Gladstone in Queensland is the principle access point to the Capricornia group of islands on the Great Barrier Reef and the site of dredging for a massive liquid natural gas plant development. It is also the hot spot for the recent deaths of turtles, dugongs, dolphins, and now disease in fish, which is now even affecting fishermen:

A dozen fishermen have reported being ill from handling the fish, along with the pregnant wife of a deckhand and their two young children exposed when they met their dad when his boat was pulled ashore. At least two of the fishermen have spent time in hospital, including Tannum Sands operator Trevor Falzon, who spent five days on a drip. Mr Falzon said fishermen had no option but to act, fearing children would be exposed to the toxins during the school holidays. “I couldn’t walk,” Mr Falzon said. “I spent five nights in the Mater Hospital in Gladstone. It cost $5800. My foot was flaming red.

Commercial fishermen became ill too. Fourth-generation fisherman Chris Sipp believed dredging was to blame.

He said the fish were fine in clear reef water but became stressed as they approached Gladstone Harbour. Once in the port, they “roll” — die and go belly-up.

“We are devastated at the situation here in Gladstone but we know that we have done all the right things to advise all government authorities to keep people safe,” he said.

Queensland Seafood Industry Association president Michael Gardner said the dead turtles, dugongs and fish found in the Gladstone area were “an environmental disaster”.

He said the sick and dead animals coincided with dredging by Gladstone Port Corporation working on the massive LNG plant and pipeline being built in the harbour … But the port corporation says it is not to blame.

The Gladstone Port Corporation has a point. This project has all required approvals from the state and Commonwealth governments.

The State Fisheries Department reacted to these latest events by instituting a closure of 500 square kilometres of fishing grounds, with $200,000 fines for fishing in them for recreational or commercial fishermen, and appointing a panel to review the problem.

So why is Gladstone a hot spot for turtle, dugong and dolphin deaths and now poisoned fish and fishermen?  As discussed in Crikey there are multiple potential sources of contaminants that could of washed onto the Queensland coast following the cyclones that caused overflows of mine tailing dams, sewerage plants, etc.  A report by the Queensland government into these problems on the Fitzroy River, a portion of which ends up in the Gladstone Harbour, show tailing dams overflowing. However the report completed into the toxicology of fish is missing.

Michael McCabe of the Capricornia Conservation Group writes:

“‘… Action Items from the 16 December 2010 Fitzroy Water Quality Advisory Group (FWQAG) were tabled at the FWQAG meeting on Thursday 7 April 2011. Included was the (long) standing request for the final sick fish study following the 2008 flooding of the Ensham Coal Mine by the Mackenzie River which resulted in the discharge of contaminated mine water.”

Whatever problems there were with the Fitzroy River appeared to have passed (into the sediment?), with a recent barramundi fishing competition revealing that no fish with lesions, red spot, cloudy eyes or other disease were seen in and around Gladstone Harbour.

Gladstone Harbour, however, does also receive sediment from several rivers and streams that drain other industrial and intensive agricultural areas and right now the harbour is being dredged. Dredging spoil from the harbour is currently being dumped off the East Bank, not far from popular fishing areas with strong tides, and it is likely that the dredge spoil will spread outside the fisheries exclusion zone.

According to Queensland Treasurer and Deputy Premier Andrew Fraser in March this year:

‘..the first stage of the project will see six million cubic tonnes (underline ours) of material dredged from the Western Basin and placed in the port’s offshore spoil area.

“This is approximately one quarter of the total amount of material to be dredged from the Western Basin.

“Dredging will start in early June and we expect that by early August the majority of spoil will be placed in the bund area currently under construction at Fisherman’s Landing.

“This project has been conditioned by both state and federal governments and will serve as a template for future dredging works throughout Australia …”

All politicians are reliant on the advice of scientists they employ or are employed by corporations seeking development approvals for such projects — but is the science, or the frameworks legislated for it to function in, reliable?  When something unpredicted goes wrong, does the state or federal government environment bureaucracy have the skills, ability or even the opportunity to address the issues?

Last weekend another four dead green turtles washed up on Facing Island bordering Gladstone Harbour and the situation appears to be worsening.  The poisoning of fishermen and the deaths of turtles, dugongs and dolphins is attracting international publicity — even in China — our newest tourism market.

Still there has been no comprehensive and ongoing testing of the more than 100 collected specimens from the 1000-plus turtles, dolphins and dugongs that have washed up dead this year across the Great Barrier Reef.  To date there has also been no toxicological evaluation of dead and diseased fish, sharks, crabs and prawns.

Such an event is unprecedented in the history of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, Australia’s single biggest tourist attraction.

In response, sensible governments surely would suspend dredging in Gladstone Harbour until the toxins and pathogens in the sediment — and those causing these deaths and disease can be accurately identified — wouldn’t they?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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