Government has the upper hand in Reef future

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CEO and Ocean Elder, Graeme Kelleher (Image via YouTube screenshot)

The lack of condemnation by the scientific community over the Government's treatment of the Reef is not helping the cause, writes Sue Arnold.

THE FIRST CEO of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, Graeme Kelleher, is appalled by the half-billion-dollar grant which the Turnbull Government has bestowed on the Great Barrier Reef Foundation.

In an interview over the phone, Graeme said:

This is a totally absurd act by Turnbull. No tender, nobody has looked at how to spend half a billion. The handout is an unacceptable act showing a complete lack of integrity and honesty. All this Government thinks of is short term economic benefits to them and the Australian economy.

Most likely it will be spent on programs referenced in the 2050 Reef Plan, but we don’t know which ones and nor does it seem the Foundation has any idea.  

The grant is a complete failure to address the most urgent issue facing the Reef — the damage done by fossil fuel burning.

The National Energy Guarantee (NEG) is a con, we must transfer to renewable energy. 

The Reef is terribly badly damaged. I don’t know how the Coalition Government has managed to claim the Reef doesn’t need to be classified as In Danger under the Word Heritage Convention.  

It’s time for a Senate Inquiry or an independent investigation, this is a shocking waste of money. The Government’s support for coal mines and for shifting coal through the Reef to burn coal elsewhere in the world will affect the global atmosphere temperature and CO2 will make the oceans acidic.

Coral can only survive in alkaline waters.

Ocean acidity rates are not mentioned in the 2050 Plan. Yet ocean acidification is a major threat to the Reef and it may cause dramatic changes to phytoplankton. A study in 2015 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that many species may die out and others may significantly migrate.

Oceans have absorbed up to 30 per cent of human-made carbon dioxide around the world, storing dissolved carbon for hundreds of years. As the uptake of carbon dioxide has increased in the last century, so has the acidity of oceans worldwide.

The study found that increased ocean acidification will dramatically affect global populations of phytoplankton, which make up the base of the marine food chain.

Given at least 30 species of whales and dolphins occur in the Reef and that it is a significant area for humpback whale calving, ocean acidification is likely to have profound impacts on cetaceans who rely on acoustic signals to locate prey, for communication, reproduction and navigation.

A considerable amount of peer-reviewed scientific research has demonstrated that the changing marine chemistry caused by acidification may also be altering the deep sea’s acoustic environment, making it much noisier for animals that depend on sound to navigate the depths. Concentrations of sound-absorbing chemicals mean noise, especially low frequency rumbles, travels farther according to the Scientific American article.  

Sound absorption could fall by some 60 per cent in the next three centuries. Add to that more low frequency noise from human ocean activity, construction, shipping and sonar, and you get a veritable cacophony for many deep sea denizens.

High levels of low frequency sound have a number of behavioral and biological effects on marine life, including tissue damage, mass stranding of cetaceans and temporary loss of hearing in dolphins.

Interestingly, the 2050 Reef Plan makes only two references to coal, both in relation to coal dust. Nor is there any reference to carbon emissions from mining or the looming threats of Adani and the opening up of the Galilee Basin to mega mines.    

One of the problems Graeme Kelleher sees is the failure of the scientific community to be much more forceful in its condemnation. He believes scientists don’t like to be involved in political shenanigans and this refusal to engage with politicians has been at a considerable cost to the Reef.

However, the Australian Academy of Science, made up of 476 of Australia’s leading scientists, each elected for their outstanding contribution to science, responded to the draft Reef 2050 Plan in October, 2014.

The report noted:

The reef is under ever increasing pressure, arguably made worse by recent policy and legislative changes, such as Australia currently having no market-based mechanism in place to reduce carbon emissions; funding cuts to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GRMPA), the Australian Research Council and other science agencies, and the relaxation of land clearing laws in Queensland.

In its present state, the draft plan is inadequate to achieve the goal of restoring or even maintaining the diminished Outstanding Universal Value of the reef. Rather, the draft 2050 plan represents business-as-usual in terms of how escalating pressures on the Reef are adequately regulated (or not) when bolder action is required to restore the values of the Reef and prevent further degradation.

Importantly, the Academy report said:

‘There is no adequate recognition of the importance of preventing damaging climate change for the future trajectory of the Reef.’

It also highlighted that there

‘... is a conflict of interest over the responsibilities of the Australian and Queensland governments for stewardship of the Reef (including protection against climate change) versus the income they receive in royalties and taxes from fossil fuel extraction.   

Given the timeline of the draft plan out to 2050, it is disappointing that a target-based transition away from fossil fuels is not an integral part of protecting the reef.’

A great deal of paperwork is involved in the many panels, agreements, fora and commitments made by various governments on the Reef. Local marine advisory groups were set up in 1999 to advise GRMPA on management issues. In 2009, a Rudd-led Federal Government signed a Great Barrier Reef Intergovernmental Agreement with the Queensland Premier to provide a framework for both Governments to work together to protect the Reef.

In 2011, the Great Barrier Reef Ministerial Forum was set up. In 2015, the Queensland Government set up an independent science panel to provide advice on water quality protection plan. A partnership committee was set up. The same year, the Chief Scientist set up a new taskforce to help save the Reef. A 2050 Plan was also put together with a Reef Trust.

An endless list of priorities, targets and analyses has been produced, yet the major threats to the Reef and the cumulative impacts of these threats continue to be ignored.  

Graeme Kelleher notes that, under the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 regulations:

(66e) the Governor-General may make regulations prohibiting acts (whether in the Marine Park or elsewhere) that may pollute water in a manner harmful to animals and plants in the Marine Park;  and

(f) providing for the protection and preservation of the Marine Park and property and things in the Marine Park.

“The question remains. Why hasn’t the Governor-General acted?”, he asks.

In early September, the prestigious Ocean Elders will meet in San Francisco. As one of the Elders, Graeme Kelleher intends to raise the failure of the Turnbull Government to protect the Reef. He will advise on the extraordinary act of providing half-a-billion dollars to a Foundation run by vested interests with no tender or any plans on how to use the money.

“But the ongoing failure to deal with the damage which fossil fuels will do to the Reef remains the biggest issue, which the Turnbull Government has completely refused to address,” he says.

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

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