Melaleuca Media
Reef Knots

Getting deep and disrespectfully into Great Barrier Reef politics, science and water quality. Such articles are greatly dreaded by governments and too rarely pursued by newspapers because they shine a light on lobbyists and bureaucrats trying to determine outcomes from the shadows.

The process did ultimately get back on track, and the State and Federal governments announced a reef water quality plan with at least a few hard objectives and a hint of a couple of teeth at the end of 2003.

Perilous politics of polyp protection.

by Phil Dickie and Susan Brown (The Courier Mail, 28 December 2002)

Cleaning up the catchments emptying into Great Barrier Reef waters was a high priority issue at the last State election. Now, after two years of planning to have a plan, the State and Federal governments might just be starting to get somewhere. Phil Dickie and Susan Brown report.

Any other map of the Queensland coast shows most of it dominated by the broad, world heritage celebrated sweep of the Great Barrier Reef. But the political map shows nothing but a national and international icon sitting directly offshore from a string of highly marginal State and Federal seats.

There are any number of issues here to pitch interests and industries into bitter opposing camps. At this point the most vexed is the quality of the inshore waters and the effect this may be having on the quality of the inner reefs.

The Great Barrier Reef, as a recent international assessment shows, is not just the largest but also the best managed reef in the world. But it is all relative – in parts of south east Asia acceptable reef management strategies include the use of explosives and cyanide as fishing aids.

And there is a gradation across the Great Barrier Reef from the outer reefs, more pristine and less accessible, to the inner reefs – highly accessible and now nowhere near pristine. The debate on water quality intensifies as you approach the coast from either direction.

Science isn’t always at the vanguard of these issues. Reef old timers, even some not so very old, know and say that the coral skeletons and algal blooms that now often pass for inshore reefs are nothing like the coral gardens full of fish they recall from as little as 20 years ago.

But recollections of decline, however general, fall squarely into the scientific grey zone sometimes parodied as “what can’t be measured doesn’t exist”. This has long opened up the “there is no scientific evidence …” line of defence for those industries accused of having a damaging effect on the reef through the sediments, nutrients and agricultural chemicals flowing into rivers and reef waters.

Over the last three years that defence has been shot to pieces, thanks to the Crown of Thorns starfish which has a very undeniable and immediate degrading affect on infested reefs. After some initial alarm in the 1960s, the scientific consensus held that the starfish plagues were an entirely natural occurrence infrequent enough to allow corals and reefs all the time needed for full recovery.

However, to borrow the words of a Cairns dive operator expressing his annoyance with the official reef scientists, infestations were becoming “a lot more natural a lot more often”. Moreover, the corals that were most suffering and least recovering just happened to be the more photogenic ones – a critical issue for the $1.5 billion tourism industry.

The scientific establishment was eventually embarrassed out of trying to keep sitting on accumulating new evidence. More and more the consensus is settling on an explanation that nutrient rich waters have been promoting the growth of starfish larvae and overfishing has been promoting better survival rates for the better fed larvae.

According to the reef ecologist most beloved of the Cairns tourist trade, Paddy Colwell of Reefteach, “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’s dead simple ecology.”

The Crown of Thorns controversy blew up in useful proximity to the 2001 Queensland State election. Queensland Premier Peter Beattie committed his government to a reef water quality protection plan within a year.

The plan was to be the product of a brand new reef protection task force to include all the stakeholders and educate the community. In 10 years, the water entering the reef lagoon was to meet national water quality standards.

Not a lot of money was committed to the project, but the Premier was at pains to emphasise its urgency.

Immediately after the election, a lot of nothing began happening at the Queensland end. Enter, some months later, the world’s largest conservation group, the World Wide Fund for Nature and a report published with all possible fanfare which added up what was going into the rivers and out to the reefs.

The Queensland government reacted in the usual way – it said nothing much, although much of the science being quoted was its own. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) on the other hand set a very interesting precedent of actually welcoming a report produced by a conservation group. The then Federal Environment minister, Senator Robert Hill was then able to secure an unwilling Queensland minister’s signature on a plan to develop water quality targets for various reef catchments.

The skirmishing continued. GBRMPA sought Queensland help in workshopping the water quality targets. The Queensland government kept its scientists, their test tubes and slide rules at home.

No matter. Senator Hill went ahead and unilaterally released water quality targets for Queensland rivers. This was constitutionally very dubious even with a Queensland signature, but it did have the desired political effect.

An extremely sulky Queensland government finally sent out the invitations for interested parties to join its reef protection task force, and a hastily convened first meeting was held in August 2001.

As a task force, it quickly degenerated into farce. At one point, the vast majority of scientists involved in reef issues released a joint statement to both governments emphasising a “continued urgency to work towards a reduction in the run-off of sediments, nutrients, herbicides and other pollutants” into reef waters.

This was an unusual and carefully worded document, clearly aimed at the antics of an unnamed party to the Task Force. Dr David Williams, Deputy Chief Executive Officer for the Co-operative Research Centre for the Reef, said the “consensus statement” of scientists was intended to counteract interests who had been “making a big play on the fact that scientists didn’t agree on every issue”.

Queensland Canegrowers, already suspected of being the main reason behind the Beattie government’s very slow start from the blocks, were soon outed as the offender. Their media strategy to contain the water quality issue – leaked to the Courier Mail – outlined a plan to have an article published in a scientific journal demolishing the proposition that cane growing and cane chemicals had any effect on the reef.

It was also to be asserted that the herbicide diuron, already detected damaging seagrasses around the reef, was more likely to come from anti-fouling treatments on yachts rather than from extensive use on canefields. This suggests a simple test – is the diuron to be found more around river mouths or marinas?

Eventual publication of the case for the demolition appeared in the Journal of the Institute for Public Affairs, not normally considered a notable source of reliable references on marine science. The headline was “WWF says jump. Governments ask how high.”

On the Beattie government’s original deadline for plan in place, all that had been achieved were some vague recommendations for what might be in a plan. The Premier put the best face he could on it, saying the task force had presented “the framework for further work in this important area”.

Unnamed “industry groups that see the Reef Protection Plan as a danger” were warned not to risk “the pain of the courts or sell-outs from Federal political parties”. The new process, when it emerged, was to keep the warring stakeholders apart in individual workshops.

However, indications continued that while the State government might be stressing the urgency of the issue in public it was engaging in some very slow and ponderous footwork behind the scenes. The Task Force had recommended the establishment of a panel of scientists to evaluate those controversial catchment water quality targets. The government established an interdepartmental committee to examine the establishment of a panel of scientists.

There was more hope for significant forward movement in discussions taking place between the Queensland and Federal governments on a co-operative approach to the water quality issue. Behind these talks was the awareness that the handling of the landclearing issue had been a complete debacle on both sides.

Last August, the discussions bore fruit. Premier Peter Beattie and Prime Minister John Howard jointly announced the development of a joint plan to improve the water quality entering the Great Barrier Reef lagoon. To calm down the inevitable criticisms that this was yet more planning to have a plan, some immediate “no regrets” measures appeared alongside the announcement.

Also let loose on the issue was the Productivity Commission, which attempted to marry the science to the economics. Its first report found that although there were diverse effects on the quality of water entering the reef, it was grazing and cropping and not yacht bottoms that had the main effect.

Grazing and cropping also had the least controlled discharges – partly because they were collections of “managers” who could be either good, bad or indifferent.

The canegrowers could draw some comfort from a finding that the evidence for a general water quality decline on the reef was “circumstantial” not “conclusive”, but the commission also pointed out that we hadn’t been measuring these things well enough or long enough to really know.

However, the value of the reef and its associated industries meant that an approach of business as usual while waiting around for the scientists to become conclusive could not be justified.

The State and Federal governments are now putting the finishing touches to their joint draft plan, which will be sent out for final comments from farmers, fishermen, conservationists and tourism operators shortly. The public will get to learn about the plan and be able to make comments from March onwards and it might be in place in, say, another six months.

Or then, on past performance, it might not.

Meanwhile, the news from the reef front is not good. The Crown of Thorns is on the move again.

Europeans had immediate impact on Great Barrier Reef

New research shows that increased sediment flows were reaching the corals of the Great Barrier Reef within a few years of European settlement.

The research, recently used to brief a scientific panel commissioned by the State and Federal governments to evaluate water quality issues on the Great Barrier Reef, shows a four to eight fold increase in sediment loads since European settlement.

The findings come at a crucial time as both the State and Federal governments put the finishing touches on a plan to improve water quality in reef catchments. The research also deals a body blow to rural lobby group assertions that there is no scientific evidence of water quality impacts on corals in the Great Barrier Reef.

A team, led by Professor Malcolm McCulloch of the Australian National University and including scientists from both the ANU and the Australian Institute of Marine Science in Townsville, used new laser technology on corals up to 400 years old to examine the sediment content of Burdekin river floods since 1750.

The research, which could pin coral chemistry changes in response to floods down to “an approximately weekly resolution”, found general water quality in the studied inner reef area had significantly declined.

“During the 1770’s when Captain Cook first explored the east coast of Australia, there is only limited evidence for floodplume related suspended sediment fluxes entering the inner Great Barrier Reef,” a paper on the research notes.

“…within one to two decades of the first arrival of European settlers in northern Queensland, there were already massive impacts on the river catchments that were being transmitted to the waters of the inner GBR.”

The Burdekin areas was first settled by Europeans in 1862, and by 1868 there were nearly 177,000 sheep and more than 31,000 cattle in the area. A major flood in 1870 marked the beginning of massive increases in sediment being delivered into reef waters.

More dramatic increases in degradation came in the 1970s and 1980s with the introduction of drought resistant cattle from India. Sediment run-offs are also implicated in the delivery of agricultural chemicals to the reef.

The paper canvasses recent research on “phase shifts” from coral to algae dominated communities and concludes that: “Reducing terrestrial runoff into coral reefs must be a high priority if coral reefs are to survive the lethal combination of direct anthropogenic impacts and rapid climate change.”