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Wednesday, 25 June 2008
Page: 5878


Mr KELVIN THOMSON (1:20 PM) —The member for Flinders pointed out that the Great Barrier Reef is not one single reef but 2,900 individual reefs. Indeed, it covers an area of over 340,000 square kilometres. While he was saying that, I was reminded of just what an inane and absurd proposition had come from the former Minister for Small Business and Tourism, the member for McEwen—the suggestion that the Great Barrier Reef should be protected from global warming through the erection of shadecloth. She proposed to turn the Great Barrier Reef into the ‘Great Barrier Roof’ and cover those 2,900 individual reefs.

This year, 2008, marks the International Year of the Reef, an activity of the International Coral Reef Initiative, designed to continue the global focus on the importance of coral reefs to the health of the planet. The International Coral Reef Initiative hopes to strengthen public awareness regarding the understanding of threats facing our reefs and what we can do to counter those threats and take action on management strategies for conservation and sustainable use. This is an international partnership between governments, international organisations and non-government organisations to assist in preserving coral reefs and related ecosystems.

I take this opportunity to praise and support the work of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and also of others like James Cook University and the Australian Institute of Marine Science, which I think do an outstanding job in researching and monitoring the health of the Great Barrier Reef and making us all more aware of its importance, its outstanding attributes and the various threats to it. The marine park established under the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act is now one of the largest protected marine areas in the world. It covers an area in excess of 340,000 square kilometres. It is widely recognised around the world as a model for marine management and conservation. These legislative changes in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2008 do not change the marine park’s zoning, but they do ensure that it delivers a high level of protection for the Great Barrier Reef. This is to be achieved through recognising the World Heritage status of the Great Barrier Reef; through applying a new, streamlined environmental impact assessment process; through an improved enforcement and compliance regime providing a wider range of enforcement options tailored to the circumstances; and through addressing gaps in emergency management. I believe that these legislative changes will form part of a robust, comprehensive framework for protecting the Great Barrier Reef.

The purpose of the bill is to establish a modern, robust regulatory framework that provides capacity for efficient and effective protection and management of the Great Barrier Reef into the future. We will now see a more modern framework for administration of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act and management of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park that is aligned and integrated and that does not duplicate the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act or other legislation. We look forward to more streamlined environmental impact assessment and permitting processes; to an enhanced capability for investigation and evidence collection for a wider range of enforcement options, giving us a more targeted approach to enforcement; and to encouraging responsible use of the marine park as well as establishing new emergency management powers.

The changes proposed by the bill, as has been pointed out, address the findings of a 2006 review of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act. That review found that the act has served its purpose well over the past 30 years but needs to be updated and better integrated with other legislation in order to provide an effective framework for the protection and management of the Great Barrier Reef into the future. It is the intention that, as a result of these changes, we will have a comprehensive framework for securing the long-term protection of the Great Barrier Reef with a future-focused regulatory framework. It has been pointed out that the marine park act is now starting to show its age and that substantial updating is required to put in place a regulatory framework capable of meeting the challenges of the next 30 years and beyond.

This bill will update the act to reflect modern realities and approaches to environment protection and management. It will encourage responsible and ecologically sustainable use of the marine park by ensuring that appropriate incentives are in place and that management tools are available. We will get integration and alignment of the marine park act with other relevant legislation, notably the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act and also the relevant Queensland legislation. This should reduce regulatory and administrative red tape and facilitate a more consistent and integrated approach to environmental regulation and management by both the Australian and the Queensland governments. The bill also enhances the capacity of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to respond to emergency incidents presenting a risk of serious harm to the environment of the marine park; it introduces an environmental duty, requiring marine park users to take reasonable steps to avoid or minimise any environmental harm associated with their use of the park; and it addresses a specific Labor election commitment to restore an Indigenous member to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

As I have had occasion to say previously, we should be under no illusions about the threats facing both the Great Barrier Reef and coral reefs right around the world. One of the most significant steps taken in relation to the Great Barrier Reef in recent times was that, back in 2004, a network of no-take marine reserves, protecting over 100,000 square kilometres of coral reef, was established on the Great Barrier Reef. Closing such a large area to fishing was socially and politically controversial, and I can well remember the previous member for Dawson, the previous member for Leichhardt and Queensland coalition senators attacking the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority over this issue. Given that, it is perhaps worth noting that there has been some work done to assess the effectiveness of the new reserve network. Researchers from James Cook University have found that there were significant increases in density of the major target species of the reef line fisheries in marine reserves in just two years and that the increases were consistent over an unprecedented scale, exceeding 1,000 kilometres. Their findings were that, after 1½ to two years of protection, the density of the primary target of reef line fisheries, coral trout, increased significantly in the no-take areas of Palm Island and the Whitsunday Islands—by over 60 per cent. There was also some evidence that the reserve areas are capable of replenishing stocks and of acting as nurseries for the fished areas. It is a point well worth making, because it was the controversy surrounding that issue which gave rise to the review, which has in turn given rise to this bill. It is good news that the no-take marine areas are working.

I also want to draw the attention of the House, as I have done previously, to the definitive work done by the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network back in 2004. That report is titled Status of coral reefs of the world 2004. I use the example of the Caribbean to give the parliament something of the flavour of what is occurring in coral reefs around the world, and this definitive work concludes:

Evidence is emerging of a definite, consistent and long-term decline in the status of coral reefs of the Caribbean. These are the conclusions of a group of researchers at the University of East Anglia, England, who analysed monitoring data from 263 sites from 65 separate studies spanning 3 decades ... The regional pattern of decline is alarming; with coral cover decreasing from more than 50% on average in 1977 to approximately 10% in 2001, i.e. a loss of 80% in 25 years.

…            …            …

Virtually all sites showed a decline in coral cover over the study period.

There was a massive loss in coral cover during the 1980s, particularly in Jamaica and northern and southern Central America.

According to a 2006 report, Coral reef conservation, approximately 20 per cent of the world’s coral reefs have been destroyed and show no immediate prospect of recovery. Of those remaining, one-quarter are under imminent risk of collapse and another quarter face long-term threat of collapse. In the magazine Science, in May last year, Terence Hughes, who is director of the Australian Research Council Centre for Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University in Townsville, indicated that if carbon dioxide emissions are not curtailed:

... we’ll eventually see reefs dominated by sea anemones and algae.

In other words, the coral will be gone. The biggest danger for reefs is bleaching and, despite the merits of various conservation initiatives, unless climate change is addressed these gains from local measures and local initiatives will be erased.

It is quite clear that coral reefs around the world are under massive stress and are suffering from a whole range of problems: issues of governance, awareness, political will, increasing populations, poor capacity for management and lack of resources. I believe that it is our obligation to ensure that this does not happen to the Great Barrier Reef. I think it is impossible to overemphasise the importance of the responsibility that we have—the duty that we have—to protect the Great Barrier Reef. We simply cannot sit idly by and allow its situation to deteriorate.

I noticed in the latest edition of the publication by the Marine Coastal Community Network called Waves that some work has been done on the Keppel region of the southern Great Barrier Reef. This lies at the mouth of the Fitzroy Rover catchment. The article states:

The region is made up of extensive fringing inshore coral reefs around 15 continental islands, east of Rockhampton in central Queensland. The Keppel region has a history of multiple disturbance regimes in the past, including coral bleaching and flood. In summer 2006, a severe bleaching event caused the loss of 37% of the live hard coral cover on reef flats and slopes in the region.

The article goes on to report:

Along with bleaching, temperature-induced ocean acidification may threaten the carbonate accretion capacity of the main coral species that form the structure of the Keppel Islands inshore reefs. The added threat of increased fishing pressure, coastal development and agricultural practices along the Fitzroy River make the Keppel reefs a priority for management intervention that enhances their capacity for resilience and regeneration.

It is good to learn:

A local community group, in conjunction with the Fitzroy Basin Association, has recognised and responded to the threats faced by the Keppel Islands fringing reefs by securing funding to map and monitor the reef biodiversity. The emphasis of the monitoring will be on reefs that are considered important to the local community and on those that are resilient to flood and bleaching. By engaging local divers, snorkelers and boaties, the community reef monitoring program is encouraging stewardship of reef management.

The situation facing the Keppel reefs is the kind of situation, writ large, facing the whole of the Great Barrier Reef and other coral reefs around the world.

There was a report earlier this month in the Age about John Veron. He got the nickname ‘Charlie’, which stood for Charles Darwin, as a kid because he was very interested in wildlife. His first dive was at the age of 18, and he says:

... the intensity of life—

underwater—

made the surface world seem suddenly pale.

I think he is right about that; it is a fantastic thing to go underwater and see the richness, diversity and intensity of life there. Dr Veron has logged 7,000 hours diving all the major reefs of the world. I understand that he discovered almost a quarter of the oceans’ identified coral species and he has compiled a catalogue of books, including the three-volume Corals of the world. But his latest book is different. It is called A Reef in Time: The Great Barrier Reef from Beginning to End. It is not a chronicle of the life of coral reefs, as his previous books have been. It is an anticipation of their death. Unlike the careful jargon that we have come to associate with scientists, it is:

... an impassioned, anguished eulogy delivered by a dear friend of the imminently deceased.

In the article Dr Veron says:

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, more than 25 million years in the making, is “an icon primordial wilderness” ... the greatest structure created by life on earth.

Dr Veron also says that once he would have considered the idea that it could die within the span of a generation or two as preposterous. He now says:

Twin assailants, both creatures of climate change, threaten the reef.

Dr Veron says that the first of those is the warming of the water, which causes the event we refer to as coral bleaching and which is quite well known. He says that the worst bleaching events that we have seen so far will become commonplace by 2030 and that by 2050:

... the only corals left alive will be those in refuges on deep outer slopes of reefs. The rest will be unrecognisable—a bacterial slime , devoid of life.

Bad and all as that is, he says:

The even greater threat is ocean acidification—the dissolving of carbon dioxide into the sea, forming weak carbonic acid. This is the climate change frontier to which science is swinging increasing focus, as alarm grows at the threat it poses to marine ecosystems and to human food supplies and economies.

What we have seen happening is the ocean’s appetite for carbon dioxide being exceeded and the chemistry changing. The acid levels can create conditions where the capacity of marine creatures to produce their calcium carbonate skeletons is threatened, and the consequences of this he describes as nothing less than ‘catastrophic’. He says that in the past there were five great extinction events that wiped out much of life on earth and that coral reefs were hit hard by all five of them because they were so closely linked to the carbon cycle. In the past these changes were not the result of human activity, but the issue now is that events which were previously stretched over time frames of billions of years are now happening at a rapid speed because of the increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. He is extremely concerned about what he has seen. He says:

We are seeing the beginning of the global demise of reefs in the mass bleaching of corals ... by 2030, the worst year of bleaching we have had so far will be an average year, and by 2050 it will be a good year.

Dr Veron goes on to say:

If we do not curb the production of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases effectively and within a decade, the Earth will enter an era (around mid-century) that will result in so much environmental chaos that humans will no longer have the capacity to keep on doing as they have done in the past.

Given that, it is certainly a matter of concern to me that we have seen statements from the opposition, including from the member for Flinders, who spoke previously in this debate, seeking to get a scare campaign going about emissions trading and effectively undermining much of the work that has been done to protect the Great Barrier Reef in the past and all the work that we need to do in the future to secure the Great Barrier Reef and other Australian icons from the impact of climate change. This is a good piece of legislation. It results from a review carried out back in 2006. It takes the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority into the modern era, and I commend it to the House.