Back in June 2011 the World Heritage Committee had 'noted with extreme concern the approval of Liquefied Natural Gas processing and port facilities on Curtis Island within the World Heritage property'. They requested a 'reactive monitoring mission' to the GBR 'to assess the overall state of conservation of the Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) of the Great Barrier Reef'.
Under the terms of its World Heritage status, Australia should have informed the UNESCO committee of its plans for Curtis Island, which is part of the port of Gladstone and within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. As well as existing coal ports along the Queensland coast (Abbot Point, Hay Point, Gladstone and Brisbane), at least six CSG exporting points are in the pipeline. There are currently about 4,000 CSG wells in Queensland but there are proposals for 40,000. Hence talk of up to ten times the current number of large carriers ploughing through numerous channels between the coral islands of the Reef.
The Federal government didn't tell the WHC about Curtis Island until after the plans were approved. Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke admitted the mistake, but that doesn't detract from Australia's seemingly nonchalant attitude towards its global responsibility for the Reef. The Queensland government's view of the Reef is principally as a source of tourism revenue.
A joint international expert mission by the WHC and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) took place between the 5th and the 14th of March 2012. They visited the Reef itself and adjacent urban, industrial and port facilities; state and federal authorities; leading Australian scientists who contribute to the management of the Reef and surrounding areas; and key 'stakeholders' such as local governments, traditional owners, environmental groups and industry representatives.
Their recently released State of Conservation Report makes uneasy reading for the GBR's carers. The WHC are not yet going to declare the Reef 'at risk', but Australia has eight months to convince them that they have put the brakes on further coastal development approval while they improve protection of the Reef's Outstanding Universal Value.
Not many people will be surprised to learn that Queensland State Premier Campbell Newman wasn't happy with UNESCO's conclusions:
'We are not going to see the economic future of Queensland shut down... We are in the coal business. If you want decent hospitals, schools and police on the beat we all need to understand that.'Queensland's voters probably thought he was in the business of running their state up until then.
And this was typical of comments accompanying the Courier Mail's coverage of the UNESCO report, and the gist of what many people were saying on radio phone-ins.
'stuff the UN. This is OUR country & WE decide what & how it's run!! [sic]'You can't have it both ways, however. You can gratefully accept your World Heritage status and use it to attract at least 1.5 million visitors a year, and make lots of money as a result. But if you don't protect it carefully enough and the people who gave you that privilege threaten to take it back, you can't then argue petulantly that it's none of their business.
In February the Federal government announced a strategic assessment of the GBR. It will take 18 months and involve both federal and state levels. Hopefully, they will co-operate better than they are doing at the moment, as a war of words escalates between the two over the Queensland Co-ordinator General's conditional approval of the Alpha coal mine, the first of nine mega-mines-to-be in the Galilee Basin in Central West Queensland. And I wonder at the qualifications of, for example, the Deputy Leader of the Queensland government, Jeff Seeney. In his capacity as Minister for State Development, Infrastructure and Planning, he was interviewed on ABC local radio not long after the LNP was swept to power in the State elections in March. Asked about the ill-health of fish in Gladstone harbour and the possible effects of dredging and pollution on the Reef, this not particularly personable man glibly replied that the Reef was hundreds of kilometres away from Gladstone. Wrong. There are coral cays within 50km.
Associate Professor Jon Brodie, a Water Quality Scientist at James Cook University, based in Cairns and Townsville, explained to ABC's Four Corners (Great Barrier Grief aired last November) that live coral cover is one of the best indicators of the GBR's health. Fifty to sixty years ago, live coral cover was about 50%: now it's in the low 20s. I think it is probably time someone stepped in.