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Wednesday, 9 May 2007
Page: 62

Mr MARTIN FERGUSON (1:41 PM) —While it was a privilege to have been in the House to hear the member for Leichhardt, I must say, as he has raised the issue of drilling, that I would have thought, as the member for Leichhardt’s electorate includes a huge slice of the Great Barrier Reef, he would have raised practical problems, such as the crown-of-thorns starfish, and talked about the need to give the industry up there greater assistance than it is currently receiving from the government. He should have noted the huge challenge to the industry at this very point in time and not raised some futuristic debate about drilling on the Great Barrier Reef—but then he is not known for practical solutions to readily evident problems.

It is a great pleasure to speak to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Amendment Bill 2007. It is a very important bill. It is of critical significance to one of my shadow portfolio responsibilities, tourism. We all appreciate its importance. To be fair to the member for Leichhardt, he too understands the importance of the tourism industry. It is a $75 billion industry that employs over half a million Australians. It is a huge driver of jobs, especially for young people, in Australia, especially in regional communities. We appreciate that each year there are over two million visitors to the Great Barrier Reef, with the latest Access Economics report citing marine tourism directly related to the reef as being worth a huge $5.8 billion and employing 63,000 people. So the reef is exceptionally important not just to Queensland but also to our national economy. From Cooktown to Cairns, Townsville, Mackay and Gladstone, marine tourism is a significant export earner underpinning the area’s economy and dwarfing other industries such as commercial fishing. It is second only to mining.

The opposition understands how important tourism is to the region, and this is why I stand here today to express concern over some aspects of the bill. Unfortunately, this bill essentially seeks to amend the act to implement in some instances key recommendations of the Uhrig review whose intent might be wrong. There are several key commonsense amendments proposed by the bill, yet there are also some potentially damaging aspects that could undermine the growth potential of Australia’s tourism industry and its marine tourism sector in particular.

The bill makes the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources responsible for any future decision to amend the zoning plan and replaces the Great Barrier Reef Consultative Committee with a non-statutory advisory body. The members of the Great Barrier Marine Park Authority will be increased from a minimum of two and a maximum of four to a maximum of five. I note that the authority currently consists of a full-time chairman and three part-time members. One of the part-time members is nominated by the Queensland government. The current act also provides for one of the part-time members to be appointed to represent the interests of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities living adjacent to the marine park. Unfortunately, and this is very important, the bill no longer provides for the automatic representation of the Queensland government or the interests of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. That is just plain wrong.

In fact, the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources has been given greatly increased powers under the bill to appoint members of the authority and the advisory board, and caution should be exercised in adopting these amendments. There are no guarantees any more that the interests of the Indigenous communities and the Queensland tourism industry will be adequately represented on the appropriate advisory body.

The reef is the most significant attraction for tourism within the Northern Queensland region, with about 80 per cent of tourists visiting the reef at least once during their visit. It is also important to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have a long and continuing relationship with the Great Barrier Reef region and its natural resources. The reef also provides opportunities for local communities to grow and become self-sustaining. Trade networks, beliefs, music, art, laws and creation stories are still alive and continue to this very day within these communities. Empowering Indigenous peoples through involvement in all tiers of management will help develop effective and acceptable solutions for key Indigenous issues and is crucial for effective management of the marine park.

It is for these reasons, and for the sake of our environmental heritage, that we need to ensure that the reef is managed effectively and according to best practice. The marine park, as we appreciate, is enormous and spans over 344,400 square kilometres. The reef sprawls for over 2,000 kilometres and is made up of about 3,000 individual coral reefs. Like the ecosystems that define the beauty of the reef, management of the park is complex and diverse in the range of issues that need to be addressed. Coral bleaching, nutrient run-off, overfishing, warmer ocean temperatures, coral disease, rainstorms and pest outbreaks—like the crown-of-thorns starfish—are all factors that need to be addressed in actively managing the marine park.

A lot of attention has been given over recent years to the issue of the crown-of-thorns starfish, commonly known as COTS. They are not an introduced species as they inhabit most coral reefs around the world. However, if the natural conditions of the reef are altered, outbreaks occur with devastating effects. In 2003, for instance, there was an outbreak on the reefs between Cairns and the Whitsunday Islands which cost operators and the Queensland and Commonwealth governments about $3 million a year to control. When starfish numbers are too large, there is intense competition for food and most types of corals will be eaten, including species that the crown-of-thorns starfish would usually ignore. They can eat so much that they can reduce the hard coral cover from its typical 25 per cent to 40 per cent composition of the reef surface to less than one per cent in a very short period. Such a reef can take 10 years or more to recover. The rate of recovery of reefs from the crown-of-thorns starfish, however, depends on many factors, including the rate of recruitment of corals to the reef and the impacts of cyclones and run-off from the land.

We hear quite often these days about the issue of climate change, but let us talk about the crown-of-thorns starfish, a practical everyday problem that we can actually influence more readily. While the global community still debates what actions need to be taken to address issues arising from warming ocean temperatures, the case study of the increasing frequency of crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks provides an opportunity for Australia to do something practical to conserve what is clearly a critical area to Australia’s tourism industry and the North Queensland Indigenous communities.

Increased human use of coastal zones has amplified the amount of nutrients flowing to the sea and has resulted in an increase in food sources for larvae of the crown-of-thorns starfish, which in turn has led to increased numbers of adult starfish. This then clearly results in outbreaks. Run-off to the ocean naturally occurs whenever it rains and higher nutrient levels are typical after high rainfall, especially after an extended dry period or drought. However, the amount of nutrients reaching the reef lagoons from the adjacent rivers has increased several-fold since European settlement. Research from the CRC Reef Research Centre has indicated that an increased nutrient load could improve the survival of the crown-of-thorns starfish larvae, which could possibly cause outbreaks or increase the frequency or intensity of outbreaks. Recent mathematical models that mimic a tenfold increase in larval survival show that this would lead very quickly to more frequent outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish.

There are real opportunities here for Australia to demonstrate a practical, strong and long-term commitment to not only the environment but also Australian jobs, export earnings and Indigenous culture by addressing the issue of water quality, including the issue of nutrient run-off which contributes, unfortunately, to this challenge to the Australian tourism industry. Water, sediment and nutrients drain into the reef’s heritage area from a catchment of 424,000 square kilometres. The catchment covers 25 per cent of Queensland and comprises 38 drainage basins both on the mainland and the large islands. Added to this, almost one million people live within the catchment area with nearly half of the population living in six coastal cities, indicating significant density in these cities.

Further, open range cattle grazing and sugarcane farming is the major land use in the catchment, particularly along the waterways on fertile coastal floodplains. Farming in the catchment is supported by extensive use of fertilisers, most of which are applied to sugarcane crops on the coastal plains. Over the last 50 years, fertiliser use has risen with the expansion of the industry and its increased application in the farming community. Most of the added fertiliser, specifically phosphorous, becomes bound to the soil and is transported with eroded soil into the waterways. The nature of these fertiliser bounded soil sediments means that they can carry toxic materials further than they would if they travelled alone. The issue of run-off is complex and is influenced by rainfall events and that, in turn, affects the drift of plumes that can result in degradation of the reef by increasing water turbidity and reducing the amount of light that reaches the coral.

Still more research needs to be done to comprehensively understand the cumulative effect of all these factors on the health of the reef, and we need greater leadership at federal level to make this happen. This bill provides for greater powers for the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, and I would encourage the minister to make use of these powers in addressing what I regard as issues very critical to the future of the reef.

There is also an opportunity for the Commonwealth to demonstrate leadership in addressing the issue of outbreaks of the crown-of-thorns starfish on the reef. Managing the starfish is a labour-intensive and expensive exercise and is only practical in small areas—often the areas that are frequented by tourists who expect a high cover of coral. The industry accepts that it is impossible to eradicate the starfish from reefs where they are in outbreak densities, but there is still a lot more that could and should be done.

Some tourism operators in the Cairns region, for the purposes of protecting the future of the region and their own operations, invest up to $300,000 a year in crown-of-thorns starfish control programs. During active outbreaks, operators may need to remove 200-500 starfish every day in an effort to keep selected sites free of starfish. Since February 2002, the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators—with whom I met recently—have been running a starfish control team that has conducted control efforts at 169 sites on 57 reefs. They are clearly pulling their weight, but they expect more assistance from the Australian government. It is estimated that over 100,000 crown-of-thorns starfish have been removed as a result of this exercise. This number of starfish could conservatively consume 50,000 square metres of coral per night.

However, there have also been episodes where the number of crown-of-thorns starfish has been so great that the in-house programs have been unable to maintain sustainable levels on-site. To give you some idea of how serious and widespread these outbreaks can be, the current starfish outbreak on the reef occurred in the northern waters of the reef in 2000 and has progressively moved south. Tourism operators, in partnership with the Queensland government, applied for funding from the Commonwealth for a control program when the outbreak occurred in 2000. Some 18 months later, in 2002, the funding was made available—if anything, too late. By this time, the outbreak was well established and covered an area from Lizard Island in the north to Bait Reef in the Whitsundays. Further funding has been sought, granted and expended; however, the future of the control program now remains unclear. That is something to which both sides of politics have to give serious and urgent consideration.

When I state on behalf of the opposition that there is a real opportunity for the Commonwealth to demonstrate leadership, the outbreaks of the crown-of-thorns starfish are a case in point. It is a practical, realisable challenge to both sides of government. One has to ask why there was a delay of 18 months in providing the necessary funds. We have to have a contingency process which enables a draw-down of the funds when the problem occurs. This was a costly delay that enabled the outbreak to become well established, and the outbreak now requires more funding and more labour to control. There is a clear need, in actively and effectively managing the marine reef park, for consideration to be given to establishing a contingency fund that allows the industry to access funds promptly when it needs them so that it can curb the extent of any outbreak.

The opposition have long been critical of the lack of federal leadership when it comes to the tourism industry, and this is another case in point. The marine tourism industry employs over 60,000 people in the cities and towns along the reef and is critical to the Queensland and Australian economies. Why then have we let, for five long years, an outdated and inadequate management system stay in place?

The key amendments of this bill, as resulting from the Uhrig review, do allow for some improvements to the management of the marine park. There are also some amendments that should be welcomed with caution. Not allowing automatic representation from Queensland or the Indigenous community is a cause for concern. There are also areas not addressed through these amendments that need attention if we are to conserve our Great Barrier Reef effectively into the future, not just to allow international visitors to admire its beauty but for our children and grandchildren to enjoy.

I commend the bill to the House and, in doing so, indicate our support for this second reading amendment. As I have indicated, this is an exceptionally important bill. It is about the future of the tourism industry and jobs for many Australians. I commend the bill and the second reading amendment to the House.