Melaleuca Media
Thorns of a dilemna

The article that blew away official scientific complacency over the reef's future, lifted the lid on the real story of the Crown of Thorns, helped drag the Queensland Government into some semblance of action and spotlighted (and infuriated) the canegrowers role in reef degradation.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 7 November 2000 and widely followed by the electronic media. A water quality plan for the reef was agreed by State and Federal governments in December 2003.


Crown of thorns too hot to research

Research institutes on the Great Barrier Reef have been accused of shutting down research showing that increasingly frequent Crown of Thorns starfish outbreaks might be linked to human activities.

A blazing row, pitting Queensland’s $1 billion a year reef tourism industry against the sugar, grazing and fishing industries, is threatening to erupt over the starfish on the eve of a World Heritage Bureau meeting in Cairns.

With the northern reef currently in the grip of what is generally seen as its third major Crown of Thorns outbreak, agricultural run-offs and over-fishing are being viewed as the most likely culprits in the outbreaks.

Visitor numbers to the northern reef have been dropping since 1997. Dive operators, who have been getting complaints from visitors about the Crown of Thorns, worry that experienced visitors might already be voting with their flippers and going elsewhere.

Marine tourism operators are currently spending $2million a year keeping starfish away from pontoons and dive sites and are awaiting a response on an urgent request for $4million in matching funding from the State and Federal governments.

Australian Marine Park Tourism Operators lobbyist Mr David Windsor compared the outbreak to a locust plague.

“Locusts only eat the crop,” he said. “The Crown of Thorns actually eats the resource, the reef itself.”

Most operators reject the official view, presented most recently at the International Coral Symposium meeting in Bali last month, that Crown of Thorns outbreaks are natural events with a 15-17 year cycle and no firm evidence that the severity or frequency of outbreaks is associated with any human activity.

However a long delayed and yet to be released report from a discontinued monitoring project has found evidence of a 3-5 year cycle of outbreaks on some reefs, giving corals no time to recover.
When marine tourism operators protested the closure of this project in August last year they were promised “a scientific review workshop” on the Crown of Thorns starfish “in the near future” by the Cooperative Research Centre for the Great Barrier Reef.

CRC Reef CEO Mr Dave Williams, last week confirmed that no such workshop had been held and there were no plans for one Research into the causes of starfish plagues was for more than a decade the responsibility of the Crown of Thorns Starfish Research Committee (COTSREC).

This committee hasn’t met for nearly three years. Committee chairman Professor Graham Mitchell said he had not received any advice that the committee had been disbanded.

FEATURE – Ugly creature, ugly politics

The man in the suit regarded the large armoured and spiked starfish in the tank for only a few seconds before pronouncing it an “ugly creature”. Just over a year on it is a fair bet that the Crown of Thorns starfish now looks a whole lot uglier to Federal Environment Minister Senator Robert Hill.

The politics of the issue look even uglier. Even despite a recent official reluctance to look too deeply into starfish outbreaks, it is becoming harder and harder to avoid the conclusion that starfish epidemics have human causes or are made more severe by human activity.

Politicians at both the State and Federal level look along the Queensland coast and see a string of marginal seats. The fates of both Premier Peter Beattie’s State Labor government and John Howard’s Federal coalition government might well be decided between Cairns and Bundaberg at elections due next year.

The last message either government wants to hear is that protecting the reef and its tourism industry from the Crown of Thorns might require taking a cudgel to the canegrowers or graziers over the muck that flows off the fields and paddocks, down the rivers and into the reef lagoon.

Politically, there is also every reason to hasten slowly in acting on the fishing trawlers that are both legally and illegally removing possible crown of thorns predators.

On the other hand, Australia can now be held to international account for deficiencies in managing the Great Barrier Reef world heritage area. As it happens the World Heritage Bureau is to meet in Cairns later this month and will presumably be taking some interest in the planet’s largest and one of its best known World Heritage areas.
In the world of science, certainty about complex events happening over huge areas is hard to come by – but uncertainty can be the near ideal cover for continued inactivity.

“If you don’t look, you won’t find,” said one reef administrator. “If you don’t know what to do, you pretend the problem doesn’t exist,” said Professor Leon Zann of Southern Cross University, the principal author of the landmark 1996 State of the Marine Environment Report and a veteran researcher of all three Crown of Thorns outbreaks.

“Cutting the funding on the studies, saying it is all the same as in the past, it is a very evil agenda,” said Paddy Colwell , the marine biologist behind Reefteach, a Cairns-based company educating tourism workers and tourists about the reef.

“I find it amazing that students are being taught that the jury is out on whether there is a human cause to the starfish epidemics and that advisers are still telling politicians that these are natural events.

“We are feeding the bottom of the starfish food chain and taking off the top – what do you think is going to happen in the middle – it is dead simple ecology.”
Cairns Dive Centre operator Peter Boundy is even more blunt. “The scientists are a bunch of f…wits,” he said. And then , not so very helpfully, “You can quote me on that.”
“If there is a natural cause to this then it is obviously getting a lot more natural a lot more often. If I spend all my time cleaning up starfish I won’t make a living and if I don’t, I won’t have a living.”

The core of the “natural causes” school are the two Townsville-based research institutions responsible for most “official” research on the reef – the Federal government’s Australian Institute of Marine Science and the Co-operative Research Centre for Sustainable Use of the Great Barrier Reef (CRC Reef).

“A lot of time and money was spent over a long period looking for evidence of himan impacts,” said David Williams, who is Deputy Chief Executive Officer of CRC Reef and a principal research scientist with AIMS.

“The results of those studies couldn’t produce adequate evidence that there were links to human activities.”

Dr Roger Bradbury, an ecological modeller now with the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics in Canberra, couldn’t disagree more. He believes the case for at least one human cause of outbreaks – predator removal through fishing – was established independently by a number of scientists around the world in the early 1990s.

“There remains one thing of interest left over from yesterday, but it may be sociological rather than ecological,” he told the 1997 International Coral Symposium.

“Just what is it that allows some people to persist in ignoring the evidence as it mounts year upon year, and to maintain their belief, for it has now descended to the level of belief, that we do not understand.”

Williams, whose scientific specialty is fish, disagrees, saying it had not been established which fish was “the active predator”.

Now a new smoking gun has appeared, this time implicating run-offs from land based industries. In an unpublished paper being widely circulated among reef scientists, major flood flows from the Burdekin River have been linked to Crown of Thorns outbreaks.

Report author Mr Ken Day, a principal research scientist with the Queensland Department of Natural Resources, concluded that there was “new evidence for a role in river discharge in regulating starfish numbers for the central section of the Great Barrier Reef, the region most heavily impacted by the crown-of-thorns”.

Separate unpublished work undertaken for the Cooperative Research Centre – Sugar shows a three to five fold increase in the sediment load of Queensland rivers flowing into the Great Barrier Reef lagoon.

More significant for the growth of the phytoplankton that form the food of Crown of Thorns larvae might be the tens of thousands of tonnes of nitrogen that slips into the sea from canelands, most of it in reef waters.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), has had a bit of a paper tiger image. But now, to the obvious alarm of Queensland premier Peter Beattie, it is now seeking to influence coastal activities that impact on the reef.

Earlier this year the aquaculture industry – less regulated in Queensland than it is in India – got a rude shock when GBRMPA demanded it clean up its act and its effluent.

Mr Jon Brodie, the GBRMPA officer responsible for water quality and coastal development issues, notched up the pressure again last month, telling the International Coral Reef Symposium that run-off from Queensland rural industries was a significant threat to the inshore reefs.

“There is no effective legislation or processes in place to manage agricultural pollution,” he said. “Currently, Queensland legislation relies heavily on voluntary mechanisms which are not well audited or policed.”

This sort of talk is not appreciated by the sugar industry, which speaks very powerfully to governments in both Brisbane and Canberra. While the tourism operators are cap in hand with uncertain prospects in their plea for $4million to clean starfish out of tourist dive sites, the sugar industry has recently secured an $89 million very-few-strings-attached rescue package for its growers.

“To suggest that the cane industry is having an impact on the reef at this stage is unfair, unsubstantiated and incorrect,” said Canegrowers Environment Manager Dr Jennifer Marohasy
“Some of these people should be working for Greenpeace, not the government.”

Dr Marohasy said she had asked GBRMPA for data to back up its claims, but it hadn’t been forthcoming.

The CRC Sugar examination of water quality issues did come up with a conclusion that “canegrowing could pose some risk to the Great Barrier Reef from nitrate, sediment and diuron (a herbicide)” and that the effect was most concentrated on “near shore reefs from Hinchinbrook to Port Douglas”
This area correlates quite closely to the areas most severely affected by the Crown of Thorns outbreaks.

Sugar’s problem is that the crop has downstream effects out of all proportion to the land actually under cane. According to the CRC-Sugar study, in the Johnstone River, the roughly 10 percent of the catchment under cane is responsible for about 35 percent of the sediment, just over 30 percent of the phosphorus and nearly 50 percent of the nitrate load.

Reef researchers are keen for more work to be done on links between river outflows, pollution levels and the Crown of Thorns. There are also calls for more work on predators with the focus shifting from the Triton shells that chew away at the adults to the delectable table fish like the maori wrasse, red emperor and sweetlip that eat the larval and juvenile starfish.

A reef old timer recalled that once the reef had “herds of maori wrasse”. Now a solitary large maori wrasse is almost a reason to call in the tourist boats – if the fish doesn’t get snapped up first by line fishermen working the recently approved live fish trade to Hong Kong restaurants.

“A Crown of Thorns starfish can release up to 600 million eggs in a season and a lot can be fertilised,” said Paddy Colweel of Reefteach. “Once they get to the size of a five cent piece, there isn’t much that eats them – the big knock down is in the larval stage.”
With figures like this, you are dicing with mathematics. A difference of one or two percent in larval survival rates means an awful lot of extra starfish.

Very little causes and consequences research on Crown of Thorns outbreaks is now going on in Australia and almost none in the research institutions with specific reef responsibilities. What CRC Reef and AIMS are mainly doing with Crown of Thorns starfish is counting them.

Until last year, two monitoring techniques were used, essentially covering the broad and the fine scales. The broadscale “manta tow” surveys conducted by AIMS and.CRC Reef look at a lot of reefs, with an observer counting the starfish seen in a two minute tow above the coral.

In the fine scale surveys, conducted for CRC Reef since the early 1990s by Reefwatch Australia, a consultancy of noted reef scientist Udo Engelhardt, divers look over and under everything in a marked out “transect” of the reef.

While these methods would seem to be complementary, it appears that they have in fact been assessed as rivals. CRC Reef dropped the fine scale survey program a year ago, infuriating marine operators who had found it the most useful way of predicting outbreaks on individual reefs.

The final report of the fine scale monitoring program has been “in review” for a lengthy period – although a series of questions about it seems to have brought the release date forward from sometime next year to later this year.

CRC Reef’s Dave Williams insists that the decision to drop the fine scale program was merely to allow a much needed assessment of both monitoring programs. It had nothing to do with the fine scale surveys coming to different conclusions than the manta tows.

In one stark example, the manta tow team of the long term monitoring survey reported that in in February 1999 that “No COTS (crown of thorns starfish) were observed on Feather Reef.” Arriving on the reef off Innisfail just a month later, the Reefwatch divers found an outbreak on the back reef and a developing outbreak on the front reef.

Reef Status Report No 4, released just in time for the Bali conference, reports that 19 percent of reefs were suffering Crown of Thorns outbreaks. Reefwatch admittedly had a smaller sample size – just 19 reefs – but 100 percent were suffering outbreaks.

The manta tow surveys are the basis of the official complacency about the Crown of Thorns. The International Coral Symposium was told that this outbreak is no different to previous outbreaks, a natural event on a 15-17 year cycle that gives reefs just enough time to recover.

Federal Environment Minister Senator Robert Hill told the Sydney Morning Herald that was his advice and no doubt the World Heritage Bureau will be told the same thing.

Reefwatch reached quite different and more frightening conclusions. – that the interval between crown of thorns outbreaks is now down to 3-5 years, giving hard corals no time to recover.

Other ominous trends are emerging – a team of scientists from the Botany Department of Queensland University have found that corals in nutrient laden waters have lower rates of fertilisation. Essentially this means that as the time between outbreaks shortens, recolonisation of damaged reefs is becoming slower.

The hard and distinctive corals beloved of the tourist snaps are disadvantaged in relation to the less photogenic soft corals. And completely unattractive algae just revels in the conditions.

The recommendation of the long delayed Reefwatch report is the same as that coming from nearly everywhere else – a call for a “renewed focus on formally evaluating the role of activities such as potential over-fishing of the natural predators of (the crown of thorns) as well as the likely effects of excessive nutrient loadings of coastal waters”.

“The Great Barrier Reef is up there among the icons of Australia and the world,” Queensland Environment and Natural Resources Minister Rod Welford said. “We have to take seriously the warnings scientists are giving us.

“There is nothing scientific about denying a problem because you can’t get funding for research or you can’t get perfect certainty.

“The question is how do we get enough evidence soon enough to persuade industry of the need to change their practices. We will never do that by looking away.”
Meanwhile the tourist operators continue to try to keep the plague of starfish at bay, basically through injecting them with wine bottle sterilising solution.

“It is like trying to control a mosquito plague with a flyswat,” said Paddy Colwell.