Dr John Ford, the expert employed to add weight to Queenscliff Harbour’s proposed stingray feeding attraction, has floated an ambitious compromise tourism concept featuring a man made rocky reef and possible underwater glass walkway.
A report prepared by the marine and fisheries ecologist acknowledges a stingray viewing area at Fisherman’s Flat had potential for “long-term value as a research facility.” However it also casts doubt over the economic and environmental viability of Queenscliff Harbour Ptyd Ltd’s (QHPL) existing planning application and highlights potential negative impacts on both the animals and wider eco-system from stingray feeding.
Dr Ford says his altrnative proposal would have the twin benefits of still showcasing our resident giant smooth rays but also highlighting Port Phillip’s unique underwater eco-system.
“Queenscliffe has diverse, unique and beautiful local marine life... Nearby rocky reefs and even the rocky edges of the Queenscliff channel support ecosystems that could be attractions in their own right,” The Melbourne University Research Fellow and Mezo Research Pty Ltd consultant said.
“Kelp, brightly coloured sponges and ascidians, crabs and nudibranchs are only a handful of the many intriguing species on show.”
Dr Ford’s report was made available to the public at the first two Open House sessions (in April), convened by QHPL as part of the mandatory community consultation phase of its Fisherman’s Wharf Revitalisation planning application.
He suggests the footprint of the current attraction be extended beyond the Cayzer slipway and a rocky reef installed to support sponge and kelp ecosystems and attract “high profile animals” such as rock lobster and abalone.
A “unique viewing system” would be needed to connect the public with the attraction, the report adds.
“Ideas include an underwater walkway through the slipway area, viewing a rocky reef system on one side and a seagrass system on the other. Also possible is a cut-away glass window side of the slipway to provide a submerged viewing area, or a walkover with a transparent base that allows people to look below their feet into the marine world.
“Such underwater viewing would provide a unique immersive experience for patrons to connect with the local natural marine environment of Victoria and could tie into the projects and objectives of the local Marine and Freshwater Discovery Centre, Parks Victoria and Fisheries Victoria.”
The experience could also incorporate the harbour’s fishing and boat building heritage, Dr Ford says. “Hence the experience is not only reliant on stingray feeding, but provides a complete picture of the marine world and we interact with it.”
a complete picture of the marine world and we interact with it.”
Upwards of 50 people who attended the sessions were informed a tourist attraction on the site was a “non-negotiable.” However it appears increasingly likely a compromise proposal will be reached.
“Yes, QHPL is open to the alterations to the proposal, and to consider other proposals, as long as the proposal is strongly linked to Tourism, not just a nod in tourism’s direction,” said Harbour manager Sean Blackwood.
“It needs to be remembered that QHPL is providing a significant amount of funding to this project and that once the wharf is completed the liability of up-keep will also be the responsibility of the Harbour, so an income stream that supports the up-keep of the infrastructure is a required outcome.”
The Harbour’s current application includes construction of a 120 seat amphitheatre, outdoor cimena, two stingray feeding shows per day over summer and a single daily show during the rest of the year. Performances would include feeding stingrays and acrobatic displays.
However, far from endorsing the existing vision, Dr Ford’s report appears to undermine QHPL’s business plan by recommending the number of shows currently proposed be reduced by more than half.
Feeding should occur just once a day during peak tourism periods, instead of the two shows currently proposed, and there should be breaks in feeding of up to four days during breeding season, it suggests.
The study also raises concerns about the potential for over-feeding, increased aggression amongst animals and possible impacts on the surrounding environment.
“If levels and frequency of feeding are high enough this can lead to food dependency and possible food-demanding behaviours,” it states. “Dense aggregations of rays can increase aggression and injury to the rays, promote parasite levels, and potentially attract larger predators.”
“However all these effects are highly species and location specific and dependent on the level and frequency of feeding.”
Mr Blackwood denied Dr Ford’s assessment was detrimental to QHPL’s business case.
“John’s considered approach is two-fold in my view. It takes into account that human interaction and localised feeding of Smooth rays has a long history but at the same time recognises that very little is known about the rays. So by limiting feedings, introducing time changes and placing breaks in feeding cycles the impacts can minimise impact,” he said.
“Reduction in feeding could of course impact our business model, however the inclusion of a wider scope of activities may act as a leveller in the equation.”
Fisherman’s Flat resident Carmen Bell said it was now apparent from the report and the Open House sessions that the current proposal was unviable and unworkable.
“I think we can be fairly certain that the movie screen has fallen off the pontoon and the agenda,” she said.
“The one point of general agreement was that the wharf needs to be fixed. It really should have been repaired years ago by Parks Victoria, prior to the private consortium taking over, and of course then the cost and method of repair would have been less and simpler.
“The community needs to come up with suggestions on how the stingray facility can be morphed into a low-key and viable tourist attraction that provides spin-offs for the township without destroying its heritage image,” Mrs Bell said.
Two further Open House sessions will be held on Wednesday May 18 and Saturday May 21. Details can be found on the Queenscliff Harbour website.