Killing the Great Barrier Reef: A fisherman's story

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(Image of the Great Barrier Reef via

The gut-wrenching experience of fisherman Ted Whittingham encapsulates the ongoing and irreversible devastation of our Great Barrier Reef caused by mines such as Adani — and sanctioned by successive governments. Sue Arnold reports.

AS THE MAINSTREAM MEDIA continues to spread the word that the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area is dying, there’s a deep sense of environmental fatigue in the air.

For the organisations that take on the resource industry, battles against the liquefied natural gas (LNG) corporations at Gladstone – the likes of Adani, Santos, BHP Billiton and Chevron – it’s a 21st Century David and Goliath number.

No conservation organisation has budgets to compare with the big boys and, increasingly, the ability to mount legal challenges is comparable with climbing Mount Everest.

The Great Barrier Reef is a good example of the forces of darkness that dominate the political scene in terms of the environment. Those of us who know the background of the campaigns to save the Reef see history repeating itself.

In 1977, a small group of dedicated scientists, together with conservation societies in their infancy, mounted an extraordinary campaign to save the Great Barrier Reef from the petroleum industry’s exploration licences, which covered 80 per cent of the Reef.

They envisaged the Reef dotted with oil rigs, polluted by drilling muds and wastes, intersected by pipelines, crowded with supply ships, silted by mining operations. Poet and ecologist Judith Wright wrote in her book The Coral Battleground:

' … the Reef is one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest, biologically productive areas in the world today.'

In giving evidence in the '70s before a Senate Select Committee on Offshore Petroleum Resources, Professor Fred Grassle (now an emeritus professor and founding director of the Rutgers Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences) stated:

"Every instance of marine pollution has resulted in a reduction in the diversity of plants and animals. The Reef is more susceptible to pollution than other environments because even the slightest changes in the environment can result in tremendous reduction of diversity … all the species of the Reef area highly specialised in their requirements. Any slight disturbance of such a system would have tremendous consequences."

Many Australian scientists have expressed their deep concern over the industrialisation of the Reef. The Australian Academy of Science, Australian Coral Reef Society and U.S. scientists have notified the Federal Government and the World Heritage Committee of their concerns. All to no avail.

Climate change and warming seawater temperatures impacting the Reef (as well as a host of other environmental problems) are wiping out the coral. As scientists prepare for yet another warming episode, with more dead and dying coral, the heavy cloud of despair is growing.

A ray gliding over dead coral in the Great Barrier Reef (Source: The Ocean Agency, XL Catlin Seaview Survey, Richard Vevers)

And it’s not only the magnificent, extraordinary biodiversity of the Reef which is suffering, there’s also a human toll. Tourism is impacted.

According to The Australia Institute, a million fewer visitors will travel to the Reef because of media reports of the catastrophic state of the Reef’s coral.

Gladstone Harbour is also part of the World Heritage Area. The impacts of massive dredging operations to accommodate the exponential increase in shipping to service the LNG corporations developed on Curtis Island virtually wiped out the commercial fishing industry. Dredging began in 2011 and was completed in 2013, with 22 million cubic metres of seabed removed. Dredge plumes extended as far as 35 kilometres from the main dredging site.

Ted Whittingham ran the Gladstone Fish Market, his involvement with the fishing industry goes back to 1986.

Ted Whittingham (Photo supplied).

Gladstone Ports Corporation had the approval to remove a maximum of 42.3 million cubic metres as part of future industry development. Two dredges were able to dredge up 40,000 cubic metres each day, day in day out for several years, through cyclones and floods.

Ted Whittingham vividly recalls the destruction of Gladstone’s commercial fishermen’s livelihood:

"When the dredging started, that’s when we began to see the water was a little bit dirty. There was a plume going out of the harbour. It didn’t hit us straight away what was happening. But then when we were bringing fish in from the outer waters – these are pristine waters where the guys were catching — there was a reaction straight away. The fish died in the tanks on the way back."

(Photo supplied by Ted Whittingham)

Once the dredging got going, we started to see diseased fish coming on board. We were seeing some terrible sights. Barramundi with huge welts oozing black muck. Fish bleeding from every orifice. My son Simon was out on a trawler and he brought a stingray in, put it on ice in the back of the ute. The ice was pink, the ray was bleeding from every orifice.

There wasn’t one live oyster or crustacean anywhere. They just vanished. We started to get crabs with holes in their shells about the same time. The dredge plume was very fine, the fish were taking it in through their gills. When we cut them up we found the gills were full of black silt — basically, the fish had suffocated.

Our total business was worth just under $16 million, we employed between 110-150 people depending on the season. We had developed a very good business, we handled the majority of the product coming in from the port, had a steady income even through bad seasons. We thought we had a big future.

We put in so much effort; it’s no exaggeration that we worked seven days a week,15 hours a day.

We were well positioned in the greatest mud crab harvest region in central Queensland — 50 per cent of crabs from Queensland came from that area. The inshore fisheries provided whiting, salmon, barra — a whole gamut of species.

We have some of the best fishing grounds in the world but now, we’ll soon we’ll be importing fish.

I've seen phenomenal suffering by fishermen who have lost their livelihood. For most of us it’s soul destroying. A fisherman’s life isn’t easy but it's a life of choice. Your time is your own, your business is your own. You watch everything out there, turtles, dugongs, seabirds — it’s a fantastic lifestyle.

Now it's all gone. Completely. Every bit of it — and it will never return. We’ve lost over a third of the inshore dolphin population.

I couldn’t stay in Gladstone any longer, I had to leave. It was too hurtful. I built a very good business for my family, my son and my grandchildren. We’ve had everything ripped from underneath us. There’s no consideration whatever for 30 years of work effort.

We’ve been stamped over by professionals who knew exactly what they were doing, what to say and when to say it. Every time we brought up something, they wouldn’t comment.

We took a bigger hit than everyone else in Gladstone; it took less than six months for everything to collapse. No compensation; not a penny.

Gladstone LNG terminal development will create the largest LNG terminals in the world.

LNG tankers estimated to travel up and down the Reef every hour of every day over the next 20 years will have major impacts upon it. Shipping traffic up and down the Reef is predicted to be 10,097 total vessels and 6,576 coal vessels by 2032 — a massive increase since 2007, when over 3,500 ships operated in the Reef.

Projected shipping increases in the Great Barrier Reef Region (Source:

David Attenborough made a documentary series on the Reef but ducked the essential questions. As one of the world’s environmental leaders, he should have interviewed Greg Hunt, Anna Bligh, Tony Burke and Campbell Newman, who were all complicit in failing to protect Reef.

He could have asked why none of the recommendations of the various Senate Inquiries was acted upon.

As Ted Whittingham opines:

"Mankind has used the ocean as a dumping ground. We just disregard the damage, turn a blind eye. Dump sewage, chemicals, unbelievable stuff. In five to ten years the Reef will be a damn size worse off. Governments are spending millions of dollars, most of the funds are taken up in paying civil servants, consultants. Industry has the green light."

Little wonder there’s a collective feeling of hopelessness in the conservation movement and despair among scientists involved in witnessing the destruction of the Reef.

"Now it's all gone. Completely. Every bit of it 

— and it will never return."

Declaring the Reef as a World Heritage in Danger would be helpful in ensuring appropriate protection.

Under UNESCO guidelines, properties which fulfil the criteria are as result of:

  • clearly ascertained and substantial threats to the values of the World Heritage area; and
  • either an apparent inability of the state party to manage the threats and remedy the problem; or
  • have been the subject of a request by the state party for support for the property.

A listing allows states to gain resources, focus attention on problems and garner support for solutions.

With Adani and the Galilee Basin mines looming as a reality, combined with the Turnbull Government’s support for the coal industry, there’s no question that the criteria for the Reef to be listed as "in danger" are fulfilled.

But who listens in this dismal, dysfunctional political climate?

You can follow Sue Arnold on Twitter @koalacrisis and Koala Crisis on Facebook here.

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