June 19, 2015

Grief about the Reef

Marine scientists know that corals don't like sediment, which suffocates them. Crown of Thorns larvae, on the other hand, thrive on it. These are two good reasons why no more capital* dredge spoil should be dumped in the Great Barrier Reef. The public know dumping is a no-no, and have told their political representatives as much. Queenslanders voted loudly for protection of the Great Barrier Reef in the state election in January, and the beneficiaries of that, Queensland Labor, are on the case. But no politicians are prepared to stick their necks out as far as is necessary to ensure the Reef's survival. That requires tackling global climate change as well as local dumping of spoil.

The end of May saw UNESCO's World Heritage Committee's draft decision with regard to the state of conservation of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area**. The Abbott government had been lobbying member countries of the Committee for months, spending $100,000 of taxpayers' money in the process***. The Commonwealth and State governments released a joint statement† following the Committee's announcement that the GBR would not be listed 'in danger'. Greg Hunt went a little overboard when he spoke to The Australian, describing it as a 'huge tick of approval' for his government's efforts to save the Reef. Not everyone agrees, of course, that the Committee is satisfied with what's being done, or that Hunt will go down in history as the saviour of Australia's greatest natural treasure.

Australia is by no means off the hook. The Committee's decision has to be upheld at the 39th Session of the Committee in Bonn at the end of June, but that is largely a formality. The Australian government is required to rigorously implement all its commitments, which means their inclusion in legislation, a solid investment framework, and the delivery of its anticipated results. By the end of 2016, Australia must report how it is going to implement its Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan, which 'responds to the World Heritage Committee's recommendation that Australia develop a long-term plan for sustainable development to protect the Outstanding Universal Value of the Reef'. Already the Commonwealth and State governments have together produced a Reef 2050 Plan – Implementation Strategy††. As yet it runs to a mere 40 pages, which contain commendable aims and an integrated monitoring and reporting progamme, but I wish there was less on governance structure and committee terms of reference, and more on detailed action plans. Hopefully a lot of work will be done on those during the next 18 months.

There is a further, five-year reporting requirement. By 2019, Australia must prove to the Committee that its targets are being met. This means scientists will be required to confirm hard on-ground evidence that the Plan is working.

It beggars belief that Australia needed to be told to implement serious measures to preserve the GBR; that it didn't fully appreciate its international responsibility. Unfortunately, there is nothing about climate change in the Plan, so it doesn't begin to address the larger-scale risks to the Reef of a warming ocean that are likely to be exacerbated during the lifetime of the Plan unless all nations, especially feet-draggers such as this one, reduce their carbon emissions significantly.

The Environmental Defenders Office in Brisbane regularly delivers free legal information seminars for the public, focusing on topical subjects. Last week's 'Law Jam' was all about protecting the Reef, and was held at QUT's Law School. The EDO's Andrew Kwan outlined all the Reef-related court battles his colleagues have been and are currently involved in. WWF Australia's GBR Coastal Campaign Manager, Louise Matthiesson, explained the World Heritage Committee's recommendation and its implications. Dr Selina Ward, Reef scientist at the University of Queensland, told us that 50.7 per cent of the GBR's coral has died in the last 27 years: 24 per cent as a result of tropical cyclone damage; 21 per cent by Crown of Thorns outbreaks; and 5 per cent because of bleaching. In 1998, 16 per cent of the world coral died in one large bleaching event. She was in no doubt that climate change poses the greatest threat to the Reef. Fiercer cyclones will cause more damage and increased erosion; calcification will decrease with the increased acidification of water absorbing more atmospheric carbon dioxide; and warmer water = heat-stressed algae that supply coral with food = coral death (bleaching).

The GBR is most certainly in danger. But Dr Ward believes there is enough healthy coral left to turn around the Reef's decline.

Steven Miles, Queensland's Environment Minister, was the EDO's final speaker. He is personable and much more confident than when I last heard him speak, at the National Parks Association of Queensland a few weeks ago. He is proud of the Queensland government's contribution to the sustainability plan that persuaded UNESCO not to designate the Reef at risk. Such a decision would have meant that people lost hope, he argued. He listed the new Great Barrier Reef Water Science Task Force's credentials in response to a question from the audience.

During his speech he opined that climate change legislation was the domain of the Commonwealth government, on the world stage. I took issue with that. I suggested that there was much the state could do to mitigate climate change, but there was one key decision that not only would have an immediate impact on emissions but would render his government's plan for Reef conservation much more likely to succeed. Namely, to halt the development of the Galilee Basin's massive coal deposits.

Needless to say, he didn't agree with me. He acknowledged supporters of the Keep It In The Ground Campaign, but claimed that the majority of Queenslanders were not with them or me.

A significant number of Queenslanders do not know where the Galilee Basin is. They have no concept of the staggering amounts of coal this area could produce if proponents were given the go-ahead, or the timescale for production. Rehabilitation of massive pits does not concern them as much as revenue for hospitals or road building. As they see it, mining = jobs. Simple. They know nothing of transition to a clean energy economy or how to enable it. Nor are they likely to be enlightened unless they actively seek out information. They could start with http://bze.org.au/about, and more specifically http://media.bze.org.au/ZCA2020_Stationary_Energy_Report_v1.pdf.

It's a long time since I last wrote about the Reef (Great Barrier Reef: the final warning? October 2012). In the meantime I have marched on its behalf; attended talks and rallies; signed petitions; and wrung my hands in sheer frustration at the tinkering around the edges of the issue. I find myself increasingly believing that only extreme measures can save it. Every week hundreds of large vessels leave many locations along the Queensland coast, each boat transporting hundreds of tourists to pontoons off which they dive or snorkel, many for the first time, their flippers breaking off pieces of coral as they thrash around. I would severely limit such activities: most people would be restricted to observing shallow-water coral reefs from glass-bottomed boats – and watching natural history programmes. I would halt all port expansion. And tankers and bulk carriers would have to travel around the Reef, not through it. I would replace sugar cane with macadamia nuts or citrus trees or whatever. We don't need 1500 kilometres of cane-growing down Australia's eastern coast. Go and watch That Sugar Film. I would fund local and state government engagement with communities about renewable energy projects, and sustainable farming, fishing and tourism. There would be little debate about zip lines and much about enlarging national parks and genuinely protecting areas of high conservation value.

This week came news of research from James Cook University about young Clown Fish being poisoned by sediment†††. So, we won't be able to find Nemo on the inner Reef for much longer? How much more of a wake-up call does anyone need?

* capital dredging is necessary for the creation of a new port or berth; maintenance dredging keeps an existing waterway or channel navigable 
** the World Heritage Area does not coincide with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. The differences between the two are defined at http://www.gbrmpa.gov.au/about-the-reef/heritage/great-barrier-reef-world-heritage-area/differences-between-the-marine-park-and-the-world-heritage-area2
*** http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/abbott-government-spends-100000-on-travel-to-lobby-against-unesco-reef-listing-20150511-ggyydi.html
† http://www.environment.gov.au/minister/hunt/2015/mr20150529.html
†† http://www.environment.gov.au/system/files/resources/32cb8925-03ee-40e7-9b27-4b3848d3b5f5/files/reef-2050-plan-implementation-strategy.pdf
††† http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/australasia/sediment-from-human-activity-increases-disease-levels-in-the-great-barrier-reefs-fish-new-study-finds-10327261.html


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