From cedar logging and whaling to reforestation and whale protection

Byron Bay was first settled in by Europeans in1881. The coastal township quickly became a hive of industry. Byron Bay has a history of primary industrial production (dairy factory, abattoirs, fishing, and whaling until 1963) and was a significant, but hazardous, sea port.

The first industry in Byron was cedar logging from the Australian red cedar (Toona ciliata). The timber industry is the origin of the word "shoot" in many local names – Possum Shoot, Coopers Shoot and Skinners Shoot – where the timber-cutters would "shoot" the logs down the hills to be dragged to waiting ships. Timber getting became insignificant after World War I and many former timber workers became farmers.

People working as loggers were given an instruction from the government to chop down all the other trees to the waterline.

The Big Scrub is the name of the remnant rainforest in the Bryon Shire region of northern NSW. Before agricultural clearing it was the largest expanse of lowland subtropical rainforest in Australia; covering an area of approximately 7,500 hectares where an incredible array of species grew from rich volcanic soils of mount Wollumbin between Byron Bay, Ballina and Lismore. While the cedar getters started making their way north to the Big Scrub from the 1840s to harvest iconic and valuable timber species, the large-scale clearing of the rainforest occurred decades later. The European settlers arrived in the 1880s and they had little choice but to clear the rainforest for agriculture.

With the demise of the Big Scrub, dairy farming in particular became a significant industry on the NSW north coast. Some of the landholders were able to keep their little patches and they're the remnants we have today, only 1% of the former rainforest remaining in the form of 35 small fragments the total area is less than 1,000 hectares.

The Big Scrub may today be small, but it is home to a bountiful biodiversity, many species of which are incredibly rare. Great work is being done by multiple organisations and individuals in the area to reforest cleared land and understand the ecology, genetics, and threats of the existing rainforest for conservation of it.

Whaling The current tourist hotspot is quite a different town to 50 years ago, when the stench of whale carcasses wafted around main beach. "The blood and washings from the slaughter floors in the abattoirs, we had a blood pipe that ran out several hundred metres into the sea, and that was all pumped out into the surf. With that and the whaling, the sharks from what must've been the whole eastern seaboard used to track into that blood offal line. I remember as a child sitting on the jetty and seeing the guys sitting on there with 303 rifles shooting the sharks." (Byron Bay Historical Society president, Donald Maughan) It is estimated that when the Australianeast coast whaling industry ended in 1963, the east coast population of humpbacks had been reduced to a little over 100 individuals. Thankfully, this population has shown steady recovery of around 10 –11% a year, and in 2006 was estimated at around 8000.

The Whale Protection Act 1980 has now been replaced by the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (the EPBC Act). The Australian Whale Sanctuary, established under the EPBC Act, includes the entire Commonwealth marine area, beyond the coastal waters of each state and the Northern Territory. Within the Sanctuary it is an offence to kill, capture, injure, harass, chase or herd whales, dolphins and porpoises.

The recovery of the humpback population has contributed significantly to the rapid growth of Australia’s whale watching industry. Now, in Byron Bay, Whale watching is a popular activity from kayak, boat, and the lighthouse view. Whales are appreciated each and every year with many people visiting for this experience.

Environmental protection

Starting in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s the Byron Bay community began actively pushing for the establishment of nature reserves, national parks and marine parks to protect areas of coastal environmental significance. The town’s agricultural and extractive industry activities had impacted significantly on the native plants and animals as well as the landforms and view-scapes. Now more than 50% of the combined land and sea area stretching five kilometres either side of high tide between Brunswick Heads north of Byron Bay town and Lennox Head south of the town is incorporated in parks and reserves. Arakwal National Park (297 hectares) was proclaimed in 2001 in a landmark agreement between the local Arakwal Aboriginal people and the NSW government. It was increased to 371 hectares in 2006.

Environmental initiatives from waste control, eco-products, sustainable agriculture, reforestation, and off-grid living are now common in the Byron Shire region. The Byron Shire council declares itself a ‘green’ council.