There are dire economic consequences for poor environmental management and the pollution from dredging toxic spoil in Gladstone Harbour. Toxins likely from this dredging are already having financial impacts on many diverse businesses tied to fishing and tourism for the entire Barrier Reef. The potential compensation bill could be massive and already international law firms are “rounding up” potential plaintiffs.

The Environmental Justice Society (EJS), in collaboration with Erin Brockovich and Shine Lawyers, are currently investigating on behalf of fishermen in the Gladstone area who have been affected by the loss of marine life. From the same website, local environment writer John Mikkelsen wrote:

“Gladstone regional council yesterday unanimously passed a resolution to ask the Queensland government for $500,000 to fund independent tests of the harbour which residents could have faith in. Before Premier Anna Bligh even received the formal council request, she told a Channel Seven local reporter that the government would not agree to funding of further independent tests. “No way …”

As new parasites are found infecting fish and turtles, the likely impact of dredging in Gladstone Harbour on the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park World Heritage Area continues to grow:

“A tour of the harbour revealed prawns with pea-sized tumors and deformed fish, a dead turtle as well as several other turtles appearing sick and distressed. While the government has denied claims that dozens of turtles were found dead near Curtis Island last weekend, commercial fishermen believe the harbour is sick and dying.”

This crisis is growing faster than marine scientists, and more especially the institutions that employ them, can cope with. Scientists rely on government funding through a variety of bodies and the government — as do institutions such as the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA).

Even comments to a recent Four Corners program from the chairman GBRMPA Russell Reichelt has not been able to event slow dredging at Gladstone. The only scientists that the Queensland and federal governments listen to at the moment are those who state that there in “no evidence” of a link between dredging and the rapidly deteriorating health of people and marine life spreading from Gladstone Harbour.

The state and federal governments have silenced scientists by denying them the resources necessary for the sampling and testing hundreds of dugongs, dozens of dolphins and thousands of green turtles found dead dying and diseased. Dr Ellen Arial, a turtle expert from James Cook University, has devised a sampling technique that can be used on live turtles, sick and healthy — the kind of data that is essential for an accurate picture of animal health. At a meeting at James Cook University in July, it was revealed that freeze-dried samples from turtles were ready for testing — but no funding has yet been made available.

In the absence of this science, the state and federal governments are determined to “ride out the storm” and continue to deny the obvious. This from an AAP report circulated internationally:

“The Gladstone Ports Corporation (GPC) has approvals to dredge 46 million cubic metres … inside the World Heritage area, over the next 20 years. So far, 1.5 million cubic metres have been dredged.”

In parliament, Greens Senator Larissa Waters asked when the government would suspend its approval for dredging in Gladstone Harbour. Senator Stephen Conroy, representing Environment Minister Tony Burke, replied that Fisheries Queensland had imposed the fishing ban while they investigated infection outbreaks in barramundi and other fish.

“No links were found between the fish disease and water quality,” Senator Conroy told the Senate. “Water quality testing has shown little change other than seasonal variation for water quality since dredging began.”Then there are the human health issues associated with the dredging — rashes that impacted local people and  illness severe enough to send them to hospital – and the recreational fisherman who lost his leg.  There has been no comprehensive evaluation of human health issues that go back to well before fishermen were affected. This recent comment posted by “Chris” in response to a local Queensland ABC News story:

“There have been mudcrabs with sores caught at Turkey Beach, 30 minutes south of Gladstone over the past six months. My father, who’s a fisherman, has had ulcers on his legs, for no apparent reason during the past year. He is one of many who have that same issue in the Turkey region too …”

The recreational fishery in Gladstone Harbour was reopened in early October and apparently healthy fish have been landed by recreational fishermen — but are these fish healthy? A report — A risk assessment approach to contaminants in Port Curtis, Queensland, Australia — was published in 2005 in which it stated:

“Bioaccumulation of contaminants in a range of biota was also used as an indicator of contaminant exposure. Biota were generally enriched in metals and tributyltin, which was also elevated in water and sediments. Although not unique to Port Curtis, mercury in barramundi was identified as a potential risk to human health.”

So after a series of floods and cyclones since 2008 and now the dredging, this problem may be worse — the only way to find out is to test for mercury levels in barramundi and other fish in the habour. This should have been done before the harbour was reopened to fishing, given that barramundi is a prime recreational and commercial species.

Environment issues, as this has been exclusively treated, do become economic issues in regard to matters of human health. In 1959, in Minamata, Japan, fishermen complained when pollution from a company affected fishing in their bay. As time progressed, people who ate the fish and became ill and all the way through there was denial from the government. Finally, in 2004 the matter was settled legally:

“… the Supreme Court of Japan ordered the government to pay ¥71.5 million … in damages to the Minamata disease victims.”

If and when the link between dredging, the marine life and human health impacts is shown, the compensation bill for future state and federal governments could be very high.

While the ministers may be confident in water quality, the multimillion dollar coral trout industry — which landed fish alive in Gladstone for export — now steams north to cleaner waters to the north near Yepoon. The harbour fishermen have to fish elsewhere and any settlement for 30 years of fishing lost — at least — will likely be in the multimillions of dollars when processors, wholesalers, etc, are included. Fishermen from elsewhere in Queensland report flat prices for their fish in the approach to Christmas, normally a time when prices rise. The public have no real way of being certain where the fish come from. The impact on the Gladstone wholesale fish market, which banned itself from selling fish from the harbour, has been devastating for the business.

The economic impact in tourism is based on perception — not the opinion of government scientists — and tarnishing the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area brand affects all of north Queensland and is likely costing even distant tourist operators.

The ABC Four Corners report, Great Barrier Grief, highlighted the beauty and biodiversity of the Great Barrier Reef and finished by lamenting its potential compromise or loss. Those values are strong but the economic value of the Great Barrier Reef is in its recreational and commercial fisheries and its diverse widespread tourist industry is in hundreds of millions of dollars in investment, employment and export income.

It is the economic impact, the risk to and impact on other businesses, that the dredging Gladstone Harbour needs to be re-evaluated.  The Australian governments find themselves ill equipped to deal with it and will be judged by their ability to adapt and make bold decisions.

Marine science too, that has concentrated on the impact of commercial fisheries and increasingly excluding them from marine parks, is facing a major rethink in the way it does science.  If it was not for the commercial fishermen and women of Gladstone, we may know little of this story — they may be essential as “canaries in the mine” to marine parks and the marine environment.

Peter Fray

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