The Great Barrier reef is in the worst state since records began and it’s only going to get worse say researchers, but instead of taking action to help the reef, the Australian government has just paved the way to deal this natural wonder a possibly fatal blow.
The report on the state of the reef was made to an Australian Senate committee by a team of leading researchers including experts from the Marine Spatial Ecology Lab at the University of Queensland. The Senate committee is investigating how Australian authorities have managed the reef ahead of a UNESCO agency deciding next year whether to list the reef as a World Heritage site that is in danger.
A team of concerned researchers told the committee last week that, indeed, the reef is in bad shape and is currently facing a whole host of threats, including coastal development, farm pesticide run-off and general water pollution. There’s also the fact that rising temperatures have led to coral bleaching, which threatens to kill off relatively large portions of the reef.
While the Great Barrier Reef, which is composed of more than 2,900 individual reefs, is capable of rejuvenating, these constant stresses have severely inhibited its ability to recover, say the researchers. In fact, since the reef was listed as a World Heritage site in 1981, the coral cover has halved (in fact, half of it is dead) and, as bad as the reef looks today, by 2050 the researchers project that the reef will be reduced to sparse coral cover, large swathes of seaweed beds and relatively few fish species.
Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, professor of marine studies at the University of Queensland, is quoted as saying that the current management efforts are inadequate. “This is an ecosystem that is owned to some extent by the world. It seems at every turn that we are trying to prove that we don’t care about that commitment made in 1981.”
The researchers told the committee that the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, which oversees management and tourism of and around the reef, has had its funding dramatically scaled back, hampering its efforts to keep up with the reef’s many threats. In addition to this, commercial fishing and unlawful fishing are all driving the area closer to the brink, without adequate oversight or power given to the Park Authority to combat these problems.
One of the most pressing threats, though, and one that some campaigners believe could be the first definitive tolling of the bell for the reef as we know it, is the Abbot Point port expansion which will involve dredging around three million cubic meters of sand and soil that will then be dumped offshore inside the Great Barrier Reef marine park area. While permits say that the dumping site must be about 40km from the nearest reef, campaigners and some researchers say that the Port Authority cannot possibly guarantee the reef won’t be impacted by this massive upheaval. Yet, those who are overseeing the project told the committee last week that these fears are overblown.
Ports Australia Chief Executive David Anderson told the committee that offshore dumping is both cheaper and better for the environment and contends that there are greater natural threats to the reef, like cyclones. Queensland Resources Council chief executive Michael Roche similarly backed those claims that the fears are overblown and that, all things considered, this the best option commercially and for the environment.
However, the Senate committee seemed skeptical of the suggestion that the expansion of the port needed to be quite so large, pointing out that its size could have been reduced by transferring minerals to ships that were further out to sea — yet this option was ignored in favor of robust expansion.
The Guardian has further details on this operation and reveals that the presiding Abbott government has already signed off on the Port expansion despite the fact that it is highly contentious:
On 29 July, the last major regulatory hurdle facing the development of Australia’s largest coal mine was removed by Greg Hunt, minister for the environment. The Carmichael coal mine, owned by India’s Adani Group, will cover 200 sq km and produce 60m tonnes of coal a year – enough to supply electricity for 100 million people. Located in Queensland’s Galilee Basin, 400km inland from the reef, it will require a major rail line, which is yet to receive final approval, to transport the coal, which must then be loaded on to ships at the ports of Hay Point and Abbot Point, near Gladstone on the Queensland coast, adjacent to the southern section of the reef. Both ports require dredging and expansion to manage the increased volume of shipping. Once aboard, the coal must be shipped safely through the coral labyrinth that is the Great Barrier Reef, and on to India, where it will be burned in great coal-fired power plants.
That the Abbott government has signed off on this expansion even while the Senate is still exploring the effects on the reef is testament to the government’s already established poor environment agenda. The government seems to be ignoring not just that the expansion itself could injure the environment, but the coal extracted is likely to act as a devastating pollutant that the reef, in its ailing state, simply cannot fight off.
As pointed out above though, this issue doesn’t just impact Australia. What the government does now could in the future rob the world of one of its most precious natural wonders. That’s why as the senate committee hearing continues this week, a number of environmental groups from around the world will be listening and waiting for the committee’s recommendations, hoping that at last the plight of the reef will be given the attention it deserves.
Photo credit: Thinkstock.