World Surfing League tour about to hit Rottnest Island but concerns raised over environmental damage
The juggernaut that is the World Surfing League (WSL) tour is about to land on the pristine West Australian holiday island of Rottnest.
The best surfers in the world will converge on Rottnest’s Strickland Bay
There are concerns the fragile A-Class Reserve could be damaged
The Rottnest Island Authority says the event will have ‘minimal impact’
Surfers have been making their way to its reefs and bays off the coast of Perth for decades, and national and state surfing titles have previously been held at Strickland Bay, where the WSL contest kicks off on Sunday.
But there has been nothing like the massive enterprise that is the women and men’s championship tour.
The best surfers in the world — minus the now-injured John John Florence — their entourages, WSL judges and officials, catering and site construction staff, and camera operators, will converge at “Strickos”.
That presents a challenge to organisers and the authorities: how to hold a major international sporting event without harming the A-Class nature reserve that is Rottnest Island.
The WSL insists every precaution is being taken to protect the fragile landscape and ensure it is a low impact event, with no spectators allowed at the competition site.
But some long-time surfers and caretakers of Strickland Bay were concerned the WSL’s request to hold an event there was hastily approved and the fragile environment could be damaged.
Traditional owners also said they were not contacted until after it was announced Wadjemup, as Rottnest is called by the Whadjuk Noongar people, had been selected.
Wadjemup or Rottnest was a surprise location for a second WA event on the quickly rearranged and expanded Australian leg of the WSL’s COVID-affected 2021 tour schedule.
Announcement leaves some uneasy
The WSL said Tourism WA approached it about a second contest in the state, as well as the Margaret River Pro, after the state government had approved COVID-19 travel bubbles for the competitors.
Then-WA Tourism Minister, Paul Papalia, who strongly promoted Rottnest as an international tourist destination complete with quokka selfies, was over the moon.
“International and national viewers will be able to see how pristine the marine environment is around Rottnest Island and get a taste of what makes this island so special,” he said at the time.
But the sudden announcement left some uneasy.
Keiran Glossop and other surfers living on the island formed the Offshore Board Riders club in the 1980s.
They pushed for the dunes and cliffs, which were being trampled and damaged by increasing numbers of visitors, to be rehabilitated and fenced off.
He is worried the infrastructure needed for the WSL competition site could damage the dunes and small limestone cliff, and affect a nearby protected osprey colony.
“The flora there grows really slowly,” he said.
“It’s growing in limestone cliff and also on grey and lifeless sand.
“We really need to minimise the footrpint out there.
“It wouldn’t take very much for it to be damaged at all, especially with people traipsing all over it.”
Traditional owners will talk to competitors
There is currently a small pathway and deck overlooking the waves at Strickland Bay.
Traditional owner and surfer Len Collard will tell the competitors and event organisers not to stray.
“So we’ll be reminding the surfers and the administrative blokes that they’re fragile environments and can you stick to the tracks and make sure you don’t go waltzing off into the bush.”
Mr Collard said he was contacted after the event at Wadjemup was announced and has now been engaged by the WSL to speak to the competitors about the cultural significance and history of the island.
He wants to make them aware it is not just a holiday island and playground but was also a prison for about 4,000 Aboriginal men and boys from around the state between 1838 and 1904.
The remains of 370 Aboriginal prisoners who died there lie in a burial ground at the Thompson Bay settlement.
“We want to talk about the colonial history of the prisoner of war camp at Wadjemup, where the original Noongar patriots fought to defend the homelands that we call Australia today,” Mr Collard said.
“That’s a part of our Australia’s history. It’s about truth-telling.”
Infrastructure to be elevated
Surfing WA is organising the competition at Strickland Bay and building the competition site on behalf of the WSL.
Chief executive officer Mark Lane said it was a uniquely challenging event to organise because it was on an island and a A-Class reserve.
An existing wooden viewing deck has been extended on both sides to create areas for the competitors and judges. But they have been elevated to minimise contact with ground.
“It’s a super, super sensitive environment,” Mr Lane said.
“So part of our plans is we haven’t put anything on the earth itself. We have put scaffold legs on there under platforms and we’ve made sure everything’s risen above the deck.”
Competitors will be bussed to the start of the track to Strickland Bay and walk the rest of the way.
They will only be allowed one guest to reduce the amount of people at the site.
Competition assessed as having ‘minimal impact’
WSL Asia pacific general manager Andrew Stark explained Rottnest was chosen because of the high-performance wave at Strickland Bay and the island’s rich history.
He was adamant environmental impacts were considered before the contest was given the green light, and the WSL was working with the Rottnest Island Authority (RIA), rangers and Indigenous elders to ensure it was a low impact event.
“From an environmental perspective, I think the big difference for [the] event, which is monumentally different, is because of the sensitive environment there we’re not having any spectators, so it’s a broadcast-only event,” he said.
“It’s an extremely small footprint, so probably the polar opposite to what you see at Margaret, River with quite a lot of infrastructure and so on.
The Rottnest Island Authority assessed the WSL’s plan for the contest and said it was “deemed to have a minimal potential impact on the island”.
“Any potential risks were covered by an environmental management plan (EMP) developed by WSL,” an RIA spokesperson said.
The environment management plan covers traffic management, environmental management, safety management, emergency response, medical, water safety, site layout, waste management and site clean-up, and risk management.
To address concerns a nearby osprey nest could be disturbed, the RIA said that would be mitigated by noise and event lighting controls.
The WSL has agreed to remediate any areas disturbed or damaged by the contest, and has committed to improving some areas that are already degraded.