2nd February 2014
Great Barrier Reef dumping plan approved
This week, the Australian government approved plans to dump five million cubic metres of sediment near the Great Barrier Reef, as part of an expansion to create the world's largest coal port.
Visible from outer space, the Great Barrier Reef is the world's largest coral reef system and the biggest single structure made by living organisms. It is home to a staggering diversity of marine life – including more than 1,500 fish species alongside birds, sea turtles, sea snakes, dolphins, whales, dugongs, and molluscs such as the giant clam; not to mention thousands of different plants like seagrasses and seaweeds. It has been labelled as one of the seven natural wonders of the world and was chosen as a World Heritage Site in 1981. Tourism is an important economic activity for the region, generating over $6 billion per year.
With its delicate ecosystem, the Great Barrier Reef is highly sensitive and vulnerable to sudden environmental changes. According to a recent study, it has lost more than half its coral cover since 1985, with two-thirds of the loss occurring from 1998. Among the human-caused threats are climate change, pollution, overfishing, shipping accidents and oil spills. Natural causes include tropical cyclones, disease and invasions by crown-of-thorns starfish. Much of the reef could be wiped out by the middle of this century, based on current trends.
Despite its already fragile state, the Great Barrier Reef now faces additional harm in the form of Abbot Point – a coal port being expanded to provide new export facilities from the Galilee Basin in Queensland. When shipments begin in 2016, it will become the largest port of its kind in the world. To allow ships into the port, a massive dredging project is needed, with a disposal site for the sludge located 16 miles (25 km) to the north-east. An investigation zone is being assessed for alternative locations, as shown below.
The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) notes that "the seafloor of the approved disposal area consists of sand, silt and clay and does not contain coral reefs or seagrass beds," claiming the operation will be "subject to strict environmental conditions."
Federal minister for the environment, Greg Hunt, said that water quality would actually improve in the region, due to conditions on the development that include programmes to support the health of the reef: "The conditions put in place for these projects will result in an improvement in water quality and strengthen the Australian government's approach to meeting the challenges confronting the reef into the future."
Scientists have been expressing a different opinion, however. A coral reef ecologist from the University of Queensland, Selina Ward, dismissed Hunt's remarks as "ridiculous" and explained that a huge amount of work had already gone into improving the water quality in recent years. To offset the damage arising from dredging operations of this size would take "unimaginable effort."
When sediment is dumped in this way, it can expand and travel outward, carried by ocean currents. The food chain is disrupted as seagrass and other plants die, in turn killing off animal populations that rely on them. Coral is weakened as increased sediment clouds the water and reduces the amount of sunlight getting through, harming algae that live symbiotically with them. Carbon is stored below seagrass in substantial quantities and this can be released when it dies – these meadows are currently disappearing at a global annual rate of 1.5 per cent, with almost 300 million tons of carbon added back into the environment each year as a result, according to Nature Geoscience. Another study concludes that seagrass is 35 times more efficient at absorbing carbon than rainforests.
There are further impacts to consider. Expanding the port will lead to a rise in ship traffic, increasing the chance of a collision with the reef or with other marine life. Humpback whale mothers and calves have been observed resting in the shallow waters around Abbot Point during migration. Green and flatback turtles on Abbot Beach will have their egg laying disrupted as they are confused by all the noise, lights and construction activity nearby. Directly behind the port itself is Caley Valley Wetland, home to several threatened bird species.
A group of 233 scientists had urged the Authority to reject the expansion, with a joint letter to chairman Russell Reichelt that stated: "The best available science makes it very clear that expansion of the port at Abbot Point will have detrimental effects on the Great Barrier Reef. Sediment from dredging can smother corals and seagrasses and expose them to poisons and elevated nutrients."
Last year, UNESCO had warned that the Great Barrier Reef might be placed on its list of World Heritage sites in danger unless action was taken to safeguard the region. A recent poll showed that 91 percent of Australians think protecting the Great Barrier Reef is the country's most important environmental issue – a number of huge petitions had been submitted prior to this week's decision.
The expansion of Abbot Point could be just the beginning, however. Several other massive dredging projects may emerge along the north-east coast, with Queensland's state government fast-tracking mega ports along the reef and dumping potentially 140 million tons of sediment by 2025, according to researchers based at James Cook University in Queensland. Abbot Point itself could be expanded further to accommodate the Alpha North Coal Project. The Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, appears to show little interest in the environment, having abolished the Climate Commission and slashed a number of clean energy initiatives.
The industrialisation of the Great Barrier Reef is just the latest in a string of developments in areas previously considered immune to human influence. For instance, plans are underway to build a highway through the Serengeti National Park, while oil drilling is approved in the heart of Yasuni National Park, the most biologically diverse spot on Earth.