There’s no place on Earth like the Great Barrier Reef. And Australians know it.
When the federal government approved the dumping of 3 million cubic metres of dredge spoil within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, an overwhelming 80% of Australians objected. Even scientists working for the Marine Park Authority disagreed with the decision.
The announcement also contributed to the historic swing against the Newman state government in Queensland, leading to the fall of a first-term premier. The new Labor government was quick to realise this and capitalise on the reef’s popularity by appointing the state’s first ever Minister for the Great Barrier Reef. (You can watch our interview with him here.)
The public outcry was so strong that even the federal government backtracked on its commitment, opting to ban all dredging within Marine Park areas in its recently released Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan.
But as laudable as that decision is (and Environment Minister Greg Hunt says it’s historic) the government seems to be more eager to please political pundits than actively address the wider problem; coal mining.
As leading coral reef scientists have said, you can have new coal mines or you can have a healthy reef. The two are incompatible.
It was a question I put to the Environment Minister in a recent interview.
Monique Wright: “On the topic of coal Minister, the massive expansion of Queensland’s mining operations is obviously having an impact on the reef. Can we conceivably save the Great Barrier Reef while also shipping millions of tonnes of coal across it?”
Greg Hunt: “Could you just explain to me how it’s having an impact?”
Monique Wright: “To be able to use it as a shipping lane essentially. And therefore to be constantly going over the top of it with this coal. Do you believe that will continue to be an issue?”
Greg Hunt: “Well I haven’t seen any serious analysis that ships travelling over an area the size of Germany, when there are only on average a very small number of ships by world standards, has any significant impact.”
But Professor Terry Hughes from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies disagrees, saying ships impact on the reef through anchor damage, stirring up sediment, chemical pollution and noise.
A spokesperson for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority says the reef is among the best protected marine environments in the world, with most ships travelling safely along designated shipping routes.
“There are approximately 40–50 shipping movements a day across the Great Barrier and Torres Strait, compared to 140 ship movements per day within 20 kilometres of the 11,434 square kilometre Wadden Sea World Heritage Area in Europe.”
Small by world standards indeed. But consider this. A 2012 Greenpeace report found that since 1985, an average of two major shipping incidents (such as collisions or groundings) have occurred in the Great Barrier Reef every year. The likelihood of accident can only be exacerbated by increased shipping.
Marine scientist Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg says the possibility of an accident means we have to tread carefully.
“We need to be extremely cautious given what has happened elsewhere with accidents such as the Exon-Valdez and other shipping related disasters.”
In any case, it’s clear the Environment Minister’s statement that ships have no significant impact only holds true as far as everything goes according to plan.
Because when things go haywire, the impacts are significant indeed. For instance the 2010 grounding of coal carrier Shen Neng 1 spilled oil across an area more than 3km wide, destroying around 290,000 square metres of reef.
Unlike the Environment Minister, the newly appointed Minister for the Great Barrier Reef seems to take the issue seriously.
Andrew O’Keefe: “Both the former Labor and Liberal governments approved large-scale coal-mining projects, which will see a doubling in shipping, major coastal reclamation works… As Minister for the reef, will you be opposing new industrial operations along that coast?”
Steven Miles: “Look it’s my job to make sure that the development along the coast… that we minimise the environmental impact of those developments. So we’re doing a bunch of stuff. We’ll be looking at new shipping classes to increase the certainty that we won’t have shipping accidents on the reef.”
Shipping aside, the government’s long-term (and bi-partisan) plan to save the reef includes many salient points. The ban on dumping dredge material has never before been implemented and the efforts to reduce nitrogen content are a sure sign that marine scientists are being listened to.
All of these efforts are critical in saving the reef, which has already lost more than 50% of its coral cover in the past thirty years. But by failing to address the impact of expanded coal operations, Australia could be toying with the future of the reef.
In June the United Nations will decide whether to list the Great Barrier Reef as a World Heritage site in danger. The government’s quick-fix solution to ban dredging but allow the ongoing expansion of coal mining operations hints of a last minute ploy to avoid international embarrassment.
In the end we only have the Environment Minister’s words to rely on.
Larry Emdur: “What will the Great Barrier Reef look like for my grandchildren?”
Greg Hunt: “It should be better than it is today. It’s one of the world’s great and majestic environmental jewels. It would be the first place you would put on a new World Heritage list if such a thing existed. It will be there, it will be better and your children and your grandchildren will be proud.”