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Thursday, 7 June 2001
Page: 27617

Mr KELVIN THOMSON (10:08 AM) —The objective of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Amendment Bill 2001 is to improve environmental protection of the Great Barrier Reef from oil pollution, ship grounding and illegal fishing. Essentially, the purposes of this bill are to increase the penalties for the discharge of oil and other hazardous materials into the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in order to obtain a greater parity with other marine pollution legislation; to increase the penalties for illegal fishing by providing that it is an offence to fish in the marine park contrary to the provisions of a zoning plan or contrary to the conditions of a permission issued by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority; to create a new offence for the negligent operation of vessels in the marine park in circumstances where that operation results in, or is likely to result in, damage to the marine park; to establish specific offences for ships operating in zones contrary to the provisions of a zoning plan and for ships operating in a zone contrary to the conditions of the permission issued by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority; to create a new strict liability offence for persons who enter a zone contrary to the provisions of a zoning plan; and to provide for appropriate regulations. This legislation is said to provide a more effective regime for the proper management of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and the world heritage area, and it is said that it will only adversely affect those undertaking illegal activities on the reef.

There are some changes to the compulsory pilotage provisions for commercial shipping. Vessels over 70 metres in overall length which are loaded oil, chemical or liquefied gas carriers are currently required to carry a licensed pilot while traversing declared compulsory pilotage areas within the park. Those compulsory pilotage areas have been declared for the inner shipping route north of Low Isles—that is, north of Cairns—and Hydrographers Passage—offshore Mackay. However, the Hydrographers Passage compulsory pilotage area does not cover the entire length of the passage and pilots may currently disembark a ship prior to the vessel exiting the passage. Some ships are currently navigating the final section of the passage without a pilot, which increases the risk of a ship grounding, with the possibility of an oil spill. This bill declares the entire passage a compulsory pilotage area. This will require that a ship retain a pilot on board for the entire transit of the passage. The Maritime Safety Authority has reported that the pilotage companies have no objections to the proposed extension.

The bill also provides for increased penalties for illegal fishing. A recent major research program on the impacts of trawling in the far northern section of the marine park—commissioned by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and undertaken by the CSIRO and the Queensland department—found that trawling has major adverse impacts on the seabed and marine communities. The study found that, for every tonne of prawns taken by a trawler, six to 10 tonnes of by-catch is taken, most of which is discarded. Each pass of a trawl net removes five per cent to 25 per cent of seabed life. The impact is cumulative, with 13 passes of a trawl net removing 70 to 90 per cent of seabed life. That study also revealed that illegal trawling regularly occurred in a zone in which trawling was prohibited.

The current maximum penalties under the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act of 1975 are not adequate to deter fishing in contravention of a marine park zoning plan. Indeed, the present penalties might be considered by illegal fishers as simply the cost of doing business, and in many cases are substantially less than the financial rewards that may be gained by contravening the zoning plan provisions. The bill increases penalties for illegal fishing by establishing a specific offence for trawling and fishing contrary to zoning plans. The maximum penalty will be 10,000 penalty units, which I understand is currently the equivalent of $1.1 million for bodies corporate, and 2,000 penalty units, the equivalent of $220,000, for natural persons.

The bill also creates new offences and penalties for negligent shipping. Since 1995, there have been five groundings of large merchant ships within the park. None of these incidents resulted in the loss of fuel or cargo but they did result in structural damage to four reefs. The current act does not allow the authority to take effective action against vessels that are involved in incidents such as grounding or collision which potentially or actually causes damage to the values of the marine park. So the bill creates an offence for negligent shipping, which will enable the authority to prosecute instances of negligent operation. This will not require a higher standard of operation than is currently required under international and Australian law, nor will it impose additional costs on a shipping company that operates its ship properly.

The Great Barrier Reef was one of Australia's first world heritage areas. It was listed as an outstanding example of something which represents major stages of the earth's evolutionary history. It is an outstanding example of significant ongoing ecological and biological processes, a superlative natural phenomena, and contains important and significant habitats for the conservation of biological diversity. It is not a continuous barrier. It is a broken maze of coral reefs and coral cays, with some 2,900 separate reefs, 940 islands and extensive areas of seagrass, mangrove, soft bottom communities and island communities.

Australians value and treasure the Great Barrier Reef greatly, and it is important in all this process that we do not damage that which we love. The reef does face some significant threats from human activity. The Great Barrier Reef is under threat from overfishing; it suffers pressure from tourism—we have two million per annum, growing at 10 per cent per annum; we have agricultural and industrial run-off from the coast; we have plagues of crown-of-thorns starfish; and we also have coral bleaching from warming waters as a result of climate change. The inshore reefs suffered intense coral bleaching in early 1998.

I want to spend a further minute on the impact of climate change on the reef. Research by the Australian Institute of Marine Science has shown that corals are currently close to their upper thermal limits. In 1998 there was widespread coral bleaching around the world at the same time as the warmest sea temperatures on record occurred both globally and in Australia. With climate change, bleaching events like that which occurred in 1998 are likely to become more commonplace. Substantial areas of the southern reef could die in the course of the next 20 to 40 years and the northern parts of the reef would be likely to be affected over the course of the next 60 years.

Climate change is a real phenomenon and I express concern that Senator Hill and the Howard government generally appear content to hide behind the United States and its opposition to the Kyoto protocol. We had Senator Hill recently questioning whether the next round of climate change talks in Bonn was really necessary. That seems to me to be further evidence of the Australian government's short-sighted approach to issues of climate change. The next round of talks in Bonn is important in progressing the outstanding issues. The international community generally is not simply waiting for the United States to reappear at the table. Things are moving forward, and I believe that Australia ought to be part of that rather than seek to isolate itself from it.

Over the years, Labor governments have taken significant steps in the protection of the Great Barrier Reef. The original Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act was introduced and passed by the Whitlam government in 1975. Under the Hawke government, significant sections were added to the marine park, including the far northern, central, southern, Townsville and inshore southern sections. Other Labor initiatives have included regulations to prohibit oil drilling from areas of the Great Barrier Reef region outside the marine park, regulations to control offshore structures in unzoned sections of the park, the Crown of Thorns Starfish Advisory Review Committee, charges for commercial use of the marine park, penalties of up to $1 million for the deliberate discharge of oil into the Great Barrier Reef, a 25-year strategic plan for the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, and an environmental management charge, charging tourist operators for tourists travelling to the reef, with funds to go to research at James Cook University.

I should mention that my colleague the member for Lowe, who is here with me, has received representations from marine aquarium hobbyists raising certain issues with him and inquiring whether it is the government's intention to close the coral fishery on the Great Barrier Reef, and, if this is the case, what consultation it has undertaken with interested parties and what impact the closure of the coral fishery might have on jobs in that industry. I request that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment and Heritage seek a response to that issue which has been raised by the marine aquarium hobbyists and provide it either back to the House or directly to my colleague the member for Lowe, given the representations that have been made to him about it.

In conclusion, the Great Barrier Reef has evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. It is the world's most extensive coral reef system. It is one of the world's richest areas in terms of biodiversity. All of us in the parliament and current Australian and future Australian generations have an obligation to do everything we can to preserve what is undeniably one of the natural wonders of the world. The opposition supports this legislation.