Imagine you work for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. Your job, as quoted from the website, is “to ensure all human uses of the Park are ecologically sustainable and that the ecosystem's natural functions, especially resilience, are maintained.” Then in 2012 an Indian resources conglomerate comes along and wants to dredge out the world’s largest coal port at Abbot Point, right on the reef. Strangely, you say OK, with the simple request that something responsible be done with the dredge spoil. But the resources conglomerate, Adani, comes back and says “Actually we were hoping to just dump it in the reef.” So you and your colleagues mull this over for a while before finally saying, “Well all right, but please be careful.”
That's basically what happened on Friday, when the GBRMPA decided to gamble the “resilience” of the world’s largest reef so Adani can cut dredging costs and chase historically low coal prices that’ll mostly benefit India.
Could Australia look more environmentally irresponsible? The World Heritage Committee is doubtful. As far back as January 2012, when the dredging at Abbot Point was first discussed, UNESCO announced that they were considered placing the reef on their “in danger” list. The federal government baulked and promised they’d provide evidence of a healthy reef by decision time in June this year. Obviously, that got swept aside Friday so the UN received a government report on Saturday, detailing Australia’s efforts to save the reef. Aside from the awkward hypocrisy of the whole thing, the real shame is that the reef is genuinely struggling and if we won’t stop neglecting it, perhaps we could at least acknowledge there’s a problem?
As we detailed last week, the most condemning report on reef health appeared in 2012. The Australian Institute of Marine Science concluded that 50 percent of coral cover had disappeared since 1988, all of which was due to human influence. For 190 years of European settlement, Queensland has been washing fertilizers, pesticides, mining run-off, and a whole bunch of erosion sediment onto the reef, which, combined with Crown of Thorns starfish outbreaks (encouraged by nitrogen-rich fertilizers) and global warming, is slowly killing it. The report to the UN acknowledges that some inshore areas are declining, but claims that the rest remains in passable condition. This is not untrue, but then quantifying something like reef health is somewhat subjective, especially as the process is so slow. Long-time Airlie Beach resident and diving operator, Tony Fontes, describes that process as “moving the goal posts.” He explains that “the people with long-term memories of the reef, they die off or move away, and the new people see the reef and they think it’s great, but they don’t know what it used to be like. And then that becomes the norm. One day the goal posts will move so that we’ll think one-fish coral will be amazing.”
And therein lies the whole problem—the value of the reef is in wow factor only. It has reached its apex by simply being, and to access that commodity we have to build less and not more, which is a weird concept to someone who doesn’t easily understand wilderness. Indeed, the decision to allow dredge dumping coincided with a federal government request to the World Heritage Committee to delist about 74,000 hectares of Tasmania's world heritage forest. This was met with more economic reasoning from the same government that pretends to take climate change seriously, all the while making decisions that undermine their claims and exacerbate problems.
Maybe the upshot to all this is that the issue has finally become so ridiculous that people can't pretend not to notice. As Tony puts it, “dredging has happened here before. I’ve seen it happening under the radar, but not this time. This time the world has taken interest and Australia looks really foolish. So I think the next time this comes up, hopefully it’ll be harder to get it through. Hopefully next time they’ll say guys, sorry, but we don’t do this anymore.”
Follow Julian on Twitter: @MorgansJulian