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Thursday, 7 June 2001
Page: 27614

Dr STONE (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment and Heritage) (9:59 AM) —I move:

That the bill be now read a second time.

The Great Barrier Reef is a national treasure. It includes over 1,300 coral reefs; many beautiful islands and lagoons; thousands of fish species; threatened marine mammals such as whales, dolphins and dugongs; and six of the world's seven species of sea turtle. In terms of biodiversity, its coral reefs are the rainforests of the ocean. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is perhaps the most beautiful and important marine protected area on earth. Its international significance is recognised by its listing under the World Heritage Convention. In fact, the Great Barrier Reef world heritage area is the largest world heritage property in the world. The Great Barrier Reef also supports a thriving tourism industry and a fishing industry that is important to many regional communities along the Queensland coast.

The Howard government has a proud record of protecting the Great Barrier Reef. Over the last five years, we have taken a series of initiatives to enhance the conservation and management of the world heritage area. These initiatives include:

· We have extended the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park by more than 2,400 square kilometres. Areas of important habitat for species such as dugong and turtles are now better protected. We are progressing inclusion of an additional 10 `excluded areas'.

· The Howard government has extended the prohibition of mining to the entire Great Barrier Reef region through regulations under the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975.

· In 1997, we established the world's first chain of dugong sanctuaries in the southern Great Barrier Reef.

· Surveillance and enforcement measures in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park have been upgraded. Patrolling has increased substantially, focusing on dugong protected areas and `green zones'.

· Regulations have been introduced to deal with the discharge of waste from aquaculture operations. These regulations operate as a `safety net' to protect the Great Barrier Reef from loopholes in Queensland legislation.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Amendment Bill 2001 is further evidence of the Howard government's commitment to the conservation of the Great Barrier Reef. The bill provides increased protection for the reef from the threat of negligent navigation and the risk of an oil spill or the discharge of other hazardous material. In addition, the bill enhances protection for the Great Barrier Reef and the fishing industry by including strict provisions dealing with illegal fishing.

Last year, a Malaysian-registered vessel, the Bunga Teratai Satu, ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef. The accident was caused by negligence on the part of the operators of the vessel. Damage to the reef—while significant—was fortunately restricted to an area of approximately 100 metres by 300 metres. Through a combination of good luck and an effective response from management agencies, an ecological disaster was averted.

The Bunga Teratai Satu incident highlighted the need for the act to be strengthened. For example, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 does not currently provide an offence for negligent navigation. In addition, the maximum penalty for the discharge of waste—including oil—is only $110,000 for a corporation.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Amendment Bill 2001 represents a swift response to this incident by the Howard government.

The bill creates a new offence dealing with negligent navigation. The offence applies if a vessel is operated in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in a manner that results in, or is likely to result in, damage to the marine park. The maximum penalty will be $1.1 million for a corporation. A strict liability offence is also included. The strict liability offence applies to the owner and the operator of a vessel where its operation results in damage to the marine park. In addition, the bill will increase the maximum penalty for the unauthorised discharge of waste into the marine park.

The existing maximum penalty under the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 for the intentional or negligent discharge of oil and other hazardous material in the marine park is $22,000 for a person or $110,000 for a corporation. This penalty is manifestly inadequate given the significance of the reef's environmental values. It is also less than the existing penalty in similar state and federal environment and maritime pollution legislation.

The bill will increase the maximum penalty to $1.1 million for a corporation that negligently or intentionally discharges waste into the marine park. A strict liability offence is also introduced, with a maximum penalty of $275,000 for a corporation.

To complement the provisions dealing with the discharge of oil and other hazardous material, the bill also introduces new offences covering the unlawful operation of ships—that is, the operation of ships in contravention of zoning plans, in the absence of relevant permits and in contravention of the conditions attached to a permit. Again, the maximum penalty is set at $1.1 million, and strict liability provisions are included.

Compulsory pilotage in the Great Barrier Reef was introduced in 1991. It is a vessel management tool that requires ships over 70 metres in length, or carrying cargoes of oil, chemicals or liquid gas, to employ a licensed pilot to assist with the navigation of ships through areas of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Compulsory pilotage areas have now been declared for the inner shipping route north of Low Isles, which is north of Cairns, and Hydrographers Passage—offshore Mackay.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 currently provides for compulsory pilotage areas to be defined in a schedule to the act. An amendment to the act is therefore required whenever the pilotage areas are to be extended or altered. The bill alters this position and enhances the capacity of the government to respond to new information and new threats by allowing the declaration of, or adjustment to, compulsory pilotage areas in regulations. This additional flexibility will boost Australia's capacity to protect the reef from the risks associated with navigation.

At the direction of the Minister for Transport and Regional Services, the Hon. John Anderson, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority is coordinating a more detailed review of ship safety and pollution prevention measures in the Great Barrier Reef. I look forward to further measures to enhance the protection of the reef as a result of that review. The bill will ensure that any extensions to the compulsory pilotage area arising from that review can be immediately implemented.

This bill also deals with the threat to the Great Barrier Reef from illegal fishing. The vast majority of fishermen conduct their activities honestly and in accordance with the rules. These fishermen and their families look after the environment of the reef because it provides the basis for their livelihood. Illegal fishing damages the environment, threatening fish stocks and the reputation of the industry. The Queensland government is responsible for the day-to-day management of fisheries in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. However, the federal government has a responsibility to ensure that fishing is ecologically sustainable and is carried out in a manner that is consistent with the conservation of world heritage values. Accordingly, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 provides a framework within which activities such as fishing are regulated through zoning plans, regulations and so on.

A recent CSIRO investigation revealed that 40 to 50 fishermen regularly illegally trawl in the major green zone in the far northern section of the marine park. Trawling is not permitted in green zones. This evidence, and other evidence of unlawful fishing, demonstrates that the existing penalties for illegal fishing under the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 are inadequate. It also provides further evidence that the Queensland government is failing to adequately discharge its responsibilities to manage fishing in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

In response to the evidence of illegal fishing, the Howard government has provided funding to substantially boost compliance and enforcement measures on the reef. This bill represents taking another step to combat illegal fishing. The amendments to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 will increase the maximum penalty for illegal fishing, including fishing in contravention of a zoning plan, to $220,000 for a person or $1.1 million for a corporation. The increase in fines demonstrates that the Commonwealth government is serious about protecting the Great Barrier Reef and preventing pirate fishermen putting at risk the livelihood of honest fishing families. In practice, the maximum penalties are likely to be reserved for serious cases involving intentional breaches of the law. The amendments do not alter the fact that day-to-day management of the fishing industry is the responsibility of the Queensland government.

Finally, the bill contains some minor and technical amendments that deal with matters such as the relationship between regulations and zoning plans. The bill will significantly enhance the conservation and protection of the Great Barrier Reef. It will benefit not only the environment but also the tourism and fishing industries that rely on the Great Barrier Reef. As such, it deserves the support of all parliamentarians. I present the explanatory memorandum to this bill.