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Thursday, 9 May 1985
Page: 1691

Senator MacGIBBON(8.15) —I would like to speak to the motion that has been moved by Senator Missen. My starting point is the way in which the motion appears in the Notice Paper. Paragraph (a) expresses certain concerns. I think the claim that the crown-of-thorns starfish presents a serious threat to the organisation and functional relationships within some reef communities needs to be put in perspective. It tends to imply that we have a widespread problem or that the magnitude of the problem may be greater than it really is. Paragraph (d) expresses deep concern to the Commonwealth Government and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority for, firstly, the apparent lack of urgency; secondly, the failure to review techniques; and, thirdly, the inadequacy of regulations. I think that in all fairness that is not quite an accurate presentation, particularly with regard to the lack of urgency in commissioning research. A great deal of work has been done on this subject. I think that a slightly different point of view ought to be aired.

Paragraph (e) refers to committees of the Senate-the Standing Committee on Science, Technology and Environment and the Standing Committee on National Resources-the question of whether an urgent investigation should be undertaken into this matter and, if so, by which committee. An enormous amount of work would be involved. I doubt very much whether any committee of the Parliament has the resources to undertake such a task. I think it is a fair comment that to carry out in full what is implied in that paragraph is beyond the resources of the Senate. As I said, I have every sympathy with Senator Missen's concern on this issue, but I would like to put a slightly different point of view and create a different perspective on the matter.

In a sense, what Senator Missen is asking for was covered with respect to the information he sought, by the Crown of Thorns Starfish Advisory Committee, which reported earlier this year. That Committee was very carefully put together. It had as its Chairman a very impartial person with impeccable credentials. Importantly, the Committee's membership included one of the long-standing critics of activity on the reef, Dr Robert Endean. The findings of that Committee were supported by the Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the Australian Marine Science and Technology Committee. It is my expectation that the recommendations of that Committee will be supported in the coming Budget. Of course, I am not privy to what will be contained in the Budget, but it is my expectation that there will be financial support for those recommendations.

I do not know that there is much more that can be done at present in the circumstances with respect to the crown-of-thorns starfish. One million dollars is being spent at present by the Australian Institute of Marine Science on conducting a real time survey of the whole of the reef. Previous inquiries into the crown-of-thorns starfish have been sequential inquiries. They have taken samples of the reef and have done intensive surveys in a few local areas. But the survey that is under way at present, which is being carried out by AIMS, will give us the first overall real time survey of the whole reef structure.

Another point raised by Senator Missen during the debate earlier in this place was the Japanese study. It is generally conceded amongst the scientific community that the $5m that the Japanese expended on starfish clearance of their reefs was $5m wasted. In a way, it could be compared to trying to kill grasshoppers in a grasshopper plague by using a fly swatter. The physical removal of starfish from a reef is not effective and has no permanent value. I have a great deal of confidence in the two bodies that are principally involved in this area-the Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the Australian Institute of Marine Science. I have looked at and been involved with both of them in a scientific capacity over the years in which I have been a member of the Senate. I have no hesitation in affirming my admiration for their professional integrity and professional competence. I have sympathy for them as advisory bodies because it is very easy on the one hand to say 'You have to spend money in a hurry and clean it up', and on the other a large body in the community says: 'Don't spend money until we know what the effect of it will be'. This produces a genuine problem for the advisers.

Another point to which I refer is the television film, part of which I saw. I think it is a very fair comment to make that that film certainly presented an exaggerated view of the reef. The producers of that film definitely went to areas where they knew the crown-of-thorns infestation was bad and they could get spectacular footage. I think the balance in that film left a bit to be desired. The producers certainly created the impression which they set out to create, that we were facing some cataclysmic destruction of the reef. The evidence is that the present crown-of-thorns infestation is no worse than it was in the 1970s. We are dealing with a repetitive infestation here. It does not occur on regular cycles but it has a repetitive nature. The last time it occurred in the present dimensions was in the early 1970s, and the numbers of starfish and reefs involved are no greater now than the numbers involved then. One can say that with a high degree of confidence because the statistical sampling that was done involved 10 per cent of the reefs on the Great Barrier Reef. In aggregate, 260 reefs were studied. As I said, that is 10 per cent of the total. As politicians we have an enormous amount of confidence in the gallup polls that come out each week to show us how we are going with the public. The statistical sample used in those polls is 0.4 per cent and we all agree that we have a high degree of confidence in them. I reaffirm the point that the technique that is being used to estimate the degree of crown-of-thorns infestation of the reef at present is statistically sound.

We simply cannot make a prospective assessment of what will happen. No one can say at present whether the infestation and destruction will worsen or improve. It is something on which we just do not have any data on which to base a prospective view. It seems that the populations of starfish on the reef are moving south, which is what happened before. It is not that the starfish themselves are moving; it is the spawn, and they are moving progressively in a southerly direction down the reef. On previous occasions, when they reached the southern end of the reef they petered out, and the cycle started again in the north.

I reaffirm that the infestation is definitely no worse than it was in the early part of the 1970s. To put it in perspective, less than 10 per cent of the reefs are at present infested by crown-of-thorns starfish. I think anyone who watched that film on television when it came out some months ago would have come away with the impression that the great majority of the reef system was infested by the crown-of-thorns starfish. The actual figure is considerably less than 10 per cent of the reef system. While one cannot form a prospective view of what will happen, there is, by the same token, absolutely no evidence to suggest and no reason to assume that what is going to happen will be totally disastrous to the reef system. That, of course, was the finding by the Committee to which I referred earlier.

The second point of interest in this motion relates to the Daintree Road. The Daintree Road is exactly the same type of road as the Cape Tribulation Road which has been in place for about 20 years. It has the same type of construction and, geographically, it lies just inside the shoreline in some parts. So there is evidence of the effect of roads close to the beach line. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has set up a monitoring program at 12 sites alongside the Daintree Road and is looking at the corals, fin fishes and invertebrates. It is looking for long term effects. There is no doubt at all that there is an increased turbidity in the water alongside the road, particularly in the three creeks that run through it and run out from it. But the total length involved is no more than six kilometres and it could be considerably shorter than that. The studies show that the plume of pollution or turbidity that is coming from soil being washed into the water alongside the Daintree Road is going out to sea rather than remaining on the shoreline.

Be that as it may, quite obviously the solution to that problem, since the road is in place, is to spend some money and put in a properly engineered road. My advice is that something like only $2m would be involved in putting in a properly engineered road. It is also suggested that if the Queensland Government does not want to spend that much money, an expenditure of even $1m will prevent deleterious effects of the soil being washed away, if that sum is spent on the building of concrete culverts, proper drainage schemes and things like that to mitigate the effect.