Veteran of Noosa’s green battles back to regenerate
He was once the hired gun “greenie” Noosa’s strong-minded mayor Noel Playford chose to help preserve the environment back in the 1990s when the development planning limit - called the “population cap” - loomed large in the thinking of local town planners.
Now Michael Whitehead is back living in Noosa after an absence of 22 years and once more he is running his “preserve it or perish” mind’s eye over the place as he traverses almost daily along the Noosa River.
Fishing from his kayak is another passion Mr Whitehead loves to pursue as he settles back into the place and slips on Noosa’s catchphrase “different by nature” like a second skin, and develops his new sustainability consulting business called Noosability.
Back in his early Noosa days, ex-bait and tackle shopkeeper turned Member for Noosa Bruce Davidson, the present mentor of mayor Clare Stewart, was whipping up public interest in something called the Noosa River Plan, which back then seemed just the throw of cast net away.
Fair to say, the present council is still trying to land that big one that seems to have always got away on them over the years, thanks to encountering nasty beaurecratic snags weighing down good intentions.
Mr Whitehead has come back at a time of some community angst over the Bring Back the Fish project, with its oyster reef restorations, and the latest disturbing report that sediment in the river is killing off the river bottom’s benthic biodiversity that large fish depend on as part of a healthy food chain.
He has not flown back into town like some green-caped crusader to save us from ourselves, more as an interested and expert observer with the sort of perspective only two decades of being away can give him.
For the last four years he has lived in Indonesia organising Indonesian fishing safaris and pursuing his fascination with Indonesian art and culture.
He returns with his wife Rindu and toddler daughter Arielle, keen to show them this piece of relatively healthy paradise.
“When corona(virus) broke out we were living in a small rural village in East Java that had very little capability to control the spread of the virus, and had no significant healthcare options,” Mr Whitehead said.
“So my wife and I decided to bail out for Australia with our two-year-old daughter – and after we hurriedly went through the process of organising her Australian citizenship etcetera, and after two weeks quarantine in Perth, well here we are in Noosa,” Michael said.
Since coming back he’s been catching up with his past, essential Noosa characters like formidable former mayor Bob Abbot and good friend Trevor Clarey, the resolute elder spokesman of the commercial fishing families.
And he also recently had coffee with one key former town planner in Paul Summers, who alongside the legendary planner Raul Weychardt, have helped shape Noosa’s future.
“Quite a few people I’ve met running around town have asked me what I think are the differences in the 20 years since I’ve lived in Noosa,” Mr Whitehead said.
“Without doubt one of the biggest changes is what’s going on in the lower river in terms of sheer volumes of usage.
“I’m not saying it’s terrible, but it’s a striking difference.”
He said the sandbagging near the mouth to protect Noosa Spit has pushed a lot sand out into the middle and “shallowed it right up through there”.
“I’ve been out on the river almost every day,” Mr Whitehead said.
“The river’s still fishing well, my main concern’s based on what I’ve seen is damage to mangroves and seagrass communities along the shallow waters and along the banks.
“The boat wash issue here is a big one in the lower river... with just such an increase it’s quite clear to see erosion into some of the mangrove communities.”
He’s deeply concerned about how “poorly” some of the boating and fisheries regulations are policed up into Weyba Creek particularly in the fish habitat and conservation areas.
“It’s not at all uncommon to see boats and jetskis, mostly owned by people who don’t live in Noosa, running aground in the shallow waters up there and chewing up the seagrass communities,” Mr Whitehead said.
“I think general speaking the town planning has done a good job here over the last 20 or 30 years.
“I’ve come back here and I’m not offended by high-rise development or out-of-control traffic.
“The river needs very thoughtful and careful future management.”
Mr Whitehead said he’ll be “very, very interested” to see what the next steps are from that report revealing the lack of life down on the river bed.
He said the reaction might be to clear up the siltation by dredging the river mouth at the next good amount of rain.
“Well maybe, maybe not, there needs to be a fair bit more work done on that.”
He fondly recalls rowing the late author of All the Rivers Run fame and Noosa environmental activist Nancy Cato around Weyba Creek and Keyser Island as part of his vivid local experiences.
Among the other gems in his enviro battle “war chest” from being the Noosa Council environment officer 1994-1998, is being interviewed in mayor Playford to snare the job in the first place.
“Noel looked up from my particularly verbose application, drilled me with the ‘Playford look’ and said ‘you’ve never really had a real job have you?’,” Mr Whiteford said.
“I argued with him of course and somehow got the job anyway.”
The word around the office was he impressed the former non-nonsense school teacher because he dared stand his ground to argue his views.
“Maybe there was an element of truth in that,” he said.
As the boss of a department-of-one, he set about his job steadfastly helping introduce Noosa’s first rural land-clearing restrictions, the first land purchases under council’s conservation levy and helped establish the Land for Wildlife program.
He also had a hand in setting up the first Noosa River Integrated Catchment Management committee.
Mr Whitehead clearly recalls the land-clearing battles of the mid-1990s.
“One day an old Noosa River prawn trawlerman alerted me to some shocking riverfront land clearing going on between the two lakes,” he said.
“The mayor suggested I go and investigate, so I went up in an ultralight from the local Noosa airstrip, armed with the council camera.
“At one point we’re flying pretty low over bulldozers windrowing cleared vegetation right down to the riverfront … while I’m taking photos the pilot yelled back at me ‘We’re not going to get shot at are we?’.
‘We didn’t, and the rest is history. Council introduced land-clearing restrictions in the days that followed.”
After leaving council in 1998, Mr Whitehead went on to a career with the Commonwealth Environment Department, Greenhouse Office and Prime Minister’s Department, as well as in private consulting practice.