Australia: Dugong deaths 'ecological disaster'

9News 25 Jul 11;

Environmentalists have again warned of an ecological disaster at the southern end of Queensland's Great Barrier Reef, following the discovery of a dead dugong.

It was found washed up on a beach in Gladstone Harbour, the fourth dugong, along with three dolphins and 40 turtles that have been found washed up around the harbour since May.

Friends of the Earth spokesman Drew Hutton said he had seen first-hand the destruction around the harbour since construction of the LNG facilities had started.

"Gladstone is the end-point of the export coal seam gas/LNG industry in Queensland and liquification plants, pipelines and port facilities are being built in this part of the Great Barrier Reef world heritage area," Mr Hutton said.

He said the harbour might be a dugong sanctuary but at the moment it is full of shipping and loud noises and the only dugongs being found are dead ones.

Mr Hutton said that what was currently happening at Gladstone revealed the hypocrisy behind both state and federal governments' assertions that the conditions they placed on these developments would protect important environmental values.

"How do you develop an environmental management plan that allows you to sensitively dredge your way through sea grass beds, removing 50 million cubic metres of spoil?" Mr Hutton asked.

The Department of Environment and Resource Management (DERM) said six dugongs have died since the start of 2011 in the Gladstone area, compared to just two in 2010 and one in 2009.

Turtle deaths have also increased in the same period to 48, from 26 last year and 24 in 2009.

DERM said it takes the increase in the number of reported deaths very seriously

The specially convened Scientific Advisory Committee for Marine Strandings has reported a number of reasons for the deaths including boat strikes and the loss of seagrass habitat following the floods.

DERM has told AAP that, based on evidence from previous floods, it is likely there will be more deaths later in the year between August and November.

Health checks have been carried out on turtles and the results will help DERM plan the most appropriate way of managing the issue.

Mr Hutton acknowledged that the floods were part of the problem.

However, he has backed calls by the Worldwide Fund for Nature for a halt to dredging work on Gladstone harbour until an inquiry can determine what is causing the animal starvation and deaths.

"Even if the work in this harbour is not directly killing marine animals, it is at least helping to create a situation where they are slowly being forced out of their traditional habitat to die of starvation," Mr Hutton said.