There have been increasing numbers of dugongs and turtles dying along the length of the Great Barrier Reef since cyclone Yasi in March 2010. These deaths are generating international publicity, with the UK Telegraph stating that up to 1500 dugongs and 6000 green turtles will die in the coming months.  The cost of this disaster to an almost $5 billion reef tourist industry, already struggling with a high Australian dollar, could be hundreds of millions of dollars.  The additional millions of dollars invested in managing the Great Barrier Reef have come to little in the face of this crisis.

The simplest explanation given for these deaths is that cyclone Yasi and the following floods covered the reef flats with sediment and agricultural chemical run-off, killing the seagrass on which these dugongs and green turtles rely for food — no mention of dead dolphins.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) has remained remarkably calm (or inert) in the face of this crisis. Its last media release was in July and linked the deaths of dolphins and dugongs to weather and climate change and called on commercial fishermen to lift their nets quicker and recreational boat owners to keep an eye out for turtles.

A special workshop was held at James Cook University in July to address this issue but there was no funding available to undertake toxicology tests on dead turtles and dugongs — remarkably.

One of the hotspots for turtle, dugong and dolphin deaths has been Gladstone in the southern Great Barrier Reef near world-famous resorts such as that on Heron Island.  Gladstone is a major port for tourists to access the Capricornia Group of islands and the home for Australia’s largest aluminum smelter on Boyne Island. It is also the site of a large gas plant, being developed on nearby Curtis Island, to service a massive coal seam gas industry, already expanding throughout the nearby catchments.

As dolphins, dugongs and green turtles have died around Gladstone, the continual blaming of these deaths on boat strike and commercial fishermen is wearing thin on the public,  as is the inertia of the GBRMPA, apparently relying on “anecdotes” rather than science.  An article in a scientific American blog linked the deaths of dolphins, green turtles and dugongs to dredging for the LNG  processing plant being constructed at Gladstone — done with  federal and state environmental approval. The proposed gas plant has been a hot issue covered in detail in the local media and will see the further loss of seagrass from dredging.

Coal seam gas extraction and the associated “fracking” — using explosives and chemicals the “free the gas” from coal — is another problematic industry that can damage local aquifers and contaminate water tables. These contaminants could find their way to the coast and the reef though coastal streams and waterways.  In addition to the loss of larger animals, there have been fish kills too and “blind” barramundi turning up in rivers (near Gladstone) fed from catchments with coal seam gas projects, other industry and agriculture.

Fish kills have also occurred on Cape York. There also have been an apparent horrific growths (fibropapilloma) on green turtles. Combined with the increasing rate of deaths of dugongs, green turtles, dolphins and the loss of seagrass beds makes Townsville, another turtle death “hotspot”.

These events have clearly blind-sided  government and marine scientists, who have portrayed the fishing industry as principle threat to the marine environment for more than two decades.  Taxpayers have paid hundreds of millions of dollars to buy out and intensively manage commercial fisheries to “save the marine environment”. It has not worked.

The inability to resource the toxicology of dead turtles, dugongs and dolphins, let alone address this now international issue, is unbelievable.  For GBRMPA to blame it all on “natural events” is putting an almost $5 billion tourist industry, and thousands of jobs, at further risk as bad national and international publicity grows.

While land management issues increasingly impact the marine environment, it appears that the heads of scientists, bureaucrats and politicians are competing for space in the tr0opical sand.

Peter Fray

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