OUR GREAT BARRIER GRIEF
It’s one of the seven natural wonders of the world and avoiding the UNESCO ‘in danger’ listing of our spectacular Reef gives us a second chance to properly care for one of our greatest asassets, writes Brian Williams
IT’S a bafflingb thing that while the Great Barrier Reef has long been regarded as one of the world’s best-managed World Heritage areas, it has been the subject of an international probe due to its poor condition.
Last night International Union for the Conservation of Nature scientists in Paris brought down a draft decision for the World Heritage Committee that the Reef should not be listed as “in danger” because of damage and development concerns.
For Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt and the Queensland tourism industry, it has been a nerve-racking time.
The trigger for this nightmare of the past five years was the Port of Gladstone expansion for the boom in coal and coal seam gas exports.
It featured the biggest dredging project in Australia’s history.
It was heavily conditioned but despite this tonnes of fish died in the harbour, dredging conditions were broken repeatedly and a bund wall leaked.
For the conservation movement, battling a rush of port and coal mine expansions, Gladstone was the hook upon which to hang a devastatingly simple campaign – Save the Reef.
It allowed them to link the Reef to dangers inherent in shipping and port building like at Gladstone and Abbot Point near Bowen in north Queensland.
It also allowed them a vehicle with which they could link coal exports to climate change and Reef impacts.
Ironically, it could never be determined if dredging was the lone culprit for Gladstone’s dead fish. More likely it was a combination of events surrounding the 2010-11 La Nina wet season.
At the time, turtles and dugong died right up anda down the coast where their habitats and seagrass feeding grounds were smothered in brown and red plumes as topsoil contaminated with nutrients and chemicals washed out to sea.
This pointed to the problem being broader and more complex than dredging.
Australia has climate extremes that cannot be underestimated. We go from ridiculously cruel droughts to devastating floods in the blink of an eye.
In 10 days in March 2003, 403cu km of water, a figure too large to comprehend, fell across Queensland and the Northern Territory.
In late 2010-11, US National Centre for Atmospheric Research scientist John Fasullo recorded a head-scratching fall of 7mm in sea levels rather than the usual 3mm increase.
Fasullo says so much rain evaporatede from oceans anand fell on the Australian cocontinent in 2010-11 that it caused a temporary global sea level drop.
Queensland Resources Council chief executive Michael Roche fought for the industry on all fronts, continuously arguing that farm run-off, cyclones and crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks did far more damage than ports or shipping.
Roche was backed by the Campbell Newman government, who with Hunt, restricted new port expansions.
This was a good message to send to UNESCO although did not amount to much because most projects were already pretty much under way.
At least it was public acknowledgment that there had to be a limit somewhere in protecting this $6 billion a year money-earning World Heritage area.
Incidentally, World Heritage listings do not necessarily restrict development but on the other hand UNESCO expects that a nation will maintain the values for which a place was recognised.
While the Newman government rightly tore Labor to shreds over these projects being approved on their watch, it hypocritically eased conditions at Gladstone to allow dredging to proceed in even dirtier conditions.
It also allowed farmers to introduce a voluntary, selfassessed scheme under which they would cut farm run-off to replace hated regulations introduced by the Anna Bligh government. Bligh had been just as keen as Newman to see Gladstone get up as she needed mining royalties to fix budget debt.
Cane farmers are changing practices, albeit slowly and, with miners, they have borne the brunt of criticism over Reef damage that has resulted in half its coral being lost.
Jeff Bradshaw, 69, grows cane near Mackay.
He reckons his 120ha farm is in such good nick, that he will drink water from any paddock.
“I’d like to see politicians in Brisbane drink the water coming out of the Luggage Point sewerage plant,’’ he grumbles.
Although the number of growers fully accredited in terms of changing farm practices is small, he says many have altered the way they farm.
“It’s so disheartening. I’ve worked all my life to be kicked in the guts by the greenies,’’ he says. “We are all greenies. None of us want to see farms buggered up. It’s our livelihood.’’
Bradshaw is passionate and genuine but, like many farmers and other sectoral interests, struggles to see the big picture as he is buried in the day-to-day slog of farming.
One of the big picture issues is climate change.
It's been a stumbling point for the coal industry due to the impacts on coral reefs of warming oceans and acidification that makes life tough for corals. Australian Institute of Marine Science researcher Janice Lough says we have climate change that global in the Reef's plays a role long-term health. There is only so much we can do locally but we have to recognise that we are noe in anera of rapidly changing global climate as a consequence of human activities changing the composition of the atmosphere and, essentially trapping more energy in the climate system" says Lough. While Hunt has been working to protect the Reef, at the same time he agreed to devolve Commonwealth powers on development approvals down to the states something UNESCO is unhappy about. Pushed by industry to remove red and green tape, this ostensibly is to remove statefederal overlaps and fair enough if that is the case. But if you combine Newman’s legislative windbacks, such as the easing of vegetation clearing restrictions and easing of coastal development controls, this cannot be good in terms of trying to protect the Reef. Hunt’s efforts as a Reef hero are not so well received by Australian Marine Conservation Society spokeswoman Felicity Wishart.
“Minister Hunt wants us to believe he is trying to protect the Reef,’’ she says. “But he has failed to rule out more port expansion and massive expansion in shipping.
“He’s cut funding from our Reef protectors, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, and spent taxpayers’ money flying around the world trying to reassure WHC members that more shipping, more dredging and more development won’t hurt the Reef.’’
F or the tourism industry, the spectre of a listing has been nothing short of a horror as operators fear that international and domestic tourists hearing of a listing might go elsewhere.
If the Reef had been listed, it would have meant Australia suffering the ignominy of UNESCO overseeing repair work.
The second-largest barrier reef in the world is in Belize. It is a piddling 300km long compared with Australia’s 2300km monster.
Belize is already on the in danger list because islands have been sold off and plans made to start oil drilling. After WHC intervention, Belize banned oil exploration and put in place a restoration program organised by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature complete with targets and time frames.
It is that distasteful level of intervention Australia would have faced if our Reef had been listed, as opposed to being left to make our own way with our own detailed restoration program.
It appears the WHC has taken up Hunt’s canny offer of reporting every two years on the Reef’s condition.
Hunt says Australia’s work is held up internationally as a model for what to do in these situations.
This is ironic given we’ve patted ourselves on the back for years about what good Reef managers we are, mainly due to some Asian reefs having been virtually wiped out.
The Federal Environment Department’s website says: “We have an excellent track record managing the Great Barrier Reef.”
Maybe it’s time that was deleted because it is obvious that despite decades of warnings from scientists about the condition of the Reef, we’ve let it go little by little.
Farmers, miners, ports, developers and fishermen have all complained that they are being singled out for blame. The fact is we’ve all contributed.
Minister Hunt wants us to believe he is trying to protect the Reef
FEL ICITY WISHART