By Mario Pinti

    To live in Melbourne and Geelong is to be aware of the massive expanse of water known today as Port Phillip Bay.

    Most of us are familiar with the coastline that girds it. Our modern cities stretch around it, drawing us there to swim, play, walk and fish. It is a place to revive the spirit, even.

    We need this coastline that gives so much. But in return it needs us to be mindful of how we treat it. It is painfully fragile. It is easily degraded.

    Over geological time the Bay has developed and changed with the uplifting and sinking of the earth’s surface and changing sea levels as ice ages have come and gone.

    Recent evidence shows that the Bay as we know it today is less than 1000 years old. At that time its grasslands and salty lakes were suddenly flooded as the Heads were opened to Bass Strait.  Stories of the Boon Wurrung people who lived here for thousands of years tell of these changes. It is but a babe in geological time, still to have fully come into its own before colonisation made itself felt.

    Two centuries of European settlement and development have brought irreversible changes to much of the bay’s coastline. Yet what can be protected and restored should be. Not just for the needs of the soul but as habitat for the rich multitude of aquatic creatures, plants and migratory bird life that it sustains.

    And so it was that just over twenty years ago a legislative line in the sand was drawn. After sustained community activism to protect the marine ecosystem around Williamstown’s old rifle range from harmful human impact, an act of parliament in 2002 established the Jawbone Marine Sanctuary.

    This jewel of a place on the lands of the Yalukit Willan people sits to the west of Williamstown beach, starting from what is locally known as School Bay, twisting its way to near the mouth of Kororoit Creek.

    And while Parks Victoria is vested with the authority to manage the sanctuary, in a critically important way its feet on the ground and flippers in the water since 2008 have been the members of the Jawbone Marine Sanctuary Care Group. And for a large part of that time Sandy Webb has been its secretary and one of its most active members.

    ‘Early agitation was to stop the area from becoming a marina,’ says Webb, a long-time diver and underwater photographer. ‘That was successful. But ongoing protection does have to come from community groups. People close-by. Certainly, in our case if you don’t have eyes on the ground you can’t see what is harming the sanctuary, what needs attention.’

    From Rifle Range and abattoir site to treasured marine sanctuary

    For over a century after European settlement it was the presence of the Merrett Rifle Range that gave the Jawbone area some cover.

    ‘We’re lucky from a marine point of view that the rifle range was inland from the shore,’ she says. ‘It actually preserved the coast line because you were likely to get shot roaming where you shouldn’t!’ As happened to one poor soul in the 1980s, near the end of the rifle range’s life.

    Other documented activities in the area, including a slaughterhouse at the far western end during the nineteenth century and shipbreaking in the 1920s, have not, fortunately, left a very discernible mark on the area.

    Jawbone is one of four marine sanctuaries in the bay, and the closest to Melbourne’s CBD. Yet how best to care for it is an ongoing debate amongst scientists and Care Group members.

    Access to Jawbone from the shore is very limited. This may seem harshly restrictive but is essential to maintaining the integrity of the shoreline and intertidal zones.

    ‘There is so much we need to know. The state of the Marine Sanctuary is influenced by so many things,’ Webb says. ‘You have to consider not just people who are after fish or abalone but current flows in the bay, wave action, excessive nutrients, invasive pests and the significance of large numbers of native urchins, pollution and climate change.’

    According to Webb, ‘The Sanctuary looks quite patchy. Places are lush and healthy while 50 metres away it may be barren, but it is a precious pocket of the diverse marine life in the upper part of the Bay. Perhaps its most valuable assets are its mangroves, seagrasses and saltmarsh.  These so-called “Blue Carbon” ecosystems are far more effective than land forests at removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it.’

    And so, the work of the Care Group continues. Hosting community groups or field study excursions for students such as from western suburban primary schools, developing their own protocols or working with Parks Victoria and other researchers to document and monitor what’s happening in the sanctuary, and advocating for the sanctuary’s well-being.

    Utilising her skills as a scientist, Webb is developing a Jawbone Species Inventory already consisting of several hundred entries which can in part be viewed on the Care Group’s website. What is also available there for purchase is the publication she compiled for the Care Group titled Jawbone Marine Sanctuary, and why it’s important.  This is a brilliantly colourful compendium of photos, marine science and history of the Jawbone.

    Where bullets were once fired and ships went to die, a strip of coastline now has the chance to live on and flourish.

    Visit the Care Group’s website for more information:

    Inspecting a possibly invasive crab


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