Dredging Countdown for Great Barrier Reef

Published Jan 19, 2014 12:48 AM by The Maritime Executive

Last month, Australia’s Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt granted approval for the state-owned North Queensland Bulk Ports (NQBP) to dredge three million cubic meters of material around Abbot Point in the northern end of the Great Barrier Reef. The issuing of a permit for offshore disposal of the dredge spoil was placed in the hands of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), who will make a decision by January 31.

Felicity Wishart, the Great Barrier Reef campaign director for the Australian Marine Conservation Society, says that there has been problems associated with dredging that occurred further south in Gladstone that should be considered. “In 2011, the bund wall in Gladstone leaked, leaching dangerous chemicals into the harbor and that same year fish, turtles and dugongs became sick and died, the local fishing industry was decimated and fishers are still pursuing legal claims.

She says the minister should not be approving any new dredging, dumping or port developments in the reef until the truth about Gladstone is known and she urges the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to refuse to issue a dumping permit for the Abbot Point dredging plans in the Reef. “Let’s be very clear about this. When you dredge and dump in one of the world’s most precious and sensitive environments, you are going to create problems.”

However, Queensland’s peak resources sector body says it remains confident that GBRMPA will continue to base its decision-making on the best available science.

Queensland Resources Council chief executive Michael Roche said today that as a result of an expensive but transparently deceptive campaign by environmental activists to demonise port developments, there was growing confusion over real and present dangers to the park’s long-term health.

‘In its landmark 2012 report, the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) concluded that storm damage (48 per cent), crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks (42 per cent) and bleaching (10 per cent) were directly responsible for a 47 per cent loss of coral cover over the preceding 27 years.

‘The 2013 Scientific Consensus Statement on the reef’s health states clearly: ‘The overarching consensus is that key Great Barrier Reef ecosystems are showing declining trends in condition due to continuing poor water quality, cumulative impacts of climate change and increasing intensity of extreme events.

‘The things we must to do to address the challenges identified by the world’s best marine scientists is work to improve the quality of water flowing into the 2,300km reef lagoon by reducing nutrient levels and continuing to manage crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks.

‘Right now, it is reported that up to 2,000 starfish a day are being taken out of action on reefs north of Cairns using a recently perfected single injection culling technique,’ he said.

Roche said that since the Great Barrier Reef’s Marine Park’s declaration almost 40 years ago, neither port dredging nor shipping movements had been scientifically recorded as contributing to coral cover loss or a historical decline in the environmental health of the marine park.

‘There are no proposals to deposit dredge sediment on the reef, seagrass meadows or any other areas of high conservation value identified by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

‘The federal Environment Minister has imposed some path-breaking conditions on the dredging project including that 150 per cent of the total amount of fine sediments potentially available for re-suspension in the marine environment must be offset by a reduction in the load of fine sediments entering the marine environment from the Burdekin and Don catchments. 

‘The Minister has also imposed a cap of 1.3 million cubic meters of sediment that can be dredged or disposed of in a year and those activities can only be undertaken between 1 March and 30 June each year to protect water quality during critical times for seagrass growth and coral spawning.’ 

Roche said the annual cap on dredging for the Abbot Point coal terminal was on par with a program recently completed at the Port of Bundaberg to restart sugar exports.

‘This project relocated 900,000 cubic meters of Burnett River flood sediment choking the port, which is adjacent to the Mon Repos turtle rookery and Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

‘Interestingly, there has not been a peep out of environmental activists and their fellow travelers over this project, and one can only conclude that their real agenda is leveraging the iconic status of the Great Barrier Reef to shut down Queensland’s export coal and gas industries,’ Roche said.