Great Barrier Reef: Australia chooses development over conservation
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Great Barrier Reef: Australia chooses development over conservation

Over the past year or so Australian government has taken measures that endanger the survival of the country’s greatest natural wonder and world’s largest coral reef system. In December 2013, Environment Minister Greg Hunt approved a dredging project to expand ports for coal shipment through the Great Barrier Reef. Plans include ocean floor dredging and the disposal of sediment, which could be disastrous for the reef’s ecology. Early in 2014, reports surfaced that the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), the body responsible for maintaining and protecting the Reef, produced reports that judged the expansion of the ports to be “environmentally and socially unacceptable”. These reports were never sent to Australia’s Department of the Environment.

To make matters worse, a recent $2.8 million Federal budget cut to GBRMPA resulted in the redundancy of 17 staff members, including five directors and 12 others. Among those now redundant are former climate change director Paul Marshall, who is quoted by ABC Australia:

I think it’s a huge hit, and it’s a hit at a time when we need more expertise and more capacity to deal with these issues. Sometimes we had eight to 10 people working on climate change. Now you can’t point to one who is entirely focused on climate change.

This came just before the release of a report by an international coalition of 30 scientists at a UN meeting in Seoul, South Korea on October 8, titled, “An Updated Synthesis of the Impacts of Ocean Acidification on Marine Biodiversity”. The report estimates that ocean acidification may have resulted in the lion’s share of $1 trillion US in damages taking place on coral reefs on the ocean floor. The co-editor of the report, Murray Roberts of Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland, stated, “the only way to deal with ocean acidification is to reduce CO2 emissions.” Oceanic acidification is one of the greatest threats to the Great Barrier Reef, as it prevents the growth of necessary calcium shells. Furthermore Australian government’s own latest report on the outlook for the Reef found that climate change is the most serious threat to its survival. Yet the government is digging up and shipping out as much coal as it can at the immediate and long-term expense of the Reef.

According to the Australian Associated Press, one of the world’s leading experts on coral reefs, the former chief scientist of the Australian Institute of Marine Science, Dr Charlie Veron, told ABC Radio that the GBRMPA “lost its credibility” and “committed suicide” when it approved the dumping in the Reef. Veron said that he is now the only person left in Australia who is tracking the loss of coral species along the whole reef.

Those scientists and scientific bodies tasked with protecting Australia’s environment, including the Great Barrier Reef, are first ignored and then later disempowered by the center-right federal government, led by Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Apparently, if findings do not support the agenda, they are ignored. Australia is choosing coal exports to Asia over its own environmental health and climate change mitigation.

Dredging is problematic for a few reasons. Firstly it digs up seagrass meadows, removing valuable grazing areas for dugongs and turtles, secondly it creates a toxic soup of heavy metals which can severely impact on the health of marine life. And lastly, the dredge spoils are then dumped back out onto the Barrier Reef and can travel for miles up the coast clogging coral polyps and smothering entire reef systems

— International League of Conservation Photographers (via National Geographic)

One alternative government proposal for dumping the dredged sediment in the Reef is to instead dump it in the nearby Caley Valley Wetlands, which are the breeding grounds for over 40,000 waterfowl. Naturally, conservationists are not too keen on this proposal either.

See this ABC report for more.

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NASA pic of Great Barrier Reef