Australian News

AUSTRALIA ILLAWARRA REPORT: Backlash after housing developer dismisses ‘citizen science’ about platypus habitat


AceNewsDesk – A housing developer’s attempt to dismiss decades of citizen science about platypus habitat in the Illawarra region as “unreliable” has sparked controversy over the treatment of community-sourced information.


Ace Press News From Cutting Room Floor: Published: Nov.16: 2023: ABC Illawarra News: TELEGRAM Ace Daily News Link

Fortnum Property has taken Shellharbour Council to the Land and Environment Court (LEC) over its decision to reject its plans for 227 homes and a new bridge crossing at Calderwood in New South Wales’ south-east.

In response to concerns about the project’s impact on platypus habitat, the developer has released an ecologist report in an updated Development Application (DA) uploaded to the council’s website.

The report included details of a 2.5-hour field survey that “did not detect any platypus or obtain conclusive evidence of their habitation along the length of Macquarie Rivulet within the study area”.

In an additional “desktop assessment”, it identified seven platypus records in the rivulet, one from a “scientific licence holder”, while the others it dismissed.

“The remainder of the records from the past 20-years are attributed to community fauna surveys, or ‘citizen scientists’, and as such are considered unreliable,” the report said.

The report further states the platypus is a common species, not listed under state or Commonwealth legislation, and “no further assessment or consideration of this species is necessary”.

The matter returns to court in December.

Community dismay

Professional bodyboarder and environmentalist Lilly Pollard said she had observed platypus in the rivulet and provided video evidence from spring, 2022, to the LEC.

Outraged by the developer’s refusal to acknowledge the animal’s existence, Pollard returned to the rivulet on November 1 and captured video evidence on her iPhone.

“I was just fuming that they wouldn’t recognise that the platypus exists, so I thought, ‘I am going out. It’s going to be there’,” she said.

“It took two hours until I saw her; she was very subtle.

“At first I thought she was a tiny little water rat, but she came in closer and I was so excited, and I was like, ‘There she is. She is still safe’.”

Jessica Whittaker is another local citizen scientist who has seen platypus in the rivulet and expressed dismay at the attempt to discredit the community’s “good faith” observations.

“Considering part of the evidence submitted for the DA was footage and video of the platypus in the spot they want to build a bridge, if that is unreliable, I don’t know what else the community can do to prove the existence of an iconic species,” she said.

Citizen evidence in court

Ecology and water researcher Associate Professor Ian Wright from Western Sydney University said he was very uncomfortable with the “brief and cursory survey for the platypus” and suggested Environmental DNA (eDNA) could have been used.

A man standing on the edge of a creek surrounding by red stones.
Dr Ian Wright says citizen science work has helped trigger further scientific investigations.(Supplied: Billy Cooper)

“ I think it needs multiple visits and I think it needs more precise methods,” he said.

Dr Wright said community groups often knew regions better than expert witnesses hired by companies to prepare reports.

“We really need to empower the community, and it does upset me when I hear views that are dismissive of community evidence,” he said.

“There’s not enough professional researchers to get out there and look at these special patterns.”

He emphasised the importance of courts carefully considering evidence from community groups and citizen scientists when weighing up planning proposals.

“This is a really important issue of what is the admissibility of expert verses citizen evidence in court, and there is a growing recognition that citizen science is valid, if they do it appropriately, following a detailed, repeated, methodology,” Dr Wright said.

Fortnum Property and Ecoplanning were contacted for comment.

“As this matter is still before the courts, we do not have any further comments at this time,” a spokesperson said.

Citizen science dismissal ‘dangerous’

Science and Expert Advisory Director at the Environmental Defenders Office Sharyn Goldstien said it would be “dangerous” to dismiss citizen science.

“The platypus in particular is a species that has relied on citizen science and observations being brought to public awareness,” she said.

“Dismiss it at the peril of understanding species and just wiping out more environments and habits that we just can’t afford to do.”

She stressed that all areas of expertise should be weighed up.

“We need more information that is good, not less, and if we try to silence communities, we are missing such a massive piece of knowledge over prescribed surveys,” Dr Goldstien said.

“If we put rapid assessment tools over the experience of communities, instead of using them both together, that is a really dangerous trajectory.”

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