Estuaries are often referred to as the 'nurseries of the sea' as they provide breeding areas for fish, crustaceans and other marine life. Some 41 different species of fish are said to inhabit tidal saltmarsh areas, while the most commonly found are the smaller species such as pershlets and gobies that are an important food source for larger fish and birds (DPI Fisheries, 2001).
On the western side of the Hunter River lies Hexham Swamp, an area of 3200 hectares of largely freshwater wetlands. The swamp once provided a major nursery for commercial species of fish and prawns and many other aquatic species, however since floodgates were installed on Ironbark Creek more than 30 years ago to control inundation of the land for farming purposes, the regular tidal flushing that is so critical to this environment, has been prevented.
The Hexham Swamp Rehabilitation Project aims to restore tidal flushing to the swamp to allow the once thriving estuarine wetlands to recover, providing important aquatic and terrestrial habitat for native species. For more information on this project go to CMA website.
The Hyde family of Fern Bay know how important it is for the floodgates to be removed from Ironbark Creek. Geoff Hyde comes from a long line of prawn fisherman and he's been waiting a while to see Hexham Swamp returned to a productive nursery for prawns. Geoff and his nephews, fifth generation of prawners, are out in the prawn trawler and fishing boat in the Hunter River each year catching 'Hunter River Barramundi' (or mullet to those living outside Fern Bay).
Geoff started prawning when he was 15 and bought his own boat when he was 16. He has been prawning the Hunter River ever since. He was the first commercial fisher to catch king prawns in the estuary, discovering a huge prawn nursery in Hexham Swamp. To the amazement of his fellow prawners, he decided to chase the king prawns during daylight rather than dusk.
His five children have all had a turn at deckhand, and his daughter Amanda, keeps coming back each year for the start of the season. And while she enjoys getting out with her family on deck, she's not that keen on eating the prawns. Amanda carried on her interest in the Hunter River through a degree in Environmental Science with honours in estuarine ecology. Hexham Swamp was the topic of her honours thesis.
Geoff has seen many changes in the river over the years. After so many generations he is unsure of the future as the catches have been getting smaller each year, with many prawners barely breaking even.
Geoff's great grandfather was Thomas Hyde, a seaman who was sentenced to 7 years and transported to Australia in 1817 on the convict ship Batavia. Hannah Adams (Mary Jones alias Ann Goss) was sentenced to life and transported on the convict ship Lucy Davidson in 1829. In 1832 Hannah was assigned to work with Thomas, who was a shoe maker. They were married in 1833 and in 1847 applied for a land grant on Moscheto Island.
Thomas and Hannah's son William 'Billy' Hyde met Ellen Emily Milham, a young widow with two daughters, while fishing with his father. They were married in 1892 and moved to Smith Island in the Hunter River where Billy built a bark hut on the only strip of land that was above the high water mark. They made a living from fishing, growing what they could and trading with others on the mainland for supplies.
Each day Ellen Hyde rowed their five children to school across Fullerton Cove to the mainland. Before returning she would collect fresh water to bring back to the island for the family. Not surprisingly, she became an accomplished rower and won the Ladies Double Sculling Championships on the Parramatta River in Sydney in 1906.
The Hydes enjoyed life on Smith Island, in particular the abundance of fresh seafood that was available to them, and took care to look after the river.