November 12th 2012
Vale Keith Bryson - The man behind White Lady Bay
Last Saturday, November 3, Magnetic Island lost one of her truly remarkable sons. A brilliant man not many knew too well, who lived more as a recluse - fascinated to his core by the rhythms of the Island and the Great Barrier Reef. But Keith Bryson was much, much, more; with a legacy pivotal in establishing a university as well as stopping oil exploration on his beloved Reef. Keith passed away in the care of his friend Jan Phillips having just celebrated his 90th birthday a few days before. Following is a two part story we first published 13 years ago about remarkable Keith Bryson and the remarkable place where he lived. A small private memorial for Keith will be held next Sunday in keeping with his wishes.
This is the story of an amazing man - a savvy and observant pioneer of the Queensland fishing and shellfish industry with a broad and fertile vision who, most might think, was these days, no more than an eccentric, elderly hermit who yells at people when they come too close to his tropical beach paradise.
Keith, typically in his "brief" attire
They'll tell you that Keith Bryson has pointed guns at people he thinks might be intruding onto his broodstock oyster lease. That is a while ago now but anybody thinking of pulling into White Lady Cove had better beware. Keith is very serious about the research and cultivation he undertakes. He doesn't take kindly to intruders who aren't aware of the complex array of underwater oyster long-lines and spat (oyster spawn) cages just beneath the surface.
Most locals are familiar with the "White Lady", the rock along Horseshoe Bay's Eastern promontory which, from a distance, looks like a statue of a small woman in a long white dress. It was apparently white from bird guano years ago then someone took the idea a little further with a tin of white paint. The White Lady stands as a sentinel to Keith's world which, with its Crusoesque authenticty, is the sort of place to send movie location scout into a frenzy.
White Lady Bay and her namesake
Keith too is the real McCoy. A crusty old salt type, with callouses so thick on his feet that, when he inadvertantly jumped onto the head of a lurking death adder he couldn't feel or see that he'd been bitten. It took four hours of walking about before a dislodged fang worked its way through his leathery sole and entered the bloodstream - nearly costing him his leg and his life. Deat adders aside, Keith's hermit-like lifestyle (with attendant "pet" wildlife including Henry the curlew, numerous wallabies and a water rat) in such a truly stunning location, could easily tempt the hardest-boiled city slicker to sell up and come to learn the ways of the ocean at the feet of this 76 year old guru of observation in the marine environment.
When we pulled up on the beach for our afternon appointment we found Keith relaxing beneath a grove of shady figs that he'd planted years ago. Within moments however, Keith had launched into a rapid and intense stream of talk. Clearly, over the last six weeks in which he'd had no company, more than a small reservior of banked up conversation was unleashed.
A few years ago, Keith thought he was about to die. So many of his old mates had dropped off he was sure his time was nearly up. It was then that he decided to hand over his lease at the little bay to James Cook University's Department of Marine Biology. This decision was true to Keith's vision for the north. It is a vision which has, it seems, been surprisingly influential and based on the greater good for both humans and the environment - and in particular the sea and its creatures.
Keith has been linked to the sea since childhood, albiet through his family's chain of fish 'n' chips shops around Narabeen on Sydney's northern beaches. He was pulled out of school at fourteen to work batter bath and was grateful to escape into the army a few years later, though you might wonder why. Keith was sent to New Guinea, where he was thrown into "The fight for Australia" on the notorious Kokoda trail. His company were assigned to artillery support, flanking the soldiers who stopped the Japanese advance in the mud of that deadly track.
Keith has a disarming habit of breaking into a boyish giggle when he is relating a serious, painful, dangerous or frustrating circumstance. He giggled a lot about the 20 months he spent in and around PNG. He has, however, been surprised that nobody seems to have mentioned that the village of Aitape, destryed by last year's horrendous tsunami was where, according to Keith, the entire Australian Sixth Division was camped during the war. Keith wonders how a tsunami at that time might have affected the overall allied push.
It was at Weewack that Keith suffered a seroius shrapnel wound - oironically, from an Australian booby trap. "I tripped over and heard the 'click' of a hand grenade. I knew I had three seconds to get away. I jumped up, ran and leapt for a ditch but was caught by a piece of shrapnel in the back of the head," said Keith. Flying back to Aitape, Keith mused over the landscape below and the many little cemetries where his mates lay after nine months of fighting their way along the northern coast. The return flight took just twenty minutes.
Convalescing at a nearby hospital, Keith began to take an interest in the profusion of corals and other creature in the nearby sea. He discovered shellfish and, in particular, money cowries which fascinated him. He decided that at war's end he would learn as much as he could about marine creatures.
Keith suffered considerably during his service in PNG and it wasn't only his head injury. He caught scrub typhus, dengue fever, developed boils and even acute appenicitis. At war's end, Keith was discharged and for a while went trochus diving in the Whitsundays where he would fashion a face mask out of the sawn-off base of a quart bottle of beer and some old inner tube. He then went fruit picking, and tried his hand at cane cutting but, soon after, enrolled in the newly-opened fishery school at Cronulla. There he was taught preservation techniques which would prove very useful later on. He also gained an apprenticeship on a steam trawler out of Sydney and witnessed first hand the waste of a great resource: tons of edible fish and crustaceans including Woolloomooloo bugs were simply shovelled overboard.
In 1947, Keith got work ona mackerel boat out of Yepoon. It followed the fish up the coast to Townsville, where Keith discovered the Palmer Street Fish Shop in South Townsville. It was on the site next to the present Australian Hotel and Keith couldn't understand why the shop, which was very close to five pubs with 900 wharfies just down the road, wasn't doing very well. The owner wanted to sell, so Keith offered him 200 pounds. The deal was done.
Keith was also surprised that the delicious mackerel he'd eaten on board the trawler tasted like cotton wool in all the local shops. Recalling his classes in preservation, Keith knew that the freezing process for fish had to be done in a particular way to avoid loss of flavour and texture. The best resultz were only obtained when the fish was dropped to between 22 and 28 degrees Farenheit within two hours. He applied this knowledge and soon had a thriving business. With his old army contacts he picked up the lucrative defence force contracts but found himself working to the point of exhaustion and, after 18 months, on doctor;s advice Keith sld the business for two thousand pounds. Soon after he bought his own boat, The By Golly, and with some nifty makeshift gearing he fitted her out to handle her by himself.
Keith was keen to test the northern waters for prawns. Having found only a handful here and there in northern waters he was travelling with a friend off Rollingstone Bay on Magnetic Island's west coast when he thought his mate was pulling his leg, calling out that the net was chockers with banana prawns! But it was true and, Keith believes that was the first commercial quantity sized catch taken north of Bunderberg.
As a pioneer of the fishing industry, and as an individual with excellent skills of observation, Keith was quick to notice the interconnectedness of the fishing industry with the oceanenvironment from which it drew its profits. He realised that any number of interferences to that environment by humans could upset the whole cahin of natural replenishment. Here was potential for all sorts of industries to be developed from such a rich environmental resource, but that ignorant mistakes could lead to disaster. He therefore decided that what was neede more than any other commodity was knowledge.
Keith was also fast gaining respect for his contributions to the industry and, in 1955, he was voted in as Secretary to the Professional Fisherman's Association. It was high time, he thought, to start lobbying for the sorts of institutions which provide knowledge, such as universities and research institutes.
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 and photos George Hirst
(Photo portrait of Keith at top of page courtesy of Jan Phillips)