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Thursday, 28 March 1985
Page: 983


Senator MISSEN(3.53) —I move:

That the Senate, recognising the unquestioned extent of Commonwealth responsibility for the preservation of the Great Barrier Reef exercised through the operations of the Marine Park Authority and for the effective countering of any established threat to the integrity of the reef area-

(a) expresses concern about reports which indicate that large numbers of crown-of-thorns starfish have been found in many of the major reefs within the Great Barrier Reef, that the infestations are becoming widespread and posing a serious threat to the organisation and functional relationships within some reef communities;

(b) notes recent reports that soil erosion arising from the building of a road in the Daintree rainforest may be creating a threat to rare coral reefs just off the Daintree coast;

(c) observes that, despite former reports of committees of inquiry into the crown-of-thorns starfish since 1969-70, the present Advisory Committee has reported in January 1985 that ''present evidence is inadequate for scientists to agree on the nature and significance of the phenomenon of aggregations of large numbers of crown-of-thorns starfish and thus on the extent of any consequent risk'' and that the current level of research activity is unlikely to lead to a short-term resolution of the questions raised;

(d) expresses its deep concern to the Commonwealth Government and the Marine Park Authority for:

(i) the apparent lack of urgency in commissioning urgent research which would enable scientists to ascertain the nature and significance of the crown-of-thorns starfish infestations and the extent of any consequent risk that the reef or some substantial part of it is being destroyed,

(ii) the failure to review techniques for monitoring crown-of-thorns starfish and coral conditions, and developing more efficient techniques such as biological control by predators or other action to control the infestations,

(iii) the inadequacy of regulations preventing tourist spearfishermen and professional fishermen from removing large numbers of giant triton, groper and other natural predators of the starfish from the reef, and, accordingly

(e) calls on the Senate Standing Committee on Science, Technology and the Environment to undertake an urgent investigation into this matter, to ascertain whether the present proposals of the Advisory Committee and the Marine Park Authority are adequate to meet the situation, or otherwise to make specific recommendations relating to a co-ordinated program of crown-of-thorns starfish research, control and eradication within the Great Barrier Reef; and

(f) in the event of the Senate Standing Committee on Science, Technology and the Environment being presently unable to undertake such reference, then the Committee be asked to advise the Senate as to what other committee of the Parliament should be requested to undertake this investigation.

I draw the attention of the Senate to the fact that the last section of the motion was not included in the original notice of motion. The motion relates to a proposed inquiry by a Senate committee, or other parliamentary committee, relating particularly to the incidence of the crown of thorns starfish, the scientific name of which is acanthaster planci, and the necessity to investigate it further. There is a reference in the motion to the recent worries about the pollution from a road in the Daintree Rainforest which is said to be affecting the neighbouring reefs. As honourable senators will see, the motion sets out a number of complaints and problems which the public has raised in regard to the investigations that have taken place in the past into this problem. It hinges, of course, on the Commonwealth's great responsibility for the Great Barrier Reef, which is a world heritage feature and of great concern to Australia, for tourist reasons as well as our great desire to retain and protect this great feature. The proposal, as I have said, is that there should be an examination by a Senate committee of the state of action that has been taken in the past and is proposed in the future to deal with this problem.

I mentioned that the motion now contains a further aspect; namely, that if the Senate Standing Committee on Science, Technology and the Environment is not able to handle this investigation, because its current work is of some importance, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment and Conservation may well desire to do so. I had a letter today from Senator Jones, the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Science, Technology and the Environment, indicating that the Chairman of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment and Conservation is obtaining a briefing and will probably desire to take up this matter. I think it is very important that the inquiry be made and that the Parliament be informed because there are very substantial suggestions for increased research grants. Other things may be needed. I believe that Parliament should be much better informed in this area. I hope that the Senate will pass the motion and that, if the Senate Committee cannot deal with the matter, it will go on to another appropriate committee of the Parliament so that an urgent inquiry is undertaken.

The problem of the crown of thorns starfish has had a very long history. I do not propose to go into that at any length whatsoever. We know that the crown of thorns starfish is found not only in Australia but also in many reefs in other parts of the world. At various times it has reached plague proportions in some of those reefs. Indeed, it reached plague proportions in Australia in about 1964 and throughout the end of that decade and into the 1970s, it was a substantial destroyer of coral on the reef. It moved from place to place. In the earlier infestations it had a tendency to go from the north to the south. By 1977 it had considerably faded away and did not pose such a great problem. Regrettably, the research which should have been done by that time was not completed and the impetus went from this examination. I refer to a very interesting paper, which I invite honourable senators to read, by Mr P. J. Moran, who is a research scientist with the Australian Institute of Marine Science. I will refer to a number of things which he has written in his paper which is described as a 'Synopsis of Research on the Acanthaster Phenomenon'. It contains a very good history of the type of research that has been done. In regard to the various earlier reports which have been made, at page 23 of that paper Mr Moran said:

With the decline of starfish numbers throughout the Great Barrier Reef research waned, however a second outbreak at Green Island in 1979 resulted in the formation of a further Committee which again reviewed the results of previous research, ascertained the significance of the present outbreak observed on Green Island and sought to determine whether further research should be undertaken with a view to managing the phenomenon.

He continued:

This Committee in turn recommended that several types of research be carried out . . .

He set these out then commented:

In the intervening years since this Committee was established some of these studies have been undertaken.

I stress 'some of these studies'-

Unfortunately, however, the most important of them, involving experiments on the population dynamics of starfish, has yet to be carried out.

I think it is very regrettable and perhaps tragic that the impetus was not maintained. Of course, the position is that since 1979 there has been a further infestation. Some of the reefs have been very seriously affected, particularly those in the central region of the Great Barrier Reef where there are substantial populations-many thousands, if not millions-of starfish and where great portions of the reef have been damaged, perhaps some of them irreparably.

The position came to a head so far as the public is concerned-public interest has varied on this matter over the last 20 years or so-in December 1984 when a film, which was produced by Mr Robert Raymond for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, was shown on television. Honourable senators may be interested to know that the script of that film was reproduced in the Bulletin of 18 December 1984. It sets out many of the arguments and controversies that have arisen on this issue.

Before I deal particularly with that film, I add that I raised questions about this matter in the Senate on 25 August 1982 and had a reply from the previous Government on 8 September 1982. This arose largely from the complaints of Dr Robert Endean, a well-known researcher on this issue in Queensland. On 10 November 1983 I asked another question of the present Government. I must say that, from the answers I received, I got the impression that governments were rather complacent about the matter; the answers were somewhat evasive. Extra information which was promised was not brought to my attention.


Senator Townley —I ask you a question, Senator: If the Science and Environment Committee cannot handle this, why could not the National Resources Committee of the Senate have a look at it?


Senator MISSEN —That is probably quite a good point. As the honourable senator will see from my motion, what I have done is to ask whether the Standing Committee on Science, Technology and the Environment can deal with it and, if not, whether another committee of the Parliament can be recommended. I do not in any way pass by the fact that another Senate committee could be the appropriate one, or a House of Representatives committee. I prefer to leave that open. No doubt Senator Townley with his interest in this area will take that further.

As I have said, in reply to questions that I have asked, no real enthusiasm has been shown by governments, nor have I received considered answers. Having also talked with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, I gained the impression that it feels that its case has not been adequately heard. That is one reason why this inquiry is desirable. The Authority wants an inquiry and a chance to be heard. The Chairman of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Mr Graeme Kelleher, has made public comments on the situation.

Of course, there have been criticisms of the way in which the Authority has handled this matter. On 9 February 1984 Mr Kelleher, in an interview session, spoke about the devastation that had taken place in various places and pointed out that, for example, Green Island had been completely devastated three times and had recovered completely in a period of from seven to 15 years. There have been recoveries but there are some doubts in many people's minds as to whether the recoveries that take place to the reefs are adequate or whether the regrowth is different and whether some of the varieties of coral which were there are lost with consequent long term damage to the reefs. Mr Kelleher was asked in the interview whether the crown of thorns was a regular cyclical event. He said:

No, I'm not saying that. It's probably not regular, for a start. And we wouldn't call it cyclical. It may be periodic, it may be a recurrent event, but it's very unlikely that it occurs on a fixed time interval. There is no evidence, no convincing evidence that it is due to the activities of man and until the scientific community tells us that it is due to the activities of man we do not want to interfere in the natural process. That's what we are saying.

I interpolate that one of the problems is that there is so little information in this area and so little research being done and therefore many of the questions cannot be answered by the respective authorities. This is something which should be researched and looked into by a committee of this Parliament to establish what is the cause, what are the types of infestation and how they can be dealt with. If answers are not known to the earlier questions, we are in trouble.

I mention that a number of inquiries have taken place by various committees. In 1969 and 1970 there was an ad hoc committee of the Australian Academy of Science which made certain recommendations. In 1971 the Commonwealth and Queensland governments held an inquiry into the crown of thorns starfish and again recommendations were made. Very often the recommendations have not been carried out, sometimes because of the desire by governments to economise. The result is that many of these things have been repeated. Between 1971 and 1975 there was an advisory committee on research into the crown of thorns starfish and again in 1980 an advisory committee on the crown of thorns starfish, which made a report to the Marine Park Authority.

I have already referred to Mr Moran's paper in which he pointed out that much of the research recommended was not carried out. The most recent report, which I think makes it very relevant that a Senate committee inquiry be set up, was made to the Marine Park Authority by the Crown of Thorns Starfish Advisory Committee on 11 January this year. It is a very important and substantial report. It recommends that substantial research projects be undertaken at a cost altogether of about $3m over the next five years. This report mentions the previous investigations. Some of the expressions from it are found in the motion I moved today. The conclusions made in the report are significant and disturbing. At one stage it states:

Present evidence is inadequate for scientists to agree on the nature and significance of the phenomenon of aggregations of large numbers of crown of thorns starfish and thus on the extent of any consequent risk. However the Committee recognises that the presence of very large numbers of crown of thorns starfish is a major management problem in some areas of the Great Barrier Reef.

It also states:

Until more information is available direct management intervention in the crown of thorns starfish phenomenon should continue to be limited to tactical control measures designed to protect corals at specific sites of importance for tourism or scientific research.

I comment there that that is indeed the policy of the Authority. Maybe that is a very satisfactory attitude. But if it is wrong and if, because of the information not being available, damage is being done of a permanent nature, we will live to regret it. We ought to look very carefully to see whether mere tactical controls, as have been done by the Authority, with the removal of some starfish, are sufficient. I think a reef called Cod Hole is one place where the starfish have been physically removed. It has been successful there and there was a particular reason for doing it. But maybe some such physical activity to remove them should take place in other areas. There is much doubt as to whether that can be done. The Authority has evidence, and there is evidence from Japan, that suggests that physically removing the starfish does not make a great deal of difference to the rate at which they go away. Indeed, in Japan some $5m was spent on doing that and it is claimed by experts there that that money has been largely wasted. The Advisory Committee report goes on to state:

The current level of research activity is unlikely to lead to a short term (3-5 years) resolution of the questions raised by the presence of very large populations of crown of thorns starfish on the Great Barrier Reef.

The Committee recognises the need for further research and has identified a number of specific research areas which, if addressed now should help within 3-5 years to improve understanding of the degree of threat to the Great Barrier Reef. Nevertheless the Committee stresses that such research cannot be guaranteed to answer questions relating to the desirability or feasibility of control measures.

Answers cannot be guaranteed, but we must be sure that proceeding with research now is all that should be done. That is by no means certain. I urge honourable senators and the people who investigate this matter to look carefully at that report because that will be a matter we will have to consider in the Senate or in the Parliament this year as demands are made for additional moneys. The action I have taken in regard to this matter has been to present the notice of motion for appointment. Under the Freedom of Information Act I have sought from the departments, the Authority and AIMS-the Australian Institute of Marine Science-the material which they have relevant to this matter. I must say that they have been very co-operative. Indeed, I have inspected the documents in Canberra and in Townsville. I have obtained a great deal of information from the departments, the officials of these organisations and the James Cook University, all of which have done research on this. They have been most co-operative indeed. I have also sought from the Department of Foreign Affairs information on the complaints and information from abroad. On a somewhat light note, I mention that in the Department I found what appeared, at first, to be an insuperable barrier. The file in regard to this matter was, according to a letter I received from the Department, rather submerged. In the letter I received in reply to my request it is stated:

The particular body of documentation concerned related to an Australian submission to the World Heritage Committee in 1981, regarding inscription of the Great Barrier Reef on the World Heritage List. The closed parts of file--

the number is given-

which would contain that documentation are in the Department's sub-basement, which is closed to access on account of an asbestos problem, and are consequently inaccessible.

I wrote back a somewhat cynical reply, having great doubts about that being grounds for denying access to the file under the Freedom of Information Act. I received a reply assuring me that, indeed, it was a real problem. The letter states:

The files concerned were retrieved yesterday, after consultation with officers of the relevant industrial organisations, by two senior officers wearing protective clothing. They proved not to contain a copy of the Australian nomination of the Great Barrier Reef for inclusion in the World Heritage List.

I am sorry that the valiant efforts of the officers who underwent that dangerous journey were not rewarded with their finding the documents. As I have mentioned, the Marine Park Authority has adopted a policy of limiting the actual physical use to tactical control measures, making investigations and developing biological control techniques, which is part of the proposed research. The Authority has also researched the recolonisation of reefs that have been attacked by the crown of thorns starfish and the various ways that might be adopted to deal with the problem. I commend it for the studies it has done. As far as I can see, a great deal more research is needed and that will take money.

There are criticisms which could be made. My comments are not to be taken in any way as forming any conclusions, but I raise these issues because I think they are within the ambit of the investigations which should be carried out. Because of our world responsibility there is a need to ensure that all efforts are made to understand the causes, so that we know what causes the sudden outbreaks from one reef to another reef hundreds of kilometres away-that is very necessary for education and development-and that we then consider possible methods of eradication. There are a number of possibilities, but I have not got time to go into them. Clearly, a great number of gaps are involved in research. Mr P. J. Moran sets out at some length, at page 22 of his paper, the various gaps in research, such as a lack of quantitative experiments, a lack of knowledge on the movements of star fish, a lack of knowledge on the effect of predators of the star fish and so forth. It is obvious, therefore, that a great deal of knowledge is needed.

We can be criticised for the fact that these things are not yet known. There are the untested theories which are the cause of this whole event: Is it natural or is it some perturbation in the waters and change which has caused this sudden rise in the population of the starfish; are there human factors, pollution or things of that sort; that have caused this; is it connected with the loss of predators that used to prey on the starfish-there are suggestions to that effect but there are a lot of suggestions that that is not so; have changes in the nature of the starfish caused it now to grow in this way? There has been inadequate survey of the islands and the reefs until this year. When I was up there at AIMS a project was about to be launched under the Commonwealth Employment Service program. That project will mean that this year something like 120 of the reefs will be surveyed. There will then be much more knowledge of the degree of the infestation. There is a lot more to be done in regard to the methods of propagation and the way in which this happens. Also, consideration should be given to whether practical things can be done at this time to deal with the problem.

Criticism has been made that there has been a disjointed attack over the years. There is the Marine Park Authority; some 50 kilometres away there is AIMS; there is also the James Cook University. Experts in all these areas are doing work. As the report of 1985 sets out, there is a need for a co-ordinator to ensure that the research aims at the one problem. In the reports of AIMS over the last two or three years very little reference is made to the crown of thorns starfish and research in that area. In the annual reports of 1982-83, 1983-84 and predicted research activities for the current year, there is no substantial reference to it. Only recently has it come to great prominence. I therefore think that we must consider whether research is enough. If it is funded we should ensure that the necessary and desirable research is undertaken. The critics must be heard also so that we know whether there are other things to be done that are not presently contemplated.

In the notice of motion which I will move there is also reference to the Daintree road and the feared effect of pollution on the neighbouring or fringe reefs. I make brief mention of that, but it is a very important issue which is worrying, certainly those involved in the field, and the public generally. The danger arises from the fact that there has been considerable pollution. There is great criticism of the road which has been built on the edge of the sea. Experts and divers have observed a great deal of pollution flowing from the road, such as mud which has settled and has caused a great problem over the reef. In an article which appeared in the Age on 7 February 1982 there is considerable reference to it. Dr John Veron, who is a widely acknowledged authority on corals in the Australian and Pacific region, states:

It is strange, extremely unexpected, to have these two complex ecosystems existing side by side--

that is the forest and the reefs-

because normally the conditions required for a rainforest preclude fringing reef-that is what makes this Daintree coast such a special place.

He goes on to express the view that there is a great deal of runoff-a great deal of mud and clay-that is coming into the water. He was horrified when he found this in the reef. He stated:

A plume of orange mud was pouring off that range as the result of those earthworks. I had wondered before whether fears about siltation from the road were exaggerated, but it would be hard for me to exaggerate what I saw that day.

He believes it may become a chronic problem in wet seasons, particularly from the headlands and creeks that flow into it. Likewise, Mr Graeme Kelleher, the Chairman of the Authority, stated:

There is clear evidence a fair amount of silt is coming off the road and it's time for us to find out if that is affecting the fringing reefs.

Dr Veron says more than this. In an interview which he had on an Australian Broadcasting Corporation program he drew attention to the fact that a similar situation had occurred in Japan where a road was built on the end of the reefs. This area is described as Nishigarki Island. He said:

. . . where a road was put in around the south side of the island and there was a fringing reef adjacent to the road and, according to the Japanese, that is what killed the reef. The reef when I saw it was certainly very dead, so I think it is attributable to the road construction on the island.

I think it is important therefore that this be investigated. The Authority also desires that this be done. I think it is a matter about which we should be concerned because it may lead to the death of that fringing reef, which has a great number of varieties of coral in it. I believe it is important that the Parliament, with its duty towards the Great Barrier Reef, should take up this question and should review what has been done and the proposed new researchers.

I have been told by Senator Townley since I have commenced speaking that the Standing Committee on National Resources would be able to handle almost immediately the reference to which I am referring. If this motion is carried and the Standing Committee on Science, Technology and the Environment cannot handle it, that is another alternative to be considered. I believe it is important to give audiences to those people who have been critical of the activities of the Authority. I believe it is only right that the Authority should have an opportunity to put before the Parliament its view and proposals, which are not easy to explain and which get very little attention in the Press. I believe that all these things call for this Parliament to take very strong action to see that research is done and action is taken to save from danger this particular reef.