Excited children are pointing to the colourful fish through the glass bottom of a small boat. The water is a bright blue, dull only where the shadow of the sky’s single cloud falls. Welcome to the Great Barrier Reef, one of Australia’s busiest tourist destinations.
Our beach-loving, sun-drenched population treasures Queensland’s coast and we market our pristine marine environments as a major tourist attraction to international visitors.
But, it seems that neither Queensland Labor nor Campbell Newman’s opposition care too much about the health of our waters or our international environmental reputation. Anna Bligh has refused to take on board evidence that dredging Gladstone Harbour is damaging reef marine life and Campbell Newman is more interested in promising new dredging projects than considering environmental impacts.
On Friday the LNP’s candidate for Queensland premier, Campbell Newman, committed $30 million to dredge the Gold Coast Broadwater. The Brisbane Times reported Newman as saying there will be no environmental impact study done before the dredging commences. The Broadwater pledge is in addition to the $40 million already allocated by the LNP for the dredging of Trinity Inlet in Cairns to accommodate larger cruise ships. There will be no environmental feasibility study for that project either.
"I’m not into studies and plans," Newman said when he announced the Broadwater dredging.
The Bligh Government has at least committed $350,000 to a feasibility study for the Cairns project. This doesn’t look like much when compared with a feasibility undertaken on a similar project in Victoria. When Port Phillip Bay was dredged in 2008 to enhance shipping in the area, over $114 million was spent on trial dredging, environmental and economic impact studies over four years prior to the project’s commencement.
One of the studies found that the adverse environmental effects of the dredge could last for 30 years. Even so, the Port Phillip Bay dredge received the "all clear" from the Office of the Environmental Monitor last month.
Newman’s nonchalant attitude to environmental impact studies is particularly worrisome given Gladstone Harbour is already being dredged to accommodate the Queensland resources boom. Approved by the Labor government, this project is in breach of World Heritage guidelines as it threatens the health of the Great Barrier Reef.
Not only is the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park a rare and protected ecosystem, it also attracts roughly 1.6 million tourists each year, supporting over 700 tourism operators. Recreational fishing is a hugely popular pastime for many residents in the Gladstone area, with over 800,000 Queenslanders identifying themselves as recreational fishers.
According to an episode of Four Corners broadcast in November last year, this may be in jeopardy. There are currently almost 4000 coal seam gas wells in Queensland and that that figure will "grow tenfold over the next 20 years" — which will mean a huge increase in shipping in the Gladstone area.
Dredging began in June last year, after a brief environmental study that concluded that dredging would not affect fish and their marine environments around Gladstone and the Great Barrier Reef. However, Gladstone local Bronwynne Barnes argues that there has been a noticeable increase in unhealthy fish since the project began.
"All of a sudden we’ve got fish that are dying, fish with lesions and professional fishers coming back with damaged fish. We live here and we want to go fishing, but we can’t," she told New Matilda. "Industry always wins. They’ll make a lot of money from the resources boom but no-one’s looked at what this means for us in the long term."
A Fisheries Queensland Fish Health Survey published on 1 March this year confirmed her impressions. It reported that there are increasing incidents of diseased fish in the Gladstone area. Symptoms of disease include lesions, cloudy eyes and skin discoloration. Local residents were warned not to eat the fish.
Gladstone locals formed the Gladstone Fishing Research Fund to raise money to conduct independent research into the diseased fish. The group reported illness in fishers as well as excessive deaths of dugongs, turtles and dolphins in addition to the signs of the poor health of fish.
They funded an independent study, conducted by Dr Matt Landos who found that the studies that had been understaken by the government were not specifically relevant to assess impact of dredging prior to work beginning. Landos argued that there is clear evidence of a "marine ecosystem health crisis" in the Gladstone region.
Dean Jerry, Associate Professor of Marine Biology and Aquaculture at James Cook University agrees that dredging may indeed be to blame. "What happens with dredging is that you stir up sediments on the ocean floor… where there’s a lot of things such as heavy metals and hydrogen sulphide gas," he said. "This places an additional stress on fish, weakens their immune response, and increases the possibility they might succumb to disease."
However, Anna Bligh claims that higher densities of fish and higher than usual amounts of fresh water in the harbour due to flooding, as well as fish getting flushed over the Awoonga Dam wall, are for the reason for higher numbers of unhealthy fish. Locals aren’t satisfied with this explanation.
On the one hand, the Labor Government won’t acknowledge the environmental impacts of dredging already underway — and on the other the LNP leader refuses even to study the environmental feasibility of proposed dredging. It doesn’t leave Queenslanders concerned about the health of the Barrier Reef with many options.