Australia’s famous Byron Bay beach has been closed to swimmers and surfers as authorities carry out emergency sandbagging to prevent further damaging erosion.

Escalating erosion at Main Beach and Clarkes Beach in the northern New South Wales town has left a drop of several metres from the top of crumbling dunes down to the beach.

Max Pendergast, a 77-year-old local who has lived and surfed at Byron Bay his whole life, told Guardian Australia he had never seen the beaches in a worse condition.

“I’ve been through quite a few big cyclones, I’ve seen the sea come over the six-metre high dunes, but what’s happening now is an etching away of the beach,” he said.

“It looks pretty ugly right now, because a lot of the beach is just gone. It’s very bad.”

Pendergast said he noticed the beach deteriorate significantly over the past six months, and said he was concerned that if erosion continued waves would threaten units and the road along the beachfront.

“Not that long ago it was beautiful white sand all the way down to the water, but now it’s just rock, it really has eaten it away.

“There’s only a couple of places where you can walk on sand and in the surf, otherwise you have to sit on the grass during high tide because it’s just exposed all the rock below,” he said.

The town, just south of the Queensland border, is Australia’s eastern most point, and its laid-back, alternative culture is known for attracting international tourists.

With tree roots, branches and leaves covering large swaths of the beach, surf lifesavers have been unable to manoeuvre necessary equipment over the debris, forcing the closure of the beaches.

One surf lifesaver who spoke to Guardian Australia said the number of people injured while swimming or bodysurfing had increased as more rocks were exposed.

“Sometimes you just can’t put the flags up,” he said..

“The beach is one of our biggest assets,” he said, but there “doesn’t seem to be any clear leadership in terms of what needs to be done”.

Many of Australia’s state borders have been closed for much of the year due to Covid-19, but Byron Bay’s tourist-reliant businesses have been gearing up for an influx of summer visitors from the rest of New South Wales – who themselves are unable to travel internationally – and hoping for border restrictions to ease as the the number of cases falls.

A recent survey found mental health issues plaguing Byron Bay’s business owners and workforce as a result of border closures.

Of particular concern for those watching the eroding sand is the Beach Byron Bay Cafe on Clarkes Beach, just metres from the disappearing beach.

The NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment, which oversees part of the beach as Crown land, began sandbagging to reinforce dunes on Monday, to “provide temporary protection” for the cafe.

However a spokesman for the department told Guardian Australia a “longer-term solution” for the cafe would include a “phased retreat from the current advancing coastal erosion”.

The cafe’s operator, Ben Kirkwood, recently told the ABC the three tonnes of sandbags were “all about buying time, because we were up against Mother Nature essentially before this”.

Chloe Dowsett, Byron Shire Council’s coastal and biodiversity coordinator, said the impact of the erosion had been more severe due to the north-facing beaches in Cape Byron, but was mostly the result of a lack of sand.

“A lot of vegetation, including large trees, has been lost, further destabilising the area,” Dowsett said in a statement last month.

“The primary source of this erosion is a lack of sand within the bay from a lack of consistent southerly swell over the last few years which enables long-shore transport of sand up the coast.”

In addition to sandbagging, Dowsett said felled trees were being left on the beach “to offer some small degree of protection from waves”.

Dowsett said a “big slug of sand” had moved across from the point of land separating Wategos Beach and Clarkes Beach, and that the sand should eventually move into Main Beach and improve the situation.

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