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STANDING COMMITTEE ON CLIMATE CHANGE, WATER, ENVIRONMENT AND THE ARTS
29/04/2009
Climate change and environmental impacts on coastal communities

CHAIR (Ms George) —We will open today’s proceedings by welcoming Dr Reichelt, Chairman of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I advise you that the hearings are legal proceedings of the parliament and warrant the same respect as proceedings of the House itself. In that regard, the giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of parliament. I am sure you are very familiar with these procedures.

The committee has received your submission, which has been authorised for publication. You hosted an important visit that we made very early in our deliberations and that was very useful for the work of the committee. We are very pleased to have you with us this morning. We would now like to invite you to make a brief opening statement before we proceed to questions and discussion.

Dr Reichelt —Thank you. It is good to see you again. I will make a few comments and then answer questions. The main thing is to bring you up to date with things that happened since your visit to the Great Barrier Reef, and probably a general statement.

Under all of the climate change scenarios the Great Barrier Reef will be very significantly impacted by climate change and this will have implications for coastal communities. The extent of the impact is proportional to the global response to do with CO2, in other words, things beyond our direct control, and the resilience of the ecosystems. To me a lot of the debate around the impacts directly relate to the resilience of the systems and how we plan for their use. The risks from climate change are compounded in the coastal and inshore areas, where we have issues other than climate, such as degraded habitats or declining water quality. Again, those issues influence the resilience of the system.

We have had an extreme set of weather events in the Great Barrier Reef since your visit. This summer, in December, was one of the hottest on record and we were 40 per cent towards a major catastrophic bleaching event. I can be so precise about this because scientists now talk about warming days or bleaching days. We had 44 days in a row where it was at a temperature that was stressing the corals. When that figure gets up to 80 to 100, that is the condition under which you get mass coral bleaching. We put out an alert and upgraded the warning on our website. That was followed by the wettest January in 100 years with major flooding events, which was well documented in the media. The coastal flooding was extensive, particularly in the wet tropics, and it did influence and caused coral mortality in some inshore reefs.

In February, we had Cyclone Hamish, which was one of the most intense cyclones after Cyclone Larry. However, unlike Larry, which cut straight across the Great Barrier Reef, Cyclone Hamish tracked along about 40 per cent of the Barrier Reef. We had a category 5 cyclone running down the outside of the Great Barrier Reef and then over the top of it towards the southern end. The surveys are still being carried out to see what precisely happened offshore, but we know already there were significant effects on the offshore coral reefs. I had a report of a new island being formed at one reef and, of course, the media did pick up on that.

In big cyclonic events offshore the fishery for coral trout disappears and that caused the fishermen to be asking for interventions and measures to change the zoning plans. Of course, we are unable to do that, but with all sympathy to those fishermen, the cyclone is not respecter of the zoning of the reef. It was affecting green zones as much as it was affecting the fishing areas.

I will discuss a couple of things specifically that are more in the policy area. Since your visit there has been a reef summit to progress the Reef Water Quality Protection Plan, a joint agreement between the Australian and Queensland governments. That is in progress. It was a fruitful meeting. Minister Garrett, the then Queensland Minister for Environment and also the Queensland Premier made presentations there. I believe that plan is progressing towards an agreement this year. Reef Rescue, the Australian government’s initiative for improving land use practices, is now well under way. It was just beginning when you visited.

The Great Barrier Reef Water Quality Guidelines, which my organisation has developed after wide consultation, has now been released. The change to our act went through parliament in November and we are now working on upgrading and aligning the regulations under that act. The main one in relation to this inquiry would be the alignment of our regulations with the EPBC regulations. They were not incompatible, but they were different. The change to our legislation has brought them into alignment. It means, in some respects, upgrading of our capacities to match the EPBC’s and also simplifying things from the public’s point of view that an application to do something under one act or the other will be deemed to be an application under the other one.

Also, in the intervening period, Queensland has finalised its first statutory regional development infrastructure plan outside of the southeast corner. They are the main things. I do have other issues. Since meeting your committee I have been thinking about the issue of strategic planning along the coastline, and it was only this morning that I thought it would probably be better if I talk about the outcome we want. The outcome is not to prevent coastal development. The outcome we want is functioning coastal ecosystems, clean water and resilient ecosystems in the face of climate change. To give effect to that probably does mean intervening in particular development actions. To take that problem apart a little bit further, we need to make a distinction between the very visible and major projects, such as the shale oil project that the Premier of Queensland declined last year, and the Port Clinton coal port, which would have crossed a major wetland system and which was declined by Minister Garrett last year. They are the visible decisions. Probably the more difficult ones and where the machinery is not working so well is in the many small decisions that are taken along the coast. That has been a conclusion of the previous dozen or so inquiries into the coastal zone and I am sure you are well aware of that.

I do think that we would do well to focus on the outcome that we are looking for. If we are looking for sustainability of our natural systems we need to maintain their natural functions. It sounds like a trivial point, but if you think of it that way there might be a number of different paths to achieve that. It opens up some of the policy options for dealing with things on land. I am also happy to talk about the issues of how we work with the state and how the marine park authority’s processes operate in managing the marine park to the extent that it would be helpful.

CHAIR —I must say having looked at many examples of coastal zone management across the nation, GBRMPA, for all the limitations that you might see and the position that you are in, provides really a best case study of how you can integrate the different levels of government in the protection of an icon for the whole nation. I note in your submission that there are 21 local government authorities that you interface with. One of the terms of reference is to look into existing policies and programs related to coastal zone management, taking into account the catchment coast-ocean continuum. We are finding that continuum does not really come into play in lots of decisions that are made by various organisations responsible for land use. What is it about the way that you can interface with the three levels of government, plus your catchment management authorities, that might give us some inspiration for good practice models that we can recommend to government?

Dr Reichelt —If I think about what brings the groups together, keeps them aligned or helps them achieve what they do achieve, it is probably the focus on the issues and the outcomes, as opposed to power, jurisdiction and control. The topic that I talk to the mayors of coastal councils about, the peak body reps or the community groups will not be the act they are implementing or who is in charge, it will be, ‘How’s the water quality? How’s the management of your coastal habitats going? What’s the effect of it on the dugongs, the birdlife, the barramundi or the mangrove jack that rely on those habitats?’ The biggest single factor linking them all is, and has been, an early recognition, maybe 15 years ago or longer in some areas, that the quality of the water running off the farms, out of the towns, out of the sewerage plants and down into the coastal waters is a major issue. It is something that people can intuitively understand. The focus on water quality has been at the core of it.

There are other issues that have evolved since, such as waste management and our Reef Guardian Schools program. I think we briefed you on it. There are now nearly 200 schools involved with 60,000 to 70,000 students. The main thing we are teaching the young people is things like, ‘What you do in the towns and what you do here will run off into the creek.’ That is why there are signs along the footpath saying, ‘This drain runs to the ocean’, which you do see in some areas.

Water quality is the linking theme and that is what has brought the farming community together under Reef Rescue. They do understand it. They will sometimes express doubts that it is their farm that is causing the problem, but that is the perennial problem of dealing with the public. ‘It is not my piece of litter that has caused the problem’ or ‘It’s not this fish that I’ve taken that has caused the problem.’ The way that has been handled along the Great Barrier Reef coast is education. There has been a major program of putting out information to alert people.

Just as an aside, when I first arrived in Townsville in the late seventies, on the roadside as you approached there was nothing but broken glass, usually brown stubby glass. That was true of a lot of towns in Australia. If you look at the culture that has happened since in that intervening 30-something years, people do not do that anymore. Maybe we can thank Ian Kiernan for that, but there has been a definite culture change. I think that same kind of groundswell of change is happening now in cleaning up water. I would like to see it happen more in the planning and implementation of some of the quite good bits of legislation that are along the coast to the Barrier Reef. Am I getting at the problem that you are interested in?

CHAIR —Yes. One of the dilemmas we have is that in many situations local government boundaries prohibit the catchment to coast-ocean continuum coming into play when people make decisions about what development is going to go ahead and what land use will apply in particular regions. It is almost like we have these two parallel systems at work without an adequate input from, say, the catchment management bodies or the NRMs into land use planning decisions. Do you have a comment that you can shed on that regarding some of the frustrations that you might have experienced?

Dr Reichelt —Yes. I visited the Mackay canegrowers recently, and listening to that industry talk about their catchment management group was instructive. They felt it was getting too much into their business, yet they work closely together. When I asked them about how they were going in monitoring their water quality they very proudly talked about their NRM. The community groups themselves might have common goals, but they each see it through their window.

I was thinking about the NRMs and the councils. One of the things that we are trying at the moment, and we will see if it works, is that we have created a movement called the Reef Guardian Councils. Having the Barrier Reef just offshore is a tremendous hook. We have to accept that, and it does not occur right around the coastline. My charter is to bring that to the attention of the public. My long-term goal is its ecological sustainability.

Getting the councils onside with cleaning up water is not particularly difficult because it is something that they are interested in. They might be limited with infrastructure funds to upgrade some of their treatment facilities. If we are looking at a strategic enhancement of infrastructure in the country, some of it could go into enhancing the environmental qualities of our coastal towns.

I will repeat something that has been said before. The legislation that operates at the multiple jurisdictions along the coastline in Queensland stands up to scrutiny. In my view, it is pretty good. The decisions taken by the ministers and the first minister in Queensland on those two projects I mentioned show that that system can work to influence things and stop things that perhaps would be harmful to the ecosystem. The reason the small decisions fail, or appear to be failing—a death of a thousand cuts-type problem—is a missing overlayer. It is the leadership that comes from having a widely accepted strategic plan or an accepted future vision. I would be quite in favour—and I am not sure if it has been discussed already-of provisions in the EPBC Act for a more strategic approach in planning. My comment on that would be to make sure that every effort is made to bring the jurisdictions along with it. The 25-year positive relationship between Queensland Parks and Wildlife and the marine park authority is evidence that joint arrangements can work, but they cannot be unilateral. For instance, to make the park’s management work on the water we have a joint committee. There are operational committees under it. There is a steering committee and then that reports to me and the head of the Premier’s Department in Queensland. We give it a working infrastructure or we give it a governance structure and we use it. I think a strategic approach to the use of the coastline would need something similar, something to make it work and be accepted at the council level.

CHAIR —You state in your submission:

The long-term, cumulative impacts of incremental developments must be assessed within a whole of region planning context that considers the entire coastal development footprint. In addition, future climate change needs to be incorporated into a whole of region approach to not only influence coastal planning but to address emergency response and other key government responsibilities.

You have talked before about the death by a thousand cuts along the coastline and that often decisions are made considering the totality of the individual decisions that are made along the coast. What concerned me a little bit when we talked yesterday with a number of bodies here in Queensland was that it seems the regional plans here in Queensland, up to date at least, have not factored in impacts of climate change. For example, they talk about the population growth, the projected targets and a big emphasis on infrastructure planning to meet those targets, but it seems that the equation of climate change has been the missing link. I think that is being addressed in the South East Queensland revised plan. If we go to a more regional approach in considering development along the coastal zone, how do we ensure that the climate change framework informs those decisions?

Dr Reichelt —I would take a pragmatic approach of: what are the likely impacts and how are they going to be managed? I am sure that you are well aware of the example that the heart of Cairns is below the surge level. Where we put things sometimes does not make sense. In the case of extreme weather events, cyclones are well known to produce massive tides and storm surges. Through the wind and the atmospheric pressure effects you can get several metres more water than you would at the most extreme high tide. Cyclones are a tropical/subtropical phenomenon. But with rising sea level and increasing intense storms any regional plan would have to have strong regard for coastal surge and flooding events. I did read of a decision in Victoria recently where the prospects of flooding and surge were taken into account in a planning decision. You have probably had that example. I am not aware of that kind of thing happening along the Queensland coast, but that would be one practical way of bringing in forecast effects of climate.

In terms of the Barrier Reef, again, probably the warming, acidification and sea level rise. I would put them in that order. Rising sea level for the reef of the order of tens of centimetres or even a metre would not spell the end of the Barrier Reef. It would mean some deeper reefs might have more trouble growing or might become what they call drowned reefs. The big issues are hotter water and falling pH with rising acidity.

It is no accident, for instance, that IAG, the big insurance group, were very early players in highlighting the impacts. They had the best cyclone impact models for northeast Australia, well ahead of the government’s, and they were using oil industry models from northwest Australia for the obvious reasons of damage caused by those storms. You were talking about planning. I understand that.

CHAIR —There seemed to be a lack of understanding of the impact of climate change, to date at least, in informing the regional plans here in this state. I think it is the only state that does not have any statutory protection of wetlands, and you make the point in your submission about the degradation of wetlands and the long-term impact that it is going to have.

Dr Reichelt —The actual figures were reviewed.

CHAIR —Something like 70 per cent of wetlands have been degraded.

Dr Reichelt —There was a recent assessment that up to 80 per cent in some catchments and of those remaining wetlands over 70 per cent are classed as being high or very high conservation value. When I spoke earlier about loss of habitat, that is probably a primary one, because the uses of wetland typically are bund them and drain them for better grazing, fill them in for farming or make an urban canal development. They are the first to be modified, as evidenced by the changes that we have seen. There has been talk of legislation in Queensland, but it has been around farming practice and use of fertiliser. I think the original recommendation in the first reef plan was to institute wetland protection, and I strongly support it.

CHAIR —Dr Washer.

Dr WASHER —Thank you for a good presentation. I thought it was great. I have an interest in this nutrification and run-off. I notice that you certainly still have a problem with herbicide runoff—atrazine, diuron and also nitrogen runoffs—plus also the problems of waste water management. Can you clarify what the position of the state is in terms of policy and how those 21 local governments fit in? Surely they would all have an individual waste water management. How do they cooperate to do this, and what level of purity is required in terms of the effluent flow out of those into the ocean and so on?

Dr Reichelt —This is an area that is outside my specific expertise. I know the person following me, Ms Morris, is full bottle on this. I will be brief, but I do suggest that you ask your technical questions to Ms Morris. In terms of nitrogen runoff or nutrient runoff, the phosphorus and other things in the water, most of it is from farming and agricultural activity. The actual amount from urban council controlled things is relatively small, with varying figures, but I would defer to my scientific colleague.

Pesticides are of increasing concern. There have been reports very recently and, again, the research presentations from Ms Morris will help you on that. Essentially they are far more widespread in the marine system than was previously thought and, admittedly, there have been laboratory studies, but at a micro scale. Very small amounts have a significant effect when the animals are only a few micro millimetres long, looking to settle and regrow. I have had some people say to me, ‘Aren’t these chemicals everywhere anyway? What are we worried about?’ The point is that when the corals evolved they were not everywhere. These are manmade chemicals. They are not naturally occurring things. They are now distributing in smaller amounts further afield in the coastal marine systems. I would be strongly in favour of restricting their runoff in some way.

I would put wetlands first, then I would put working on restriction of pesticides and then I would look at the third thing you mentioned, which is the waste water issues. They are all important, but I would probably put them in that order. I would be interested to see, from a scientific point of view, what Ms Morris has to say on that one.

Also, our guidelines are now out and I can provide them to you for the precise figures in there. They have had a lot of input, particularly from the fertiliser industry and others who have looked at it. I do not expect coastal systems to meet all those guidelines at once, but I think it is important to create a benchmark and then work to meeting it. The best example of that I have seen was in a presentation five or six years ago where the cotton industry in the region was essentially a pariah industry; it was getting very bad press. They took it on to give honest assessments of what they were using in the water and what chemicals were running off. It did not look good, but then at least they had a benchmark and over time those figures tracked down.

The best policy response to these things is better information. Even if it is bad, put it out there. That is something where the authority is cooperating hard with the science community, and the NRMs are taking a strong role as well in getting much better widespread geographically and spatially explicit information. I am a strong fan of the report card with public information on it, otherwise there is no way of knowing if you are getting better and there is no incentive to improve on it.

Mr ZAPPIA —You have talked, in general terms, about the issues that are still of concern. If there were one or two issues that were of major concern to you right now, where we should act perhaps a little faster, what would they be?

Dr Reichelt —To me, it is the lack of a strategic approach to the use of what they call the contested landscape of the coastline, and I would add the contested seascape, because a million people in 2025 are probably going to want to own a small boat and go fishing in the marine park. I would say that is the most important and urgent thing. There are probably other urgent things, but they are not so important. It is the classic time management problem. You can spend all your time overlooking the important. The lack of that strategic frame within which quite good legislation is operating, to me is the thing that needs to be done now.

The analogy that I will draw for you is—I cannot remember the date, but it was in the 1930s—there was a public report about how the Murray-Darling system was headed for disaster. We all know what its current state is. They were talking about water management essentially. I started looking around for literature that related to this issue. If you look on the internet, ‘early warning/slow response’ gets many hits. The hardest thing to do is to act now on strategic problems, and I would urge you to look for those opportunities. I know there is pressure to take the low hanging fruit. I am not steering you off those. I am putting them in that order. Once you have come up with some approaches for developing that strategic oversight and essentially the leadership framework, after that I would say are the land use practices, the legislation of wetlands, protecting the wetlands, preventing runoff, and excessive use of chemicals and fertiliser would come straight after those.

Mr ZAPPIA —You talked earlier about some of the growers out there and the work that they are doing. Many of the things that you just referred to would come under the jurisdiction of state and local government. Do you detect a willingness on their part to do everything they possible can, or are they doing perhaps what I would describe as the bare minimum to be seen to be acting responsibly but not embracing their responsibility fully?

Dr Reichelt —Thank you for that easy question. As a representative of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority I am conscious of the formality of the proceedings and that I am representing a Commonwealth statutory agency here. I would say that the pressures for local short-term decisions are very strong on people working locally. It eases off if you work from a very large area like the state of Queensland and it certainly eases off if you have the luxury of a 30,000-foot view of it from a national point of view.

I have heard it said recently by a senior public official that the Commonwealth is pretty good at strategic planning, but it can take that view because it is not making micro decisions 10,000 times a day. It does not have the constituents coming through its door. The states are better at implementation typically because they have the local knowledge. That might not be generally true, but what we need is the combined effect of that. We need the ability of the state to be in touch with local issues and deliver programs, combined with a strategic approach from groups like yourselves and Commonwealth departments and governments who look for simplifying cross-jurisdictional red tape and the other kinds of strategic things you do. You really need both. I will harp back to the point I made: a strategic assessment of the coastline will not really serve any effect if it is delivered unilaterally from one jurisdiction to another one. I think they need to be jointly developed. The example I give of that working will be the day-to-day management of the Great Barrier Reef.

CHAIR —In relation to the proposition that you put about the importance of a strategic approach, there are a number of ways that the Commonwealth could have a more interventionist role in terms of the coastal zone and that is one of the issues that we have been asked to look at. It was suggested in one of the contributions yesterday that an assessment of the economic value of the coast to Australians, both in terms of quantifiable economic outcomes and non-market values, be undertaken. I am thinking, from everything that I read from GBRMPA, that you do that very effectively. You talk about the jobs and the tourism industry so there is that socioeconomic analysis that you do as well as the obvious argument about protection of the iconic status of the reef. Do you think that idea has some merit at the federal level, the committee recommending that perhaps for the first time we do a more comprehensive analysis of the economic value of what is occurring on our coastline, as another means of raising community consciousness about these issues?

Dr Reichelt —Yes, I do. You mentioned the economics. I dwelled earlier on the ecosystem, the state of it and the information base that you might use, but I should have gone further. I agree strongly that it is about understanding the economic basis for people using those ecosystems, and the social basis—remember you have got cultural uses with traditional owners—so I would add that you need to boost the social aspect as well in terms of the state of the system and the aspirations. The aspirations of local communities are something that governments have to be in tune with.

I know there has been thinking going on, but I am not sure whether there have been any public reports as such, about a better understanding of how we can use natural resource accounting with economic and social analysis to get better outcomes for Australian people. When I say ‘social’ I mean including traditional owners’ values and Indigenous issues as well.

There is an area that various jurisdictions have been looking at. It comes under different names, but a common one is net gain management. It is finding mechanisms for decision making that include all of those aspects. This is not new territory. Those three were pillars of ESD debates in the 1990s and the late 1980s. We are struggling to find ways to do it well.

The idea of net gain management that I have seen talked about at state and council level in North Queensland related to finding common language and finding ways of talking to communities so that the micro decisions are more in tune with the strategic goals. I can give you example. There might be a development needed near a port to put a road in to service the port, and it might be involving sensitive habitat. The first part of that assessment would be not just how many hectares of wetland might be affected; it would be the social impact of it and the broader impact of that activity. Is it appropriate for the port to be getting bigger and bigger? Is that part of the overall strategic plan for the region?

The concept of offsets used to be talked about as a right to pollute; if you pay your money you can do the action. We have moved on from that. I believe there are publications around regarding better ways of using offsets. In the net gain management debate the offsets are determined by the multiple jurisdictions and the local community. Their idea of an appropriate offset might well be that their council has an improved water treatment plant and better services for their schools in the area. What they value locally will vary from place to place. There needs to be some way of integrating the social, economic and the ecosystem. Essentially, that tends to happen at local scales, but there would be value in the Commonwealth and the states exploring ways of doing that and not inventing seven different ways of doing it.

Ms MARINO —Thank you for your submission. In your submission you touched on the very real issue of coastal population growth and some of the impacts that will have. You also touched on the issue of contested coastline. To your knowledge, what is the impact and do state government policies here override any local government policies and decisions? I would also be very interested in your comments on the state government’s coastal government policies as well.

Dr Reichelt —Again, I will defer to Ms Morris, who does know more about this than many people. In a sense, there is an override effect. There is also a fundamental principle. If we think about what works and what does not work, as I said before, the decisions taken at senior levels to halt projects that were deemed to have an unacceptable environmental consequence occurred at state and federal levels last year, with the shale oil and Port Clinton. As you get down the scale, an example would be when the council’s sewerage treatment plant overflows in a flood and releases 10 or 20 megalitres of untreated sewerage into the coastal ecosystem. They do not like that happening. They may not have the capacity to stop that kind of problem without more infrastructure investment, but essentially what happens is that impact then moves out of their jurisdiction and becomes a problem for me, the EPA or someone else; it is somebody else’s problem. That means that there is not a congruence between what you are trying to achieve in the bigger scale with the capacity of decision makers to deal with it at the lower scale. I am not sure if I am making that clear.

Jurisdictionally, I am advised by the lawyers and by the institutional specialists that the actual laws are pretty good along the Queensland coast. In theory, they should be sufficient to maintain the quality of the environment and so on. The issue is how they are implemented. I would be focussing more on the mechanisms of implementation as opposed to the actual wordings in the act and whether the tools are okay. How they are being used is the biggest problem.

Ms MARINO —I am really pleased to hear you talking with the NRMs and those sorts of groups, but could you just give me some indication, in your view, of the level of awareness of the potential impacts of sea level rise in the groups that you work with at this time?

Dr Reichelt —It is quite patchy. If you spoke to the Torres Strait Islanders they are very well aware of it through some of the scientific work that has been going on and the communication efforts to talk about it. In fact, three or four communities up there are at great risk of going under water fairly soon. Elsewhere we have further to go in getting people to understand. What they do understand is surge levels and low-lying land issues, but they are probably equally as concerned with perhaps the rising mosquito populations as opposed to the rising waters. People focus on the impact on their daily lives.

It is hard to relate to long-term slow changes to your day-to-day, whether it is changes in our economic status versus changes in sea level. Until under the house is under water it does not hit home. I do not know really. I cannot speak authoritatively on that. I have not done an attitude survey. But my impression is that people are aware that climate is an issue and that councils are increasingly aware that rising sea levels should be impacting their planning. I am not sure how that is translated into changing building codes and those sorts of things, but I suspect that is a bit slow.

Ms MARINO —Thank you.

CHAIR —In terms of the situation here in Queensland, while you have overarching policy in the coastal act, from what we understand there is no requirement necessarily for local governments, in a mandatory sense or underpinned by a regulation, to give effect to those policies. For example, yesterday there was an example of a development approved by a local government authority that seemed to be in breach of certain policy statements made by the Queensland government on the issue of inundation and storm surge. Submitters have also put to the committee an argument that the system in Queensland of pre-existing development rights has constrained a lot of local government authorities who may want to give more consideration to climate change impacts, and the fear of litigation because those existing property rights are enshrined in statute here in Queensland. In seems from what we could ascertain yesterday that in the new legislation going to parliament injurious affection provision will continue into the future.

Dr Reichelt —I wish I could help you. I am not a legal expert and I tend to focus on the laws up to the low water mark. Our work with the catchment groups and so on has been around—

CHAIR —I am thinking of a project such as the False Cape development, up in that region.

Dr Reichelt —In terms of the local council’s responsibility, I cannot comment on that. My apologies, I cannot help you on the very local scale jurisdiction. Where I have been focussed on things like that is what runs off those developments and whether the EPBC is triggered. I have been giving thought to the Marine Park Act, at the moment, and its potential to extend jurisdiction into things flowing into the park or happening next to the park that affect us. There are terms in our act that are potentially usable and they have been used for regulating aquaculture where aquaculture is discharging into the marine park. But my involvement stops there.

I think the sorts of things you are talking about are critical to having a consistency. It is no good having an overarching strategic goal if the elements below are not bound by it or are not consistent with it. If what you say is true then that would be an impediment. There would be no point in having this big strategic plan if people were playing by different rules.

CHAIR —In terms of the strategic plan, there have been a number of suggestions raised with the committee, including the option of perhaps amending the EPBC Act. Others have argued for the introduction of a national coastal act. The view came through yesterday more strongly that there ought to be some level of intergovernmental agreement like through a COAG process, and that the different jurisdictions’ responsibilities be more clearly defined in an agreement that locks in the three levels of government. It is a matter really of enunciating, as you said earlier, the objectives and the principles that would govern that approach. Do you have a view about how this agenda could be best progressed?

Dr Reichelt —I do have some views on the elements. This is an area that is fraught with difficulty. I was talking earlier about the thinking of planners versus what really happens. I arrived in Townsville when the Institute of Marine Science was built out at Cape Ferguson. At the time there were plans for a new satellite city. There were plans for a tech park next to it. All sorts of things were going to happen, but the Delfin Corporation decided that the town would develop north and not south over 30 years. If you go to Townsville now there is still a long drive out to the AIMS laboratory through a lot of beautiful wetland. That is probably a good thing. It highlights the fact that legislation is important and the rules of operation are important, but that somehow still falls short. Call it the mindset of the planner. Planning is essential, a strategic plan. Town planning principles actually underpinned how the marine park was developed when planning began in the 1970s in the Heron Island area. People were recruited out of town planning and saying, ‘Now we need to decide how this area is going to be used.’

When I say ‘it falls short’, the population or the economy does not always develop in the way that the planners might have envisaged. What further needs to lay over the top of that or lie with it is some broader principles. When I very first began I said, ‘The principles ought to be based on the outcomes that you are looking for and they are the aspirations of the country.’ If it wants functioning ecosystems along the coastline, if you want to be able to eat the fish you catch along the coastline, then you need to establish those principles and take whatever action is needed when you see them being violated.

You can go to Los Angeles and the beach looks great. You can go out on the pier and there is a big warning sign saying, ‘Don’t eat any fish you catch off here.’ I use that as an example. You need to articulate the end goal or the broad status that you are seeking and then legislate. If you see the rules or something not operating, or the economy or the population growth happening differently, then re-evaluate those aspirations. For all of the good work done by the planners and the legislators, we seem to fall short in the implementation for that kind of reason. If you can come up with a good way of handling that problem then that would be great.

Mr ZAPPIA —On that same issue, is it your view that broadly the community has embraced not only the importance of the reef but also the measures that need to be taken to try to protect it, or do you believe that perhaps an investment in more education would be necessary?

Dr Reichelt —From the feedback I get in most places is that it is broadly very well accepted. We have 13 local management advisory committees that are publicly advertised and interested community members join them. Whether they are reflecting the views of their community I am not sure, or in many cases they are influencing the views of their community, but it probably does not matter. The feedback I get is that the people who live along the coastline of the Barrier Reef are proud of it and value it highly. That includes farmers and industrialists.

We had a problem recently where, after the wettest January in 100 years, the Queensland nickel refinery tailings ponds were full. The company stopped production for a month. They did everything they could to prevent overflow. In talking to the senior management, I know it was out of a genuine desire to not do anything to the marine park. There were reputation issues in the company for that as well.

I think it needs to be continually reinforced, and that is one of the charters and why the authority opened more offices along the coastline to have a couple of people on site in Rockhampton, Mackay and Cairns who can be communicating with the locals more frequently. The education issue is not an either/or. You have got to do both. One feeds off the other. The reaction from the schools has been tremendous. When you think that we implemented that program with a person with a half-time helper, and it has to be one of our cheapest programs; legacy-wise it is going to pay off in spades.

CHAIR —Has the controversy about the fishing zones all died down?

Dr Reichelt —I would not say it has died down completely. Broadly we get more positive media now about the positive effects of closed areas. Last November I saw an article in the Townsville Bulletin written by a leader in recreational fishing about how he was very sceptical of these zones but, boy, the fishing is good right next to them. Well, that is how they are meant to work. Broadly, they are going well.

Where there is disaffection it is either people who have somehow lost something in the zoning five years ago, notwithstanding the several hundred million dollars of compensation that were paid to people along the coast. There are still people who will be vocal and public about either the way it was done or how they are now suffering. That is dying down as well. There are areas where, because of the population distribution and the types of activity—I would say the Cairns area, for instance—they were particularly squeezed by the process, and that is the area where there are the most people being vocal. It depends on where they were and what they were doing.

CHAIR —I know you have spoken a lot about the issue of resilience. I recall just in the last couple of weeks there was a report on the local radio about a section of the reef that had regenerated sooner than people had anticipated. Could you just make some comment about that? Obviously the issue of coral bleaching and the reef’s ability to regenerate is an important issue for all of us. Is there something of value to this committee in that account?

Dr Reichelt —Yes. The account you mention is an area down around the Keppel Islands. It is essentially an inshore reef area that was hit a few years ago by a bleaching event and then a flood event. It was not a run-off event. It was actually a rainstorm that sat over the top of it and dropped a lot of water in a short period at low tide and that caused widespread coral death. I think the overall message out of it is that the impacts of things other than mass bleaching are localised. Notwithstanding some of the media you hear from some people, the entire reef is in good health, among the best in the world, and the tourism industry do their best to promote that view as well. It is true that the Great Barrier Reef, by and large, is in very good condition. It is under pressure in certain areas by certain things. The greatest pressures come along the coastline and they come from activities of people on land, like the ones your inquiry has been focussed on.

CHAIR —The water quality is the biggest factor.

Dr Reichelt —Water quality is the biggest and rather than, as I said, coastal development I would say loss of coastal habitat. The functioning of coastal habitats is very important to the reef. There is a range of recreational commercial fish species that breeds in the inshore and mature in the offshore. There is the water quality improvement function of low-lying areas.

I read somewhere a proposal to dredge a river to allow the water to run off more quickly because the river had filled up with silt. We will not discuss how it filled up with silt. It is an infill area, the whole Hinchinbrook area, but there is also a lot of agriculture in the Herbert area. The first thing I thought of was that the natural system has the water running off slowly. There are a lot of little creeks and logs. They are all crooked and they slow the water down where the silt drops out by that process. If I was looking after the health of the ecosystem I would be looking to restoring the function of floodplains and the way they operate naturally.

Water quality inshore is the big one for the reef. Offshore it is climate change. I am concerned about the nano scale, the micro amounts of some chemicals reaching further offshore. We do get records of coral disease in the Barrier Reef. It is not widespread. Coral disease was widespread in other parts of the world. Among other things, particularly sewage pollution has essentially wiped out the Caribbean’s coral reefs. They are very damaged. If I said there were sleepers out there, things that I am wondering what is causing them and what could you do, it is things like coral disease. At the moment, I have enough to be worrying about with water quality.

CHAIR —Thank you for your very informative presentation and congratulations to you and your staff on the wonderful work you do. We wish you well in your future endeavours. We will now take up some of those issues with Ms Morris. The secretariat will send you a copy of the transcript for any corrections that need to be made, and if there is any material that you have indicated that you would forward on to us, we would appreciate receiving that as soon as feasible.

Dr Reichelt —Thank you very much for the opportunity to present to the committee.

[10.06 am]