Waterfront real estate obsession 'undermining Australia's integrity'

A nature documentary filmmaker is concerned Australia could turn the habitat of a critically endangered bird into houses.

Australia’s love of coastal real estate is putting the future of one of the world’s most threatened migratory species at risk, experts warn.

Federally listed as critically endangered, the eastern curlew has declined in numbers by 80 per cent in just 30 years. Each year around 75 per cent of the remaining individuals fly 12,000km from its breeding sites along the mudflats of Russia and China to Australia where it feeds. Loss of habitat is one of its key threats.

While China appears to be recalibrating its destruction of coastal habitat, nature documentary maker Randall Wood believes Australia is doing the opposite. He's particularly concerned about the future of protected wetlands, agreeing that developing them could harm the country's reputation and send a bad message to its neighbours. “I think it undermines our integrity, and our decency in upholding what we value as Australians,” he said.

Left: boats in a harbour in Moreton Bay. Right: development on Moreton Bay mudflats
Australia has an obligation to protect coastal habitat used by migratory shorebirds, experts warn. Souce: Getty (File)

How could development in Australia harm birds?

Mr Wood, an AACTA-nominated cinematographer spent two years studying migratory birds like the eastern curlew for his 2023 documentary Flyways — The Untold Journey of Migratory Shorebirds.

Their survival requires the cooperation of all nations they migrate between. Mr Wood examined how they're harmed by issues like hunting and development in Africa, China, Chile, Russia, Alaska, and Siberia. But there's one particular development back home in Australia that he's particularly concerned about.

What development concerns the documentary maker?

Mr Wood believes a plan to build dredge, drain and reclaim 500,000 square metres of Toondah Harbour on Moreton Bay to build 3,600 dwellings and a marina sends “a bad message” about Australia’s environmental integrity to its neighbours. That’s because the site is listed under Ramsar, an inter-governmental treaty established under UNESCO to protect internationally significant wetlands.

"I think it's kind of outrageous that we would think it appropriate to basically breach our treaty and give a whole lot of our beautiful natural environment to a developer for their gain," he said.

Eastern curlews on mudflats
The population of eastern curlews has dropped 80 per cent in just 30 years. Source: FLYWAYS – The Untold Journey of Migratory Shorebirds

Walker Corporation, the company behind the development, told The Guardian in October it only planned to clear 0.29 per cent of available feeding habitat and this would be unlikely to contribute to a long-term impact on populations because they have already significantly decreased.The company has been contacted for comment.

Concern shorebirds are most vulnerable to collapse

As biodiversity around the planet collapses, Mr Wood argues migratory shorebirds like the eastern curlew are the most vulnerable. “Because they rely on a range of ecosystems. So it’s our duty in our region to do our part to see them survive.”

The Toondah Harbour development site was declared a priority development by local council and the Queensland government in 2013 but it requires federal approval to progress.

The Untold Journey of Migratory Shorebirds is in Australian cinemas from May 6 for a limited season.

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