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Response / Environmental Report on the early existence of coconuts in Australia

ddened by this article, which is factually wrong and from an environmental point of view, potentially destructive. Our “endangered coconut?” – not likely – coconuts are one of the least endangered species on the planet! But control of coconuts on our beaches is a divisive community issue.
coconuts

DR HUGH SPENCER IN RESPONSE TO ENVIRONMENTAL REPORT ON THE EARLY EXISTENCE OF COCONUTS


❝I am saddened by this article, which is factually wrong and from an environmental point of view, potentially destructive. Our “endangered coconut?” – not likely – coconuts are one of the least endangered species on the planet! But control of coconuts on our beaches is a divisive community issue.

There is little left of our critically endangered littoral forests (the forests backing the beaches) which have a unique flora, are tolerant of saltwater and provide protection against the power of sea surges, acting as shock absorbers against the waves. They are being lost to “Beach Front Development”, illegal clearing by beachfront residents and invasive varieties of coconuts.

We have been controlling coconut juveniles for over 20 years on Myall Beach (Cape Tribulation) and the regrowth of the native littoral forest has been amazing. 

Myall Beach 2020, littoral forest recovery after coconut control

I understand that others have been doing this on the southern end of Four Mile Beach which is why the littoral forest there is in relatively good condition, apart from where the residents have illegally cleared or encroached into the protected areas. Seventeen cultivars (varieties) on Myall Beach, were identified by a visiting coconut expert. 

This flies in the face of the idea that these are native plants. They are very evidently self-seeding, judging by the germination success of the fallen nuts. While germination rates are very variable – some cultivars appear to have very poor germination rates while others are surrounded by thickets of germinated nuts, which create an impenetrable coconut forest around these trees. These we call “high fecundity” coconuts and are the ones of greatest concern.

Juvenile coconuts from high fecundity palms

A coconut management approach which would spare some coconut palms in the littoral zone, would be to eliminate the high fecundity palms, which are relatively easily recognised by the heaps of sprouting coconuts underneath them, and leave the low fecundity coconut trees, that do not seem to pose the same problems to the native forest (and that would keep the white-tailed rats and others happy). 

The speed of coconut invasions is breathtaking. In 1950 Four Mile Beach at Port Douglas was free of coconuts (see image below) – now they are the dominant plant at the northern end, and the original littoral forest is obliterated. 

Four Mile Beach early 1950 – no coconuts.

Coconuts are relatively easy to control, but there seems to be a serious reluctance by the Council to do this (despite producing an excellent coconut management plan as well as Council’s fear of litigation from people being conked by falling nuts). (6) 

Council, it seems, also fears alienating a vociferous group of people, some of whom insist “that coconuts are our only true indigenous tropical plant” (!!!!????). Of course then there is the financial view, that “no coconuts no tourists”. Wrong. 

Tourism has helped deify the coconut palm – they are presented as the iconic plant that represents a “luxurious tropical lifestyle”, which tourists to the Wet Tropics should, at least in the tourism view, aspire to experience (and pay for). So we see images of gorgeous blondes sipping pina coladas while reclining in hammocks (between coconut trees) on pristine white beaches with glorious blue skies above them. What’s not to like?

A detailed survey of 650 visitors carried out about ten years ago at Cape Tribulation showed that only 1% came for an “island” experience, the rest came for the unique Wet Tropics experience. Cape Tribulation Beach itself is a magnificent example of our endangered native littoral forest.


There are several issues – importantly, are coconuts native to Australia? 

Despite the reference to Cook finding coconut fruit on the beach (Cooktown) and Harries (1984) (1), neither of these reports stand up to the outcomes of modern investigations which don’t support the idea that coconuts are native to Australia and certainly not the virulent varieties. 

The history of coconuts is long and complex (2) – but we can be sure that few viable coconuts reached the northeastern shores of Australia unaided by man. Why? Because the near coastal ocean currents that could transport coconuts on the east coast, run from the south to the north, aided by the trade winds (3). While it is remotely possible that nuts could have been carried from, say, Pacific Islands, by the vagaries of the ocean currents, they would have been dead and waterlogged (and unviable) by the time they reached our shores. Here at Cape Tribulation, we often get washed-up coconuts on the beach, with barnacles and very dead. Any viable ones, we understand, would have been eaten. (1)

Russell Constable (a Bramston Beach based naturalist) has carried out a detailed analysis of the moves by the Colonial Office to establish coconuts on the Australian coast (to save stranded sailors). (4) I recommend folks read it.

I understand that coconuts in the Daintree Lowlands were initially planted at Cape Tribulation in 1934 and several coconut plantations were established near Myall Beach. 

With the discovery of the Daintree lowlands by “hippies” in the late ’60s and ’70s, many of the coconuts that now dominate the beaches, were planted and this planting continued into the late ’80s. Some of the remote beaches, which ought to be pristine, (such as the Cowie beaches to the north of Cape Tribulation) are now completely dominated by high fecundity coconuts (planted by the residents of the “beachcomber” huts in the ’40s), now completely suppressing native littoral vegetation. Coconuts have enormous reserves of food (that’s why we like them) and can rapidly overtake slower growing native seedlings.

Associated with adult trees, is a continuous rain of dead fronds. These are large – three metres long by about one metre wide and heavy. They are slow to rot and blanket the ground, preventing germination of natives and crushing native seedlings.  

I would advocate that Council invests in a comprehensive community engagement and education program about the impact of coconuts on littoral forests, the value of our World Heritage-listed littoral forests, and how best to manage them as a precursor to implementing its coconut management plan. I personally love coconuts and their products, and even have planted coconuts on our property, but coconuts should not be allowed to destroy our World Heritage-listed, critically endangered, littoral forests.❞

FURTHER DISCUSSION AND COMMENTARY ON FACEBOOK HERE

REFERENCES

(1) https://www.jstor.org/stable/2387847?seq=1

(3) https://www.csiro.au/en/Research/Environment/Oceans-and-coasts/Australasian-ocean-currents

(4) https://ellabayforever.blogspot.com/2010/07/are-coconut-palms-native-to-australia.html

(5) https://www.australiangeographic.com.au/topics/wildlife/2016/12/coconut-palms-shouldnt-be-promoted-as-symbols-of-tropical-queensland/ 

(6) https://douglas.qld.gov.au/download/publications__reports/Coconut-Management-Plan.pdf


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