Assessment Could Streamline Great Barrier Reef Coastal Development

CANBERRA, Australia, February 20, 2012 (ENS) – The Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, the core of the world’s largest reef, will be assessed to ensure future development along Queensland’s coast is sustainable and the reef’s unique natural values are protected, the Australian and Queensland governments said Saturday.

The two governments have signed a new agreement with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority that all three parties say will be the most comprehensive and complex strategic assessment ever carried out in Australia.

Multi-colored corals on the Great Barrier Reef (Photo by Steve Evans)

The assessment is being conducted at the request of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, which designated the 34.8 million hectare (134,633 square mile) World Heritage Site in 1981.

On the northeast coast of Australia, the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area contains a huge diversity of species, including 1,500 species of fish, about 360 species of hard coral, 5,000 species of mollusc and more than 175 bird species. It is an important breeding area for humpback and other whale species.

The site includes feeding grounds for the endangered dugong and nesting grounds of world significance for two endangered species of marine turtle, the green and the loggerhead, as well as habitat for four other imperiled species of marine turtle.

At least four port developments, either being planned or now underway, could put the reef at risk. One plan is to take coal-seam gas from Queensland’s more than 4,000 wells to Curtis Island, off Gladstone in the World Heritage Area for processing and export. To serve giant LNG tankers and expand its coal loading capacity, Gladstone Ports Corporation is now engaged in the largest dredging operation ever attempted inshore of the Great Barrier Reef. Dredging spoil will be dumped at sea within one kilometer (.6 mile) of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

Coal carrier leaves Hay Point, Queensland, adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef, with a message painted by Greenpeace on its hull. (Photo by Greenpeace Australia-Pacific)

One of the world’s largest coal ports, Hay Point, near Mackay, is slated for a massive port expansion with dredging and dumping that could harm the reef. Port Alma, at the mouth of the Fitzroy River near Great Keppel Island, wants to expand. And Bathurst Bay, north of Cooktown, could host a new coal loading facility in the reef’s pristine northern area.

The World Heritage Committee fears these expansions will mean more shipping through the reef, increasing the likelihood of groundings and oil spills.

During the strategic assessment, state and federal environmental planning issues will be covered in a single process that provides a big-picture study under a national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

The outcome of the assessment will be a streamlining of development approvals say Commonwealth and state officials. Once a development program has been endorsed under the EPBC Act, individual projects will not need any further approval under national environmental law if done in accordance with the approved program.

“Rather than always dealing with one application at a time, this allows an assessment of the region as a whole,” said Australian Environment Minister Tony Burke.

“That gives us an opportunity to take into account the cumulative impacts and any indirect impacts such as increased shipping movement,” said Burke. “In short, it is a better way to protect one of the world’s greatest treasures, and I’m glad it’s started.”

Queensland Environment Minister Vicky Darling welcomed the agreement, saying the assessment would benefit the environment and local communities and would also benefit industry through streamlining of government review processes.

“This strategic assessment enables us to work hand-in-hand with the Commonwealth Government to ensure development is well-planned and systems are in place to protect the area’s World Heritage values,” Darling said.

Forested islands in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area (Photo courtesy Reef Water Quality Protection Plan Secretariat)

The present Queensland government headed by Premier Anna Bligh “has a record of safeguarding Queensland’s spectacular coastline and environment,” said Darling. “I expect the assessment will confirm the effectiveness of the range of existing protections this government has already put in place.”

Premier Bligh Thursday released a study that shows the state government’s reef protection program is having a positive effect on the reef. Tabling the Reef Protection Package Impact Statement 2012 in Parliament, the premier said said her government had recognized the scientific consensus that over-fertilization, over-grazing and pesticide runoff were harming the reef.

In 2009, the Bligh Government passed the Barrier Reef Protection Amendment Act, which aimed to reduce pesticide and fertilizer pollution of Reef waters by 50 percent by 2013 and sediment pollution by 20 percent by 2020.

“Farmers and industry deserve credit for their efforts not to exceed the optimum application rate for nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers. On this basis our initiatives have permanently reduced the main pollutant of nitrogen runoff from cane farms by 14 percent,” said Bligh.

Environment Minister Darling said, “In the last three decades, we have worked tirelessly and delivered landmark reforms to protect the biodiversity of this spectacular part of the world through major initiatives such Wild Rivers legislation, Queensland Coastal Plan, Great Barrier Reef regulations and expanded green zones in marine parks.”

Fish and coral on the Great Barrier Reef (Photo by Martha Lyle)

“The Great Barrier Reef is one of the world’s favorite playgrounds, is a $5 billion asset for our economy and supports more than 60,000 jobs for Queensland,” said Darling. “We have a record of protecting its unique biodiversity and we are going to ensure it stays that way for future generations.”

“The assessment will also help answer any questions the UNESCO World Heritage Committee has and we will be discussing the assessment further with the delegation visiting in early March,” she said.

GBRMPA Chairman Russell Reichelt said the strategic assessment is an opportunity to take a long-term view of managing the Great Barrier Reef.

“The Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef system in the world and it has rich diversity,” Dr. Reichelt said. “It is up to us to protect this extraordinary place for generations to come.”

“Considerable management effort has gone into building the resilience of the Reef, which means it is in a far better position to withstand threats to its health,” said Reichelt. “We welcome the opportunity to work closely with Queensland on a sustainable plan for managing impacts from both onshore and offshore activities.”

Green sea turtle and divers on the Great Barrier Reef (Photo by Karen Bayley-Ewell)

An alliance of national and Queensland environmental groups urged that the assessment cover, “the cumulative and synergistic impacts of development projects” such as minings, resorts, aquaculture, urban areas and ports, state development areas, and especially shipping and commercial tourism.

“The impacts of potential development must be overlayed on existing reef health and the likely impacts of climate change to determine what is ecologically sustainable and permissible in a World Heritage Area,” said the Queensland Network of Community Environmental and Conservation Organisations. The alliance of 18 groups issued their statement on the assessment in December in advance of the next Queensland election, to be held on March 24.

“The strategic assessment must be run as an open and transparent process, in the form of a Public Commission of Inquiry,” the groups say. They want to ensure that no new projects will be approved “until the strategic assessment has been completed and the World Heritage Committee’s concerns have been resolved to their satisfaction.”

The groups say the strategic assessment must include the full length of the reef coastline and the full area of reef catchments. They want the assessment to take into account: Port Plans, Water Resource Plans, Coastal Management Plans, Regional Plans, Local Area Plans, State Marine Parks management plans, GBRMPA Management Plans, State Planning Policies and the State Infrastructure Plan.

The environmental groups say the Queensland government should introduce World Heritage Legislation that meets Queensland’s 2010 Intergovernmental Agreement obligations by enshrining the protection and management sections of the World Heritage Convention Operational Guidelines in Queensland law, including the requirement that all World Heritage Areas have their own management plans.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2012. All rights reserved.