After announcing a fishing closure in Gladstone Harbour on the southern edge of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in mid-September, the Minister has appointed the “Gladstone Fish Health Scientific Advisory Panel” to address the escalating environmental problems in the area, following  the deaths of turtles, dugongs and dolphins over the past 18 months, fishermen ill from handling diseased fish and through contact with the water.

As Minister for Main Roads, Fisheries and Marine Infrastructure, Craig Wallace represents departments now in conflict.  He is reported as saying that “sample testing” on fish upon which the re-opening of fishing in Gladstone Harbour was based “confirmed that marine life in the harbour was again healthy.”

He then stated in a TV interview that the study had “… caught about 160 fish both in the Boyne River and in the Gladstone Harbour, tested those fish and they’ve shown no signs of the lesions or fluke, which is good news.”

Then, in the same TV news report, professional fishermen Mark McMillan, who caught the fish with the inspectors on board,  tells a very different story of landing a variety of fish with rashes and lesions on them. He even supplied photos for the media. There was a rapid correction but the decision to re-open the Gladstone Harbour to fishing on October 7 was made anyway.

Professional fishermen are still suffering with rashes and boils, but now must wait for the findings of the expert panel. Crikey has learnt that 35 professional fishermen have prepared medical reports of the impacts on their health from contact with water and fish in the Gladstone Harbour.

The scientists on such panels are placed in a very difficult position.  The problem is huge and they are limited by the research and testing results they are provided with and funded to undertake. Most likely this will be dominated by data from the proponents of the dredging.  The catchments that feed into Gladstone Harbour are massive. They likely produce sediment contaminated with everything from industrial waste, mine tailings and agricultural chemicals to sewerage.  All of this is mixed with acid sulphate soil and now dispersed by dredging and strong tides.

The approvals for these projects are usually based on “best estimates” of their likely impact. When something goes wrong, however, as it has now, government agencies typically demand “causal links” to prove negative impact.  This is likely a very much higher standard of science than was used to approve these projects in the first place.

Headed by Ian Poiner, CEO of the Australian Institute of Marine Science, this panel has been welcomed by the Gladstone Observer with the headline “Community can Trust Panel” — but can it? A similar panel formed to examine the production of two-headed fish in a fish farm adjacent to a macadamia farm, officially found no links with chemical sprays used on macadamias.

According to most locals and professional fishermen, the problem is caused by dredging contaminated sediment from Gladstone Harbour.  The development of a massive liquid natural gas plant and associated dredging appears to maintain the “unconditional” support of  the state and federal governments. Proposed development of coal port facilities, in the Fitzroy River to the north, will involve similar dredging of sediments that may also be contaminated — and likely have similar government support.

Right now there have never been as many politicians talking more about “saving the environment for our children and our children’s children”.  Despite this, it would be a very brave panel indeed if it called for the suspension of dredging in Gladstone Harbour — even to protect the Great Barrier Reef, its marine life and the $5 billion fishing and tourism industries.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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