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Monday, 14 September 2009
Page: 6481

Senator FURNER (10:00 PM) —I rise this evening to speak on the pivotal role that research in North Queensland is playing in facilitating the Australian government’s adaptation to the climate change agenda. In August this year I was invited to visit the Reef and Rainforest Research Centre, a North Queensland based consortium that represents 300 scientists, 15 research provider organisations and at least 38 end-user organisations. I acknowledge the attendance of some of those good people in the public gallery this evening. The centre delivers the $40 million Marine and Tropical Science Research Facility, MTSRF, which is part of the Australian government’s Commonwealth Environmental Research Facilities program.

With the concerns raised about the impacts of climate change on the Great Barrier Reef, our wet tropic rainforest and the Torres Strait, I was keen to hear about the science firsthand and to understand what actions could be taken to help sustain the reef and rainforest for generations to come, and the $6 billion industries that rely on the health of these natural wonders, in the face of climate change. The briefing I received in Cairns by Dr David Souter and the centre’s managing director, Sheriden Morris, highlighted the excellent and focused work undertaken through the MTSRF funding arrangements. I was delighted to hear that end users of the information participate directly in the design, implementation and delivery of the research and that the relevance of the research to end users was an important criterion in assessing the overall quality of the research.

The objectives of the MTSRF are to understand the threats to the environment in the north and to develop options to address those threats. These threats include climate change, declining water quality, loss of biodiversity and unsustainable use. As a Queensland senator, and a visitor on many occasions to the Great Barrier Reef, I fully understand that the responsibility of the future of this natural wonder is in our hands. I was informed how we do not have time to waste in addressing these issues and how the science community is working to provide practical solutions for the reef’s survival. I learnt that in any discussion of the science of reef health the concept of ecosystem resilience is fundamental. A healthy, resilient coral reef is one that can absorb shocks and recover from stress without loss of biodiversity or complexity.

As the changing climate causes global environmental stress levels to increase, only healthy, resilient reefs are likely to survive. Our challenge is to find ways to build and maintain reef resilience. Recent experimental work has shown that there is likely to be some natural capacity for corals to adapt to increasing sea temperatures. The MTSRF is funding a team of researchers from the Australian Institute of Marine Science, James Cook University and the University of Queensland, using a common coral species to investigate the genetic basis for the capacity of corals to cope with temperature increases. This work has identified coral genes associated with temperature tolerance and bleaching response. This team is now working to develop genetic marker methods that will permit mapping of areas of the GBR with genetic tolerance to temperature increases. These areas can then receive focused management. It was stressed to me that the temperature increase must be contained within two to three degrees of current levels if the reef is to cope. Given that mid-range Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projections predict an increase in sea surface temperature for the reef of approximately three degrees by 2100, there is a strong case to act.

I also learnt that water quality is a serious issue because it directly affects reef health and resilience. Through analysing real data, and through predictive modelling, MTSRF-funded scientists from AIMS have shown that reefs with good water quality are two to four times less sensitive to coral bleaching from high temperature than reefs exposed to poor water quality. Water quality is a landscape scale issue. I am pleased to say that the Australian government is meeting this challenge through implementing the Reef Rescue Program, a $200 million five-year commitment to improve water quality entering the Great Barrier Reef. The program helps farmers in the reef catchments to change their practices to reduce the nutrients and chemicals in run-off from their farms. An effective monitoring program keeps a watchful eye on the condition of the reef and the impacts of water quality on the ongoing health of the inshore region. I was amazed to learn how changes in the type of agriculture conducted on the land could be detected out on the reef by measuring in the water different chemicals which are used by the different crops grown. The modelling predicts that significant reductions in water quality pollution will build reef resilience and help buy the reef time before there is catastrophic bleaching due to temperature increase.

Maintaining the biodiversity of the reef as the climate changes is being achieved through the outcomes of the 2004 Great Barrier Reef zoning process, which has resulted in 33 per cent of the marine park allocated as no-take zones. Work being conducted through the MTSRF using coral trout as an indicator species has shown that numbers have increased by 30 to 70 per cent on the majority of reefs that have been closed since 2004. This is an unequivocal demonstration of the effectiveness of marine protected areas in maintaining habitats and marine species, which is valuable information for managing Australia’s marine environment into the future.

Practical and focused research is also being conducted to address the potential increased prevalence of coral disease, which has devastated other reefs around the world. A sensible early warning system for coral disease outbreaks on the reef will help managers and industry respond quickly to contain the threat. This early warning approach has been successfully pioneered by the centre for the crown of thorns starfish plagues that can sweep through the reef, devouring the coral in their path.

With climate change comes changes in the distribution and abundance of food for seabirds, reducing their ability to find enough food to successfully raise their chicks. The future of many of these seabird species are in our hands. So too is the reproductive success of turtles in the reef and Torres Strait region. Close monitoring of the largest green turtle rookery in the world, at Raine Island in the northern Great Barrier Reef, has shown that numbers of nesting females have been declining over the past 30 years. Ongoing declines in reproductive success will result in declines in the future populations of the green turtle, particularly in the Torres Strait, where they are of enormous cultural importance.

Developing management regimes with the island communities to maintain the long-term survival of the turtle is an important outcome from this work. Interestingly, turtles are also extremely important to the tourism industry in the Great Barrier Reef. The presence of these and other wildlife underpin the marine tourism experience for visitors to the reef, with estimates that marine turtle sighting is worth up to $1,360 per visitor as part of their average regional expenditure. Sharks are worth slightly more. This information is helping the tourism industry quantify the value of these iconic species to their businesses.

The Great Barrier Reef experience is not readily forgotten. The colours are amazing and the corals and fish are fascinating. As I looked back to the mountains surrounding Cairns, I asked about the rainforest and how the forest copes with climate change. I was told that, just like with the reef, there is a significant amount of work being undertaken to understand the elements that build the rainforest’s resilience and to strengthen the ecosystem to withstand the impacts of climate change.

It occurred to me that the amount and complexity of the information managed through the Reef and Rainforest Research Centre was too much for any individual to grasp in one sitting and I questioned how the information was collected and made available to managers and interested members of the public. I was informed that one of the overarching objects of the centre is to draw together the science and to make the information available in a form that was valuable to managers, industry and the public. One of the important criteria is to make the information available in a timely manner and to not have public good research hidden for years before people can use it for decision making.

Along with AIMS, the centre has developed the e-Atlas. This is a very impressive integrated knowledge management system. The e-Atlas captures and presents the information from the MTSRF program through interactive Google maps that allow you to explore and view different data sets simultaneously. The e-Atlas is an online information store that will be publicly available and which you will be able to access from your home computer. Based entirely on open-source software, the e-Atlas currently holds a growing number of information pages and more than 600 maps. These maps illustrate numerous characteristics of the North Queensland ecosystem and particular patterns and hotspots of biodiversity and threats.

This program provides an excellent example of the cross-collaboration between the government, industry and research bodies and highlights how, with the use of good institutional structures and effective knowledge brokers, the Australian government objective of knowledge based decision making can be achieved.

I wish to commend the Australian government, in particular the Minister for the Environment, Heritage, and the Arts, the Hon. Peter Garrett, the Minister for Climate Change and Water, Senator the Hon. Penny Wong, and the Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, Senator the Hon. Kim Carr, for the foresight to support this initiative in North Queensland. The knowledge derived from these interlinked studies will provide greater understanding about how to help the reef survive climate change. (Time expired)