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Wednesday, 23 May 2001
Page: 24242


Senator McLUCAS (6:16 PM) —In continuation from earlier today, I would like to remind the Senate that the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Amendment Bill 2001 increases penalties for illegal fishing by providing that it is an offence to fish in the marine park contrary to provisions of the zoning plans. The zoning plans are, as senators may be aware, the instruments that are used to manage the marine park. The green zones are areas where various activities are excluded.

The bill amends the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act to create a new offence for intentional or negligent operations in the marine park, and this is an important provision. It includes specific offences for vessels operating in areas precluded by the zoning plans, particularly the green zones. It includes compulsory pilotage for all of Hydrographers Passage, one of the routes used by vessels to travel from the outer reef to ports on the coast.

The Great Barrier Reef is the world's largest world heritage area. It is a diverse ecosystem and includes the fringing coral reefs, the reef lagoon, the outer reef and slope, and the open ocean. The Great Barrier Reef contains more than 1,500 species of fish, 350 types of hard and soft coral, over 4,000 varieties of molluscs, and six of the world's seven species of turtles. It is a significant habitat for the endangered dugong. The Great Barrier Reef was inscribed on the world heritage register in 1981. Its listing complies with all four natural heritage criteria: geological phenomena, ecological and biological processes, aesthetics and natural beauty, and biological diversity including threatened species. It should be noted that the marine park area has the potential to be renominated as an `other important area in Australia' for its cultural heritage value.

The value of the reef is estimated to be to the economy of Queensland in the order of $1.5 billion. Well over half of this value is gleaned from the tourism industry. Some two million visitors travel to the reef every year. The remainder of that revenue is gleaned mainly from fishing, including trawling.

The Great Barrier Reef is an ecological phenomenon. The report Status of coral reefs of the world: 2000, published by the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, has identified that 27 per cent of the world's reefs have been destroyed. Australia has an international responsibility to set the standard for best practice management of coral reefs, particularly our Great Barrier Reef—the international icon of all coral reefs. The reality is that the reef lies off the coast of the state of Queensland, and many Queenslanders live and work there. Management principles have to include an understanding of that reality and the needs of those community members.

Approximately 2,500 vessels traverse the inner route, between Cairns and the Torres Strait, each year—about seven ships a day. At present in this area, pilots are managing approximately 100 movements per month. Analysis of incident data indicates that the Torres Strait and the inner route north of Cairns have seen the highest concentration of incidents in Queensland and have the highest incident rate in Australia. We know that, whilst pilotage does not completely eliminate the risk of grounding, it does reduce the risk. Eighty per cent of marine incidents are caused by human error. The key to reducing the number of incidents is to reduce the potential effect of the human element.

Earlier today, other contributors talked about the event that occurred in November last year, and I would like to add to that. On 2 November last year, the container ship Bunga Teratai Satu ran aground on Sudbury Reef. Sudbury Reef is 22 nautical miles east of Cairns. The vessel was Malaysian owned and registered and was only some three years old. It is a reasonably large vessel—some 21,000 tonnes—and is 184 metres long. We in North Queensland were very lucky that it was in good condition. It was en route from Singapore to Sydney, carrying 1,200 tonnes of fuel and quantities of dangerous goods including pesticides, alcohol, solvents and flammables. The grounding of the ship affected some 2,000 square metres of the reef. The ship was finally refloated on 14 November, after a number of attempts, and explosives had to finally be used to trim coral so that it could be refloated. Fortunately, there were no spills of fuel or cargo. The estimated cost of the refloat was $500,000 and was paid for by the ship's owner. The estimated cost of the clean-up and the 10-year ongoing monitoring by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is more than $2 million, and most of this, I understand, will be paid for by the ship's owner.

The real environmental threat from this grounding after the boat was refloated was the effects from the paint that had scraped from the hull of the ship on its journey on and off the reef. The toxic chemical tributyl-tin was present on Sudbury Reef at 100 times the safe level. The clean-up of this paint was the largest clean-up of any reef system in the world. Hundreds of tonnes of rubble and sand were removed by vacuum, using technology that Australian scientists now use in other reefs where disasters have occurred.

All in all, this was a disaster fortunately averted. The ship's chief officer was charged. He pleaded guilty to negligence, and a fine of $16,000 was imposed. The incident was covered extensively by the international media, not surprisingly given the icon status of the reef. The potential for damage to the tourism industry was very real if the incident was not managed properly.

This bill provides for compulsory pilotage to be extended to include the remainder of Hydrographers Passage, which is used by vessels to access the port of Mackay. The introduction of compulsory pilotage is not a fail-safe measure to avoid disaster in the future. I would like to see further investigation of technological measures, including the Electronic Chart Display Information System, differential global positioning systems and the Automatic Identification System.

As an intriguing aside, in the Townsville Bulletin of Saturday, 4 November, Mr Entsch, the member for Leichhardt, made a suggestion about how we could solve these potential disasters from ever happening again. The article said:

Mr Entsch said another option for ships was to offload their cargo at Weipa. Trucks could then be used to transport the cargo down an upgraded Peninsula Development Road.

This is another example of the sorts of responses you get from the member for Leichhardt, who is sounding more and more like the member for Kennedy. For those people who do not understand the geography of Queensland, Weipa is on the west side of Cape York Peninsula. It is a reasonable port and currently has reasonable infrastructure that could take large vessels. However, the road that links the city of Cairns with the township of Weipa—the Peninsula Development Road—is a road that this federal government has refused to put any money towards.

Mr Entsch, over many years—in consultation with the Mayor of the Cook Shire Council—has promoted the idea that Roads of National Importance funds could be used to upgrade the Peninsula Development Road. When that application was submitted, he heralded the day and said how wonderful it was. Subsequently, though, the Minister for Transport and Regional Services, Mr Anderson, has advised that there will be no money allocated through the Roads of National Importance funding to the Peninsula Development Road. So once again Mr Entsch has gone off on a bit of a tangent and found an interesting response to solve the problem of shipping on the Great Barrier Reef. However, that was an aside.

I would also like to make comment about the other methodology that could be used to lessen the potential for disasters to occur on the reef. I refer to the training of the crews that staff the ships that traverse this important world heritage area. Experienced and well-trained ship crews are essential to eliminate the potential for disasters such as the one that we saw on Sudbury Reef in November last year. I urge this government to use all measures available to it to ensure that we monitor the quality of staff that are running these huge vessels in these sensitive waters.

The bill also provides the means for the authority to take effective action against vessels that are involved in incidents, such as groundings or collisions, that potentially or actually cause damage to the values of the Great Barrier Reef. It allows for fines of up to $1.1 million for corporations and $220,000 for individuals, which is somewhat more than the $16,000 fine that was imposed on the captain of the Bunga Teratai Satu.

The third measure contained in this bill is the provision to increase the penalties for illegal fishing. A report recently commissioned by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park authority and undertaken by CSIRO and the Queensland Department of Primary Industries found that trawling was having adverse impacts on the seabed and marine communities. For every tonne of prawns taken by a trawler, some six to 10 tonnes of bycatch is taken, most of which is discarded. The report also found that there was illegal trawling occurring in the green prohibited areas, especially in the far northern section of the marine park. These zones were established to protect the marine park from the impacts of trawling and other fishing. Maximum penalties at present are too low and are often included as a business cost in the operation, especially of the large prawn trawlers. The new penalties for illegal trawling in the marine park will be increased to $1 million.

Senators will be aware that last year the state government introduced the East Coast Prawn Trawl Plan, which was an attempt not only to manage the impacts but also to maintain a viable prawn industry on the east coast of Queensland. There is provision in the plan for a requirement to install turtle excluder devices and other bycatch reduction devices that will assist in managing the turtle population and, potentially, the dugong population. The plan also requires the installation of global positioning system beacons on each of the vessels that will be licensed to operate under the management plan. Monitoring of each trawler can then be undertaken for all of the time that the vessel is at sea. The introduction of this measure will assist the delivery of the plan both for the industry and for the protection of the reef in the future.

I would like to make some further comments about the government's response to the environment in last night's budget. We have heard some fine words from this government about the management of the environment and their commitment to it. But I have to say that, on reading the budget papers relating to the environment, you can only describe them as being—and it is a well-used phrase—tricky. It is very tricky when you expound on the wonderful things you are doing for the environment but, when you really look at the figures, you find that the expenditure for the environment is at best only maintained. If you take out a couple of larger items, such as the very needed upgrade of the reef headquarters in Townsville, I would suggest that, in operational terms, there has been an overall reduction in environmental spending in this current year.


Senator Forshaw —That's a disgrace.


Senator McLUCAS —Hear, hear! It is a disgrace. In relation to the expenditure that is going to be made through the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, I understand that $1.7 million has been allocated over four years for management of aquaculture impacts. If you divide that $1.7 million by four years, you come up with the princely sum of $400,000 a year. Aquaculture is a growing industry in Far North Queensland. It is an industry that needs to be managed. Some events have been particularly unsuccessful and have had off-site impacts, especially on the lagoon section of the Great Barrier Reef. This is important work that needs to be done. But I suggest that $400,000 a year is simply not going to get us to the point where we can truly work in cooperation with aquaculturalists so that we can have a viable aquaculture industry and, at the same time, manage those off-site impacts so that there will be nil effect on the Great Barrier Reef.

Once again, $400,000 per year has been allocated to offset the shortfall in revenue due to the concessional visitor charges for operational funding through the environmental charge placed on people who visit the reef. That $400,000 has had to be added to the budget so that the marine park authority can continue its basic operations. As I have said before, the allocation to refurbish reef headquarters is very overdue. It has needed some injection of funds for quite some time. It is also essential to maintain our obligations under the world heritage principles to present the world heritage area.

In conclusion, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Amendment Bill 2001 is a start to dealing with some of the management issues that we need to follow in order to manage shipping and fishing in the Great Barrier Reef. As there will be some amendments to the bill, Labor will partake in debate at the committee stage.