February 22nd 2007
From the archives: Keith Bryson - The man behind the White Lady (Part 2)
As part of our recess reading we continue the story which we first published (on paper) in 2001 about Keith Bryson. As we discovered in Part 1, Keith Bryson has a very big story to tell. He has been involved in so much we can but skim over a few of his exploits. Of deeper interest are his ideas and practical involvement in everything from lobbying for universities to cultivating oysters.
It was perhaps inevitable that Keith Bryson would become engaged in politics. "It didn't matter who was in power" said Keith, "Ypu always ended up with a cane/cocky government!" Keith was distressed that the mindset in Brisbane was centred on land-based rural industries, and that the reef and its enormous potential could be destroyed by ignorant decision making.
Keith sees himself as a "seed sower". "I was one of the young blokes in the Professional Fisherman's Association and was also made fisherman's rep on the Chamber of Commerce. I was very keen to see that the knowledge base be developed in the north, and I pointed out to the other members that their kids were growing up and leaving for Brisbane and not coming back. They could see this and they really picked up and ran with the idea. We also needed a research organisation so we could begin to understand the reef and how its resources could be safely tapped. I was always off fishing and couldn't get involved very closely, but the Chamber picked it up too and we can all now see the result with James Cook University (JCU) and the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) being established".
When Keith wasn't trawling, he would return to his oyster lease at White Lady Cove which he took over in about 1956.
Perhaps Keith's most significant foray into politics was when, in 1979, the Federal Government was seriously considering drilling for oil at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef. This horrified Keith who fished in the Swain's Reef area off Gladstone. He believed that in that region the predominant sou-easter picked up most of the moisture which would eventually fall on the wet tropics to the north and, of course the coastal lowlands where sugar was grown. An oil slick in this locality, Keith argued, would be absorbed by the coral rubble on the cays and reefs and be released slowly back iinto the sea. This could continue to generate enough slick capable of blocking the evaporation process for such an extended period, that the rain-generating marine haze would vanish the rainfall lost. The effect of oil on plankton at the very start of the food chain was his other concern.
The Trades and Labour Council picked up on the problem and, to force the Government's hand, placed a black ban on the drilling operations. This led to the Government calling for a Royal Commission at which Keith became a key witness. Keith believes his submission detailing the arguments may have been pivotal in persuading the Fraser governemt to pull the plug on the proposal.
Keith's modest home with Henry the curlew
In 1973 Keith was employed by Applied Ecology PTY LTD, a government funded organisation designed to assist Aboriginal communities to develop sustainable industries based on the natural resources of their region. His job was to establish an oyster lease on Palm Island. Keith took to the project with vigour and found the Palm Island women particularly adept at the work but, according to Keith, the community didn't seem to want to stick with the project. Over five years, Keith built up the lease which he described as having unique potential, due to the richness of the water and suitability of the currents. Keith was keen to demonstrate how a shellfish industry could have a profound effect on the local fishery. "Without shellfish there is no fishery!" says Keith. "Oysters create a surface for algae to grow on which is eaten by shrimp which are feasted on by juvenile mackerel. The oysters also produce enormous quantities of spawn, which is the basic food of prawns. At Palm, the young mackerel could shelter inside the fenced lease area and grow rapidly on the shrimp. It wasn't uncommon to see the water just outside the fence thrashed to a white foam by the huge schools of bonito and tuna battling to get at the young mackerel. The beauty of oyster farming is, according to Keith, many-fold. The oysters create work and sustainable wealth for the community and greatly enhance the food chain for the whole fishery.
When Keith finished up at Palm, he left behind approximately 200,000 dozen oysters priced at the time at $3 per dozen. Sadly the project faltered later when, according to Keith, another manager with less experience took over. Since then, interest has waned for the oyster farming prospects for Palm Island and Keith is hoping that someone might with the support of the community, which he believes exists, get the project up and running again.
The potential for a rich industry was, it seems, clearly demonstrated. Keith believes that Halifax Bay could be the most vital part of the Southern Reef's overall fishery. He goes to lengths to describe the powerhouse of marine marine life generating from the Hinchinbrook mangroves and the shrimp which spawn and find shelter in the rich kelp grounds of the bay from November to April. It is at a time of year that the migrating schools of juvenile mackerel swarm through them.
Keith pours a cuppa
Keith delights in describing the qualities of mackerel as both an eating fish and as sources of the heart-disease-preventing Omega -3 oils.
He also thinks their should be a complete ban on trawling in Halifax Bay from November to April so as to preserve the fishery. To this end he is very supportive of the Federal Government's recent announcement to include inshore sections of the coast within the marine park and, unlike some of the present day members of the Commercial Fisherman's Association, believes that the million dollar fines for trawling in no-fish areas is necessary.
He is also firmly against the RAAF bombing range being inside Halifax Bay. The percussion shock would, especially in the summer, would be likely to kill thousands of juvenile mackerel and other fish, putting pressure at a very sensitive point in the fishery's ability to sustain itself. Keith notes that pelagic fish like mackerel don't have an air bladder so when they die they sink and nobody sees the dead fish on the surface or washed up on beaches.
Keith used to be worried that comments such as these might see him labelled a "Commo".
Ever since he graduated from fishery school, where he was taught to keep a log, Keith has unfalteringly done so. With a memory that gets a little hazy, Keith can turn to his turn to his log for the details of weather and sea conditions from times long past. He recalls for instance that in the early sixties a sou-sou westerly blew almost constantly instead of the regualr south and north easterlies. The effect was to stop the displacement of the muddy seabed. Keith can still picture the crystal clear waters of Townsville Harbour - a rare sight indeed!
He is reminded of tankers offloading oil in the port and spilling small amounts> Keith and his mates could smell these occurences when they happened as the slick would float up Ross Creek. Keith notes that, eventually the once fine oysters of the creek all died and have not returned. A similar thing occurred in Horseshoe Bay where the spit at the eastern end was a popular spot for cats and triamarans to be scrubbed down and repainted with anti-foul. When tin-based paints were introduced, Keith observed the dramatic decline in the size of the oysters. The paint was found to burn stomachs of the creatures, causing them to remain very small and eventually die. Since the banning of this activity Keith's oysters have returned to their usual size.
Keith is also concerned that Nelly Bay Harbour may cause problems for the food chain of the local fishery. This is because there is no ocean current which can properly flush the de-oxygenated water when it moves out of the harbour into the bay. Within the Great Barrier Reef lagoon (water between outer reefs and mainland), Keith says the water basically moves back and forth in the bay and over time, the low oxygen levels will impact on the shrimp which live in the kelp and which are a major food source for the larger fish. To see what low oxygen does to shellfish Keith suggests readers try looking for oysters and the size of the barnacles at the breakwater marina.
Keith's oyster research is fascinating in itself. He has made some astonishing discoveries - such as how to make a black-lipped oyster taste great and grow faster than anywhere in Australia. Black lips are usually considered fairly unpalatable due to the "black lip" which filters mud. The black lips normally occur in the lowest muddiest condition on the rocks but following an accident with a boat, a basket of Keith's black lips settled down at fifteen feet. A year later he discovered them, still alive and no longer with black lips. They were also very large and delicious!
This find has implications for an oyster industry that could, according to Keith, be worth millions of dollars. It is the ability to grow black lips down so deep so they can feed off phytoplankton-rich currents which means that the sea surface area for cultivation can be smaller and productive. Keith claims that similar results could be achieved with black-lipped pearl oysters.
Kieth Bryson is getting on. His war injuries often lay him low and although he lives a life many would sorely envy, he also lives with constant and deep seated frustration. Frustration that there has been so little support for his often visionary concepts . Frustration that there has been so little follow-up to his practical dreams which he sees enhancing the marine ecology and perhaps create a local industry of great wealth. But many of Keith's dreams have succeeded and maybe one day so will the rest.
Story: George Hirst
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