As industrial activity in the Great Barrier Reef ramps up, with escalations in ‘dredging’ processes that suck up the sea bed to create shipping channels, a report from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority yesterday highlighted the scientific uncertainty around how dredging might hasten the reef’s demise.
It follows the release of a damning report from the Australian Coral Reef Society on Monday which expressed alarm at the commercial activity – especially at the controversial Abbot Point Port near Bowen – which it says is doing significant damage.
The government’s Marine Park Authority was more mild in its assessment, but its report recommends “a number of knowledge gaps” in understanding of the impacts of dredging be plugged, and research rapidly ramped up.
The report comes as the federal government attempts to dissuade the United Nation’s World Heritage Committee from listing the ailing ecosystem as ‘in danger’ later this year, a looming threat the committee has made clear is partly connected to the five major commodity ports, and 10 other trading ports, along the Queensland coast.
The MPA report said that existing data on the impacts of dredging “has not been utilised as fully as possible” and recommended field assessments of how much sediment escapes during dredging and how this ‘sediment plume’ travels through and affects the sensitive marine ecosystem, within the next year.
The report also suggested a range of actions to be undertaken over coming years, including “implementation of sustained long-term environmental monitoring” in the reef’s World Heritage Area, steps to ensure dredging is timed for minimum biological impact, and “research into potential effects of dredging pressures on fish health”.
The Greens environment spokesperson, Larissa Waters, said while the uncertainty highlighted by the report remains, governments should “give the reef the benefit of the doubt and not continue with mass dredging until we understand its long term impacts”.
“The precautionary principle,” Waters said, “that the absence of scientific certainty should not be a barrier to environmental protection, is already written into our national environment laws”.
“But it is being ignored.”
Despite the scientific uncertainty, the Queensland government is working with industry to expand the port at Abbott Point to create the world’s largest coal terminal and pave the way for the export of hundreds of millions of tonnes of coal from the Galilee Basin, inland of the state’s coast.
“What scientists know for sure, is that dredging has severe localised impacts, including on seagrass beds, which are breeding and feeding grounds for dugongs and turtles,” Waters said.
“The report also finds there is evidence of turtles dying during dredging excavation and that the artificial light, underwater noise and turbidity generated by dredging may impact marine life.
“What scientists don’t yet know is what the long-term impacts are, or how dredging impacts a wide range of species, including migratory birds.
A report by six academics from universities across the nation, prepared for the Australian Coral Reef Society (ACRS) and released on Monday, offered more concrete findings on how “Australia is not meeting its obligations under the World Heritage Convention”.
In 2013, a federal government report noted that 24 out of 41 attributes that make up the ‘Outstanding Universal Value’ of the reef under the convention are deteriorating.
“Of these 24 deteriorating attributes, 10 are currently assessed as ‘poor’ – these include corals, seagrasses, dugong, seabirds, green turtle nesting sites, as well as key sites like the Cod Hole and Raine Island,” the report said.
Researchers also said that proposals under the previous Newman state government, to dump dredge spoil from the Abbot Point Port extension on the Caley Valley Wetlands, “were in breach of Australia’s international environmental treaties”.
The reef has already lost around half of its coral cover in the last three decades and will face further challenges as climate change leads to ocean acidification, sea temperature increases, altered weather patterns like more intense storms, and rising sea levels.
Climate change has been notably absent in government plans to protect the reef, but governments have nevertheless made significant progress on conservation efforts in the lead up to the UN decision.
Earlier this week, the federal government announced its Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan – designed to address UN concerns – which outlined a range of measures to protect the reef.
In March this year, it also announced it would ban the dumping of dredge spoil in the waters of the reef’s Marine Park Area, and the newly elected Queensland Labor government has rejected plans to dump the dredge in the Caley Valley Wetlands.
Despite these positive steps, the ACRS report said, more urgent action is needed. It pointed to the Abbot Point Port expansion as a particular concern, and recommended against it.
The disposal of dredge spoil from the Abbot Point expansion “remains an unresolved technical problem” despite the new Labor government’s move to ban dumping on the Caley Valley Wetlands, the report said.
“Dredging for the Abbot Point expansion will have substantial negative impacts on surrounding seagrass, corals, soft corals, and other macroinvertebrates, as well as turtles, dugongs and other megafauna”.
“Recent evidence has also shown a doubling of the incidence of coral disease close to dredged areas.”
Some experts have argued that it is possible, at least in the short to medium term, to spread the volume of coal exports from the Galilee across existing ports, which are operating below capacity.
Laura Eadie, a policy developer specialising in the intersection of economics and the environment who prepared a report on Queensland’s ports for the Centre for Policy Development in 2013, said while there may be more environmentally sound ways to get the Galilee coal to market “it wouldn’t be a cheap proposition”.
“It seems like most of the focus has been on financing railway lines to go to Abbot Point rather than considering alternatives,” she said.
“I don’t think anyone’s looked at all from what I’ve seen.”
“Alternatives generally haven’t been explored fully, the framing has been ‘lets look at the cheapest way to do things without looking at environmental cost’,” she said.
The scientists who prepared the ACRS report agree.
“Existing infrastructure should be utilized, rather than expanding existing ports or building new ports,” the report said.
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