Oyster reef researcher Dr Ben Gilby of USC, Noosa Park's Association's Bryan Walsh, and Noosa Biossphere reserve Foundation Clare Cartwright with former Mayor Tony Wellington at the Goat Island restoration trial site.
Oyster reef researcher Dr Ben Gilby of USC, Noosa Park's Association's Bryan Walsh, and Noosa Biossphere reserve Foundation Clare Cartwright with former Mayor Tony Wellington at the Goat Island restoration trial site.

Council’s $2.4m oyster restoration project cops a grilling

One of Noosa’s most ambitious environmental projects has split the local council ranks with a 4 to 3 vote to support the annual report of the river oyster reef restoration project.

This should clear the way for the next payment of $200,00 of ratepayer money as part of the three-year partnership agreement with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) if the support of Noosa’s deputy mayor Frank Wilkie and councillors Joe Jurisevic, Brian Stockwell and Tom Wegener stays solid at Thursday night’s ordinary meeting vote.

They backed the council staff recommendation that the report meets the TNC alliance funding agreement.

Expert backs shelling out $200k for oyster reef

Divisive oysters reefs splits council ranks

At Monday’s general committee meeting mayor Clare Stewart, Cr Karen Finzel and Cr Amelia Lorentson voted against approving the report after they closely questioned council’s appointed project officer for Noosa Oyster Restoration Craig Bohm, of TNC, and council’s environmental services manager, Craig Doolan.

Council has already paid its first 50-50 funding share of $179,237 and the second instalment of $200,000 is due upon demonstrated achievement of a range of measurable outcomes.

One of Cr Stewart’s main concerns was that the original project funding agreement was based on having the state permits in place by July 2020 to enable the reef installations, but this has been pushed back to December 31.

University of the Sunshine Coast researchers install oyster reefs in the Noosa River during a previous trial.
University of the Sunshine Coast researchers install oyster reefs in the Noosa River during a previous trial.

“Who approved the change and why has that been blown out six months?” Cr Stewart asked.

Mr Doolan said this was because of delays in the start of the project.

“Craig (Bohm) as the project officer didn’t come on board until the start of February in 2020, so several of the timelines of the original project agreement, they’ve been extended to meet that,” Mr Doolan said.

Cr Stewart was told there has been quite an extensive amount of field work undertaken was needed to secure the permits and there was a fairly good chance that the December 31 deadline would be met.

The mayor said the project expenditure to date on community engagement, volunteering and media totalled $177,722 and asked where that money had been spent.

She was told this was a proportion of the overall three-year budget allocation and was needed to establish a deep community understanding and engagement with the project.

This level of spending included Mr Bohm’s time spent on meeting stakeholders and the use of TNC media services, which would be scaled back in the following years with more funding spent on reef building and work in the field.

Cr Lorentson said this community engagement process should be open and transparent.

“I thought the report was a little bit basic, I’d like a little more detail, just again for more understanding for myself and for the community where that money’s actually expended,” she said.

Oyster reefs being prepared for trial on the Noosa River.
Oyster reefs being prepared for trial on the Noosa River.

“The totals seem excessive (for) just someone opening this report reading that $177,000 spent on community engagement with lots of reference to volunteer groups,” Cr Lorentson said.

Council environment director Kim Rawlings said the overall project expenditure to date of $434,000 in year one of the budget was 18 per cent.

“We think that’s absolutely reasonable,” Ms Rawlings said.

She said apart from Mr Bohm’s costs, there are half a dozen technical experts from TNC involved in the project.

“The second ($200,000) milestone payment hasn’t been paid yet as there’s still some milestones to be met,” Ms Rawlings said.

Council has committed $1.2 million in funding of the overall $2.4 million project over three years as part of the agreement.

Cr Finzel said the report contained no clear benchmarks on the socio-economic indicators of the project for councillors to assess the success of things like community engagement.

Cr Stewart also asked about a progress report on the project’s engagement with the Kabi Kabi traditional owners and whether the commercial fishermen had been spoken to.

She was told the Kabi Kabi had indicated their support for the project but they have had to prioritise other projects ahead of the oyster restoration. Commercial fishers have been spoken with some very encouraging responses and there were plans to contact others.

Trying hard to bring back the fish through oyster reef and seagrass restoration.
Trying hard to bring back the fish through oyster reef and seagrass restoration.

Cr Stockwell won support from councillors to take part in the discussion despite declaring a perceived conflict of interest because of a past work connection with a consultant who independently reviewed the annual report.

This review’s recommended improvements included the project management plan’s longer-term monitoring requirements which TNC has adopted.

Cr Stockwell said while the work was about physically establishing an ecological restoration project, it’s equally important to underpin the regeneration by good social engagement.

“Are we getting value for the dollar for what we see in the (report) columns, that is an important consideration as you go through a project,” Cr Stockwell said.

“To me it sounds like the project is progressing well.”

Cr Wegener said he loved the vision of the project.

“This is where Noosa’s going, this is why Noosa is the way it is,” he said.

Cr Jurisevic said, “I’m looking forward to the day when we can start to hear about oysters going into the river.”

Cr Wilkie said TNC was producing a highly-valued, valued-added partnership.