Protection plan 'will not save Great Barrier Reef'

BBC News 28 Oct 14;

Australia's Academy of Science says an Australian government draft plan to protect the Great Barrier Reef will not prevent its decline.

The group said the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan failed to address key pressures on the reef including climate change and coastal development.

Much bolder action was needed, said Academy Fellow Professor Terry Hughes.

"The science is clear, the reef is degraded and its condition is worsening," said Prof Hughes.

"This is a plan that won't restore the reef, it won't even maintain it in its already diminished state," he said in a statement released on Tuesday.

"It is also more than disappointing to see that the biggest threat to the reef - climate change - is virtually ignored in this plan."

Public submissions on the draft plan - an overarching framework for protecting and managing the reef from 2015 to 2050 - closed on Monday.

The plan will eventually be submitted to the World Heritage Centre in late January, for consideration by Unesco's World Heritage Committee mid-next year. Unesco has threatened to place the reef on its List of World Heritage in Danger.

According to scientists, another major threat to the reef's health is continual expansion of coal ports along the Queensland coast.

In a controversial move earlier this year, the Australian government approved a plan to dredge a port at Abbot Point in Queensland, and dump thousands of tonnes of sediment in the sea.

Prof Hughes is one of the authors of a submission by the Academy to the Australian and Queensland governments.

The scientists argue the plan fails to effectively address major factors driving the reef's decline, including climate change, poor water quality, coastal development and fishing.

But a press release from the office of Australian Environment Minister Greg Hunt said the plan was based on the "best available science".

"We have a clear plan and a strong commitment to ensure the reef is healthy and resilient - and we are making strong progress," Mr Hunt said.

"Water quality in the World Heritage area is improving as a result of a partnership between farmers and governments to stop fertilisers, chemicals and sediments running off farming land and into the rivers and creeks along the Queensland coast."

He said the government had also worked hard to eliminate the disposal of capital dredging - to deepen existing facilities - in the reef's Marine Park.

Great Barrier Reef
=Stretches about 2,500 km (1,553 miles) along the eastern Queensland coast, covering an area the size of Great Britain, Switzerland and the Netherlands combined.
=Made up of a network of 3,000 individual reef systems, islands, islets and sandbars
=Home to more than 1,500 different species of fish, 400 species of coral, 4,000 species of mollusc and hundreds of bird species.
=Considered one of the seven natural wonders of the world and the only living thing on earth visible from space.
=A Unesco World Heritage site - Unesco is also considering listing it as endangered.

Great Barrier Reef protection plan 'ignores the threat of climate change'
Scientists warn the government’s strategy is likely to prove ineffectual as ‘unless Australia cuts back on carbon dioxide emissions we won’t have much of a Great Barrier Reef left’
Oliver Milman The Guardian 27 Oct 14;

The Australian government’s multimillion dollar plan to halt the worrying decline of the Great Barrier Reef does nothing to address the leading threat of climate change and is likely to prove largely ineffectual, scientists have warned.

In its formal response to the Reef 2050 long-term sustainability plan, which was drawn up by the Australian and Queensland governments, the Australian Academy of Science states the strategy is “inadequate to achieve the goal of restoring or even maintaining the diminished outstanding universal value of the reef”.

Although a recent government assessment found climate change is the leading threat to a declining reef, the Australian Academy of Science states there is “no adequate recognition” in the 2050 plan of the importance of curbing greenhouse gases.

The academy’s submission is also critical of what it sees as the plan’s lack of specific funded goals to restore the reef’s condition, along with a failure to properly tackle issues such as poor water quality, coastal development and illegal fishing.

“The draft 2050 plan represents business-as-usual in terms of how escalating pressures on the reef are adequately regulated [or not], when much bolder action is required to restore the values of the reef and prevent further degradation,” the submission states.

Professor Terry Hughes, director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and an academy fellow, said the plan was focused on the sustainable development of four “mega ports” adjacent to the reef, rather than conservation of the reef itself.

“There’s no questioning in the report of whether two or three ports would be better than four,” Hughes told Guardian Australia.

Ports such as Abbot Point, near the Queensland town of Bowen, are being expanded to allow for larger exports of fossil fuels.

“There’s nothing in the plan on addressing climate change,” Hughes said. “The science is quite clear that you can’t keep the Great Barrier Reef in good condition if you’re going to develop huge coal reserves. We are already on our way to 2C warming and unless Australia cuts back on carbon dioxide emissions we won’t have much of a Great Barrier Reef left.

“We need a plan to transition away from fossil fuels well before 2050. Australia’s emissions reduction goal is very, very weak by international standards. We have stewardship of one of the world’s premier reef systems and also stewardship of a huge reserve of fossil fuels – it’s a conflict of interest, really.”

Key threats to the reef, aside from climate change, include pollution flowing onto the ecosystem from agriculture, cyclones and a plague of coral-eating starfish. The reef has lost around half its coral cover in the past 30 years.

The Reef 2050 plan sets a target of a 50% reduction in nitrogen and a 60% drop in pesticides flowing onto the reef by 2018. There is also a plan to protect dugongs and turtles. However, there is no new funding mentioned beyond the $40m Reef Trust program announced in the budget.

The plan includes no specific ban on the dumping of dredged seabed spoil into the reef’s waters, which scientists say can smother and badly damage coral and fish. A proposal to dump dredged spoil into the Great Barrier Reef marine park for the Abbot Point project was recently reversed, although a similar dumping plan is in place to facilitate the expansion of other areas, such as the Townsville port.

“The proposed dredging is unprecedented and will swamp the reef,” Hughes said.

“The government has spent around $400m on reducing by about 10% the amount of sediment flowing out onto the reef but this is completely overtaken by the amount of sediment being dumped.

“There are literally hundreds of reports saying mud dumped on your head isn’t good for you. It isn’t really rocket science. The government needs to engage with scientists more than they did when putting together this draft plan.”

Unesco’s world heritage committee will decide next year whether to place the Great Barrier Reef on its “in-danger” list. Unesco has called for port expansion to be limited in order to safeguard the health of the reef.

“There’s no doubt the short-term goal of this report is to keep Unesco happy,” Hughes said. “I’m not sure if that will succeed or not but in terms of this being a plan for the next 35 years, there are missing targets that need to be in there.

“It would be a terrible outcome if the Great Barrier Reef is placed on the in-danger list; it would be very damaging to Australia’s reputation. I haven’t met anyone who wants that to be the case but I wouldn’t be surprised if Unesco went ahead and did it.”

On Monday, Greg Hunt, the federal environment minister, unveiled new guidelines to increase the number of divers able to lethally inject crown-of-thorns starfish, which are munching their way through the reef’s coral.

A spokesman for Hunt said the 2050 reef plan is based on the “best available science to ensure it responds to new and emerging issues”.

“We have a clear plan and a strong commitment to ensure the reef is healthy and resilient – and we are making strong progress,” he said.

“The Great Barrier Reef remains an incredibly diverse and rich marine environment. We know the reef still retains the values for which it was listed as world heritage.

“The Australian and Queensland governments are jointly investing approximately $180m a year in the reef’s health – that’s billions of dollars over the next decade.”