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Reef suffering badly and short-term thinking threatens worse to come

Protecting Australia’s valuable conservation areas, including the world-renowned Great Barrier Reef and Queensland’s magnificent national parks, requires long-term thinking. Alas, in Australian political circles, something is amiss. 

The Reef’s condition is dire. Facing various threats, its future is extremely uncertain. Australia’s iconic world heritage area is fast becoming a governance disaster, with the very real possibility that future generations will only know about the reef in a historical context. 

In addition to extensive damage caused by Cyclone Debbie, leading to a blanket of algae growing over dead and rotting coral on the sea floor in many parts, mass coral-bleaching has occurred for the second consecutive year. This bleaching has now affected about two-thirds of the Reef – 1500km of its 2300km length – and while the crisis has been caused by record-breaking temperatures driven by global warming, it is being exacerbated by multiple external pressures. 

The fallout of back-to-back major bleaching events will continue to unfold for a long time. It takes severely-bleached coral several months to regain their colour if they survive and underwater surveys on some central reefs are already documenting substantial loss of coral. Likely recovery times for reefs with substantial losses is at least 10-15 years, providing conditions are favourable to corals. 

There are of course also ongoing pressures such as coral disease and crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks. 

Two years since being asked to deliberate, UNESCO is yet to make a recommendation on whether the Reef should be listed as “in danger”. Without reform in the Reef’s governance, however, it’s surely inevitable. 

In response to the aerial surveys confirming the extent of coral-bleaching this year, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) chairman Dr Russell Reichelt has cited climate change as the No.1 impediment to the Reef’s recovery and called for the international community to “urgently” work together to implement the Paris Agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “Otherwise coral reefs worldwide face a bleak future,” he says.

Dr Reichelt says GBRMPA will continue efforts to build the resilience of the Reef to support recovery, including containing outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish and seeking the restoration of the integrity of Reef catchments to improve water quality. In regards to the latter, as a result of Cyclone Debbie, the Queensland Government has extended the submission period until April 21 on a proposal to broaden and enhance existing Reef protection regulations in relation to sustainable farming within catchment areas. 

Yet worrying political decisions, inconsistent with both the need to reduce greenhouse gases and with potential consequence of enormous harm to the Reef, continue to be made. Support for greenhouse gas intensive projects continues, as evidenced by the Federal Government’s interest in extending the life of some of Australia’s coal-fired power stations with a new “50-year rule”. 

Adani’s proposed expansion of its Abbot Point coal terminal as part of its controversial $21 billion Carmichael coal mine in the Galilee Basin, which has been approved by the State Government but needs the Federal Government to amend laws to overturn a native title roadblock and provide $1 billion in tax payer funds, remains of great concern. 

The high risk of a major catastrophe has been highlighted by satellite imagery showing the Caley Valley wetlands adjoining the Abbot Point terminal have seemingly been turned black by coal-laden water escaping from the port. Noting that the wetlands are home to more than 40,000 shorebirds during the wet season, with species including the vulnerable Australian painted snipe, Mackay Conservation Group coordinator Peter McCallum says the images show Adani lacks capacity “to operate in a sensitive environment”. 

“Adani wants to build a new coal terminal at the port that will involve extensive dredging in Great Barrier Reef waters, then pile the waste rock and mud alongside these wetlands. That will put the wetlands and the Reef under even greater threat,” he says. “We have no confidence that Adani will be able to manage the environmental impacts of the port expansion or any other aspect of its massive coal mining operation. This is further evidence of Adani’s poor environmental record. Australia can’t risk allowing them to set up business here.” 

News reports have indicated a temporary emissions licence had been granted to allow an increase in release limits to assist with site water management during the cyclone. However, that does not authorise environmental harm. Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection investigations are understood to be continuing. 

Long-term thinking is required by our politicians and bureaucrats – both at state and federal level. 

There are three clear steps towards a better future: limiting greenhouse gas intensive approvals, expanding protected areas, and managing the impacts affecting our world class protected areas, such as the Great Barrier Reef.


Caption: Satellite images of Caley Valley wetlands and the adjoining Abbot Point coal terminal taken May 14, 2016 (left) and April 1, 2017 (right). Image sourced by Mackay Conservation Group from the Queensland Government's mapping program Queensland Globe, which utilises Google Earth.