They came to see a presentation proposing to have the unique ecosystem and biological hotspot that is Port Stephens recognised on the international stage, but for a select few the only issue on their mind was the highly controversial marine park.
More than 150 people from various interest groups, stakeholders and community members attended the public meeting on Wednesday night, hosted by the Marine Park Association (MPA), as part of its bid to have the Port Stephens-Great Lakes catchment area included on the World Heritage list.
The nominated area extends 7000 square kilometres from Stockton in the south to Smiths Lake in the north and Barrington out west – a region which supports 50 species of mammals, 350 species of birds (more than Kakadu) and 2000 plant species.
The first of five public meetings, held at Tomaree Library and Community Centre on January 9, opened with an impressive 60-minute presentation by MPA chairman Frank Future, followed by question time.
Unfortunately for the proponents, the debate was sidetracked by the bigger issue of the day – the long overdue Port Stephens-Great Lakes Marine Park review promised when it was established in 2007 by a then-Labor state government to take place within five years.
Despite, or possibly due to, a change in government no review has ever been undertaken.
EARLIER STORY: Next stage in Port’s world heritage bid
The Port Stephens catchment is home to world class scenic, natural, cultural and recreational values contributing to a sustainable system of terrestrial, fresh and salt water plants and animals.
It is also home to a diverse group of stakeholders, comprising recreational and commercial fishers, tourism, aquaculture, marine and national parks, mining, government, conservationists, environmentalists, scientists, farmers, developers and community members.
Put them all in a room together and the sparks are sure to fly.
The debate, at times, turned personal with accusations of “poor management” and “mistrust” – in reference to the marine park – often sidetracking the dialogue.
And while Mr Future and the MPA panel went to great lengths to make a clear distinction between a World Heritage listing and a government-led Marine Park, their efforts often fell on deaf ears.
As was made quite clear by some of the speakers that stated “we have been lied to before”.
Mr Future impressed on the gathering the benefits of a World Heritage listing, while allaying some of the fears, rumours and misinformation that had been bandied about.
“The process provides a framework for a comprehensive approach to managing the marine parks, nationals parks, wetlands, Worimi lands, reserves and public properties and to protect in perpetuity the universal values of these areas,” he said.
“A World Heritage listing does not affect land ownership rights, local legislation and regulations, nor does it limit the range of existing activities, be it grazing, commercial or recreational fishing.
“Only existing state reserves, national parks and marine parks are being nominated for inclusion. Privately held lands are excluded.”
Amidst all the blaming and bickering from the public, a young mother, nursing her months-old baby, had the courage to take the microphone and politely ask that people think of “what a wonderful gift that a heritage listing can leave future generations”.
Mr Future added that “it warmed his heart” when he was approached after the meeting by a nine-year-old girl who wanted to thank him for wanting to save the environment.
“She wanted to say it during the meeting but had felt overwhelmed,” Mr Future said.
Among the crowd at Wednesday’s meeting was State member for Port Stephens, Kate Washington, and Port Stephens councillor John Nell.
The MPA has plans for a further four public meetings – at Karuah, Tea Gardens, Forster and Dungog – before preparing a preliminary brief by May.
They hope to present their submission to the federal minister by February 2020, where it will be reviewed before being handed to the world governing body, UNESCO, for final processing.