The World Heritage Committee (WHC) is about to send a delegation to Australia for eight days to look at the Great Barrier Reef.

In June last year, the WHC had expressed extreme concern over the federal government’s failure to notify it of Curtis Island liquefied natural gas project at Gladstone in the southern Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area. Scrolling through the issues before that committee, Australia has found itself in the company of African states at war and a large number of other countries that are failing to manage their World Heritage assets. If it is of any comfort, another rich nation, the US, gets a mention for stealing water from the Florida Everglades.

The federal government’s response has been a brief document, listing fisheries no-take zones that it created, and multiple references to its Environment Protection Biodiversity Act. This document uses the terms “best available science” and “scientific opinion” along with published research. It also uses “adaptive management’, another favourite of the advocates of coal seam gas, which the Curtis Island development has been created to process.  This is another way of saying that will keep going until we stuff up and then have the confidence that there will be a solution by that time.

If this is the best the federal government is prepared to do, then all or part of the Great Barrier Reef may well be delisted.

The Queensland government has corporatised the management of its ports, creating in 2007-08 the Gladstone Ports Corporation, a quango that is extremely difficult to regulate. Before its creation, Gladstone has long been an industrial port and provided shipping access for tourism to the southern Great Barrier Reef, especially Heron and the Capricornia group of islands. With pressure from NGOs and government agencies, much of the industry was in the process of “cleaning up its act”, limiting and reducing its impact — until recently.

Now GPC is promoting and profiting from development. It is also acting as the chief apologist and denier of any negative environmental impact from a massive dredging program that dumps spoil in the World Heritage area.

Curtis Island, the second largest island of the Great Barrier Reef, remained undeveloped until recently. It with other islands creates a sheltered harbour, which also contains the estuaries of the Boyne and Caliope rivers, connected by “The Narrows” to the Fitzroy River to the north.  These rivers combined in Gladstone Harbour produce the bulk of the freshwater flow onto the southern Great Barrier Reef.  The associated sheltered waters and islands in this often estuarine habitat also support vast stretches of mangroves and seagrass beds that support dugongs and green turtles in particular – and a large fishery that is now closed.

The decision was made to enable the development of liquid natural gas facilities on Curtis island. This saw the clearing 600 hectares of woodland and the reclamation of hundreds more hectares of seagrass and mangroves with dredged of harbour sediment. The sediment contains the contaminants of 40 years of industrial and agricultural history. The approval for this project was driven by some departments of the state and federal governments and approved by others with the GPC acting as a developer for the purposes of dredging.

After years of drought, cyclonic rains from 2008 led to many mine tailings dams overflowing into rivers from Townsville to Fitzroy River, just north of Gladstone (First, turtles die, now fish … and anglers handling fish get ill), followed by dredging to reopen ports.  All this was coincident with a rapid increase in deaths of green turtles and dugongs. Long after the floods had ended, dolphins, green turtles and dugongs continued being washing up dead in and around Gladstone, after similar deaths and along the length of the Great Barrier Reef.

It was these turtle and dugong deaths that likely drew the attention of the World Heritage Committee.  It discovered, along with most other Australians, that a massive LNG development to serve the coal seam gas industry in the catchments of the Great Barrier Reef had been approved by the state and federal governments.  The failure to notify the WHC was in clear breach of the World Heritage Agreement. In June last year, it noted extreme concern, gave notice of a delegation that is arriving soon and called for comprehensive reports from the Australian government by February 1 this year.

Then, coincident with dredging, catches of diseased fish closed commercial fisheries in Gladstone Harbour, fish died fishermen became ill.

It is not that national and international marine conservation groups have been silent over the past two decades of industrial development in the catchments and along the coast of this World Heritage Area.  They, along with state and federal governments, have targeted cutting, excluding and controlling commercial and recreational fisheries and had been critical of coastal agriculture. It has been left to local conservation groups to deal with this massive increase in mining and industrial development.

The universities also have been all but silent on this development and also concentrated of fisheries impact and regulation, climate change and ocean acidification — where the easy money is.

Australian and international economists are in the media daily with detailed analysis of the Australian mining industry and its value to the economy. They have remained all but silent on the threats economic value of commercial and recreational fisheries or tourism from industrial development.

If Australia loses World Heritage listing for all or even part of the Great Barrier Reef, the various quangos will likely see an opportunity to increase industrial development along the Queensland coast and in the catchments of the reef.

Peter Fray

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