itself warn against “swimming, wading, fishing and boating” due to high levels of faecal pathogens from stormwater runoff and sewer pollution.

It wasn’t always like that. In the 1950’s it was considered a safe and ideal site for primary school picnics and swimming parties. In the 1960’s I learnt to fish for luderick amongst its reeds and sea grass banks, gathered pipis on the sand flat to target whiting and bream, and set poddy mullet on handlines for flathead. In those days the lagoon was known by the locals as Queenscliff Lagoon, and it was slightly famous for being a cross-over zone for tropical and temperate species. I caught my first giant herring there, saw the first mangrove jack and Australian bass I’d ever seen caught there, and watched big eye trevally monster mullet in the shallows. In the summer we’d tempt big sea mullet to bite on bread, after plenty of burley, and pick up juvenile tarpon, which unlike the other tropical visitors, never survived over winter to get any bigger than 10cm.

However, there were already problems back then. The lagoon drained through and was refreshed by a set of pipes adjacent to Queenscliff ocean pool, and could be opened or closed (by Manly Council) via a set of wooden gates at the pipes’ entrance. During the big spring tides, the gates would be mysteriously closed, preventing effective seawater flushing and fish passage. In those days the local print media speculated on the links between certain councillors and golf clubs bordering the banks as a possible cause……greens and fairways do not respond well to king tides and salt water. But eventually sanity would prevail and the gates would be opened, sand would be dredged and the lagoon would revive.

In the more recent past increased industrial and residential development combined with lousy stormwater and sewerage infrastructure have resulted in continued degradation of the waterway itself, despite efforts by Manly and Warringah councils to improve the surrounds and the behaviour of the lagoon’s “neighbours”. Many reports, strategies, management plans and studies have been produced, including an Estuary Management Plan (1998) and an Integrated Catchment Management Strategy (2004). But in 2001 a pesticide spill from Warringah Golf Course killed an estimated 10,000 fish plus ducks and other wildlife.

The other morning I visited the lagoon’s entrance to see if a 1.89m spring tide would push some clean tidal flow in as big tides once did. The sand bank is so built up that the tide made little impact. Small whiting, luderick, bream and mullet skittered around the shallows but the main body of water where we used to fish was filthy and literally stank.
In 2015, in one of Australia’s most sophisticated cities, it’s just not good enough. And the lagoon sits in the current Premier’s own electorate. Sydney Water, DPI, Councils (separate or merged) need to stop developing more plans and strategies and get together to do what’s necessary to fix this State disgrace.

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