Gippsland’s lakes are changing, yes – but far from dying

Gippsland’s lakes are changing, yes – but far from dying

21 September 2008

published by

Australia — Recent newspaper articles paint a very dismal picture of theGippsland Lakes. As independent chairman of theGippsland Lakes Task Force, these articles are very disappointing: the implication that the lakes are on the verge of “dying” is simply not true.

The taskforce is a partnership of the relevant catchment and lakes management agencies, with responsibility for implementing the State Government’sGippsland Lakes Action Plan. In its six years, the taskforce has co-ordinated more than $20million of state funding, with the bulk spent in reducing the amount of algal bloom-inducing nutrients (phosphorus and nitrogen).

There is now considerable evidence that the overall ecological health of the lakes is quite good. A further update will be available in the coming weeks with a survey of the fish, seagrasses and algae.

Community concern about algal blooms in the lakes is understandable and the cause (excessive levels of nutrients from the catchment) will remain the focus of taskforce investment for many years.

Effective management of a complex and dynamic ecosystem such as theGippsland Lakes is not simple. As an example of this complexity, a study just completed for the taskforce by the Monash University Water Studies Centre has concluded that a recent, unprecedented and long-lasting bloom of Synechococcus algae was the result of the 2007 winter floods, which transported large quantities of nutrients liberated by the 2006-07 bushfires.

Just why this bloom lasted so long, and particularly through the past winter, is not known, but will be the subject of a specialist workshop run by the taskforce in November.

The taskforce has worked hard to ensure that lakes management is based on the best available science. And where we believe there are gaps in the science we have funded high-quality studies to provide better understanding for practical solutions.

While moves to reduce nutrients entering the lakes have been reasonably successful, it is obvious that we will face additional management challenges over the next 20-50 years due to climate change. It is highly likely that theGippsland Lakes will, due in part to rising sea levels, change from the current estuarine coastal lagoon system to a more marine system.

To address these challenges, the taskforce is developing a five-year action plan to start next July.

To get some idea of the challenges facing the taskforce, consider the following scenario of what the lakes may look like in 2050.

The lakes themselves will change due to a combination of rising sea levels and more intense storms. The sand barrier between the lakes and the ocean will be broken, probably in a number of places, with the lakes becoming a more marine system. This marine-dominated ecosystem will be in great shape with crystal-clear waters, increased numbers of fish, healthy seagrass beds and significantly reduced numbers of algal blooms.

The catchment will also be transformed, with almost 40% of the presently denuded agricultural catchments covered by native vegetation, resulting in a more natural landscape with fewer nutrient inputs. The stimulus for these changes will be the flourishing carbon and biodiversity market.

However, there will still be issues with higher temperatures and increased frequency of bushfires – and the resultant nutrients and sediment transported to the lakes by more frequent storms.

But there will be a booming tourism industry, with almost five times more visitors than in 2008, most being from Victoria but many more from interstate because of the higher temperatures and increased humidity in their regions.

So my long-term vision for the Gippsland Lakes is that, rather than “dying”, the inevitable change to a more marine system will see them become an even more treasured asset of great importance to the region and Victoria.

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