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Great Barrier Reef’s decline buried in government reports, says agency


Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef. Photograph: Brandon D Cole/Corbis


Powered by article titled “Great Barrier Reef’s decline buried in government reports, says agency” was written by Oliver Milman, for on Tuesday 22nd July 2014 07.12 UTC

Australia’s marine research agency has warned that the government has downplayed the declining health of the Great Barrier Reef and there is “clear potential for conflicts of interest” in development decisions.

The Australian Institute of Marine Science (Aims) said assessments of the Great Barrier Reef’s condition, compiled by the federal and Queensland governments, effectively buried the bad news of the reef’s decline.

John Gunn, chief executive of Aims, said that while the federal and state governments should be praised for putting together comprehensive reviews of the reef, the assessments lacked international scientific findings on reef systems.

Furthermore, Gunn said: “Almost all of the ‘bad news’ regarding status and trend is contained somewhere within the chapters of the document, however the summaries of chapters tend to either downplay or leave the bad news until the end of the sections.

“For example, the statement that ‘at the scale of the GBR [Great Barrier Reef] region, most of its habitats and species are assessed to be in good to very good condition’ may be technically correct, but as most of its key habitats and vulnerable species (corals, seagrasses, seabirds, dolphins, dugong, turtles) are in very poor to poor condition and declining in the southern GBR, it would seem appropriate to lead with this point.”

Gunn warned that while the need to monitor the reef’s health was “greater now than ever”, the system for assessing the environmental impact of industrial development near the reef was flawed.

Developers, such as those building ports or dredging the seabed, commission consultants to assess the potential impact of work. This report is then handed to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, which is responsible for safeguarding the health of the reef.

“While this mechanism allows for adequate resourcing of that scientific work, it does not guarantee independence,” Gunn said.

“There is a clear potential for conflicts of interest since the oversight and quality control of the work is carried out by the developer, whose interests in controlling development costs could conflict with the authority’s interests in minimising environmental and social impacts.

“A more effective mechanism to ensure independence, which has been successfully applied by GBRMPA in the past, would be for the authority, or some other independent agency, to commission and oversee the work, while still requiring the developer to pay the costs.”

Gunn raised his concerns to a Senate committee investigating how the federal and Queensland governments have managed the Great Barrier Reef. The federal government has cut funding for the GBRMPA and is in the process of delegating environmental approvals for nationally important sites such as the reef to the states.

Aims has conducted research that shows that coral cover on the Great Barrier Reef has halved in the past 30 years. Pollution, cyclones and a plague of coral-eating starfish have been blamed for the decline.

The development of ports to ship resources such as coal has also been cited as a concern, with critics claiming that dredged sediment, pollution and potential shipping accidents would hasten the reef’s decline. Meanwhile, warming oceans could cause a large amount of coral to bleach and even die off.

Peter Mumby, president of the Australian Coral Reef Society, said the reef would be “pretty ugly” by 2050, with fewer fish and seaweed replacing coral. “The reef is in the worst state it’s ever been in since records began,” he told the committee. “There is so much scope to improve governance.”

Unesco’s World Heritage Committee is due to decide next year whether to list the Great Barrier Reef as “in danger”. In an assessment handed down in June, Unesco said it was “premature” to hand responsibility for the reef to the Queensland government and that it was concerned about a plan to dump dredged sediment within the reef’s marine park.

The dredging project would displace 5m tonnes of seabed in order to expand the Abbot Point port, near Bowen. The federal government has approved the plan, although a site within the marine park has yet to be selected.


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