By Carl Safina and Elizabeth Brown
When Captain Cook almost literally stumbled upon Australia’s Great Barrier Reef—it reached upward and clenched his ship—its size awed him. When the first orbiting astronauts looked down on their home planet, the Great Barrier Reef’s size awed them too. Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest structure made by living things. How big? It is roughly the size of Montana. Among the world’s most biologically rich places, it contains over 2,500 individual coral reefs and around 400 different coral species. (The entire Caribbean has about 60 coral species!) It is home to more than 1,500 fish, 4,000 mollusks, 240 birds, and a diversity of other species. A truly magnificent site of global importance!
In 1981, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s World Heritage Committee declared Australia’s Great Barrier Reef a “World Heritage Site” because of its outstanding universal value.1The ‘World Heritage Site’ designation is supposed to result in management that minimizes the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef. But, in recent years, Australia’s desire to expand its commodity ports, for the exports of coal and natural gas, seems to have become more important than protecting the health of the reef. Over the last few years, the Australian government has rapidly approved numerous developments of coal and gas port terminals within the reef; despite concerns that it is degrading the reef and harming the ecosystem.
When new ports are developed or ports are expanded, it requires the dredging [or removal] of bottom sediments to make room for large vessels to operate. This makes the waters very turbid or muddy. Highly turbid waters can limit the amount of light corals receive, and since light is needed for the corals’ symbiotic algae to generate food for them, this can cause corals to starve. As well, since dredging churns up the sediments, it can release toxic materials. There is evidence that this has stressed many of the native animals, leading to disease outbreaks seen in fish, shellfish, and crustaceans in recent years.2The critically endangered dugong (sea cow), as well as sea turtles and in-shore dolphins have also declined within the reef.
Because of the new ports terminals, there has been an expansive increase in shipping activity within the Great Barrier Reef. This is of concern because ships generate a lot of underwater noise, which is now recognized as a serious threat for many marine species3. Many species, like dolphins and whales, use sound to navigate, feed, and communicate. Human-made noise from ships can disrupt these activities or cause them extreme stress, sometimes leading to stranding events.Great Barrier Reef, Australia.Various Coral species.Credit: LCDR Eric Johnson, NOAA Corps.
The Australian Government is supposed to thoroughly assess all these threats through their environmental impact process before any developments within or around the Great Barrier Reef are approved. However, Australia has downplayed many of the threats, not adequately assessed them, and completely ignored some [like shipping noise].
Australia’s management [or lack thereof] of port developments has caused great concern among environmentalists, the international community, and users of the Great Barrier Reef. Because of these concerns, in 2012, the World Heritage Committee called on Australia to have an independent review conducted of their management of the Port of Gladstone – a major multi-use port in the southern area of the Great Barrier Reef that has been greatly expanded. They also recommended Australia halt all new development plans that could affect the outstanding universal values of the Great Barrier Reef.
As asked, Australia did commission a review panel to look into concerns over the management of the Gladstone Port early this year. But, the so-called “independent” panel experts all had conflicts of interests with the current Gladstone port development projects…
So as one might guess, the review panel basically concluded management of the Gladstone port had been adequate. They failed to address many of the concerns raised by the World Heritage Committee. And on top of that, they senselessly recommended giving management responsibilities of the port to the Gladstone Healthy Harbor Partnership – a group that is not yet funded or actually functioning4.
Australia continues to give the go-ahead for the development of several new coal and natural gas ports within the Great Barrier Reef, and thus the continued destruction of the reef seems inevitable. Soon, the World Heritage Committee may declare the Great Barrier Reef a ‘World Heritage Site in Danger’.5 Like us, I am sure many of you are asking, how can Australia let this happen?
Please make a personal point to write to the Hon. Greg Hunt, Minister for the Environment at Greg.Hunt.MP@aph.gov.au , calling on the Australian government to respect and protect the Reef which is the unique environmental heritage of all humanity. Tell Minister Hunt that the world is watching as the Australian government allows the destruction of this priceless jewel by the resource industry. Please make a personal point to write to President Obama with letters of protest for allowing the US Export/Import Bank to fund corporations which are actively destroying the Reef. The most immediate need is for a moratorium on any and all development in the Great Barrier Reef so that internationally recognized, independent scientific experts can undertake a thorough investigation into the damage and potential damage as requested by the World Heritage Committee.
1. Untied Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization World Heritage List: Great Barrier Reef http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/154
2. Report on disease outbreaks in Great Barrier Reef by Dr. Matt Landos. http://www.gladstonefishingresearchfund.org.au/#/reports/4565752703
3. Convention on Biological Diversity Scientific Synthesis on the Impacts of Underwater Noise on Marine and Coastal Biodiversity and Habitats: http://www.cbd.int/doc/meetings/sbstta/sbstta-16/information/sbstta-16-inf-12-en.pdf
4. Independent Review of the Port of Gladstone http://www.environment.gov.au/topics/marine/great-barrier-reef/port-gladstone-review
5. World Heritage Committee Decisions http://whc.unesco.org/en/decisions/4959