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Economics Legislation Committee
Australian Institute of Marine Science

Australian Institute of Marine Science


CHAIR: Good evening. Thank you for staying so late. Do you have an opening statement for us?

Mr Gunn : I do. Thank you, Chair, and good evening, Senators. Thank you very much for the opportunity to provide an opening statement. I should tell you that there are a couple of edits on the version that you have. As it has been a while since AIMS last appeared before the committee and there are a number of new members here, I thought it might be useful to provide a very brief overview of the institute’s strategic research foci and highlight a couple of significant outputs of national interest.

As is the case for each of Australia’s publicly funded research agencies, AIMS's research strategy is agreed with our minister, and it guides our investment of government funding. This government appropriation base is supplemented by external revenue from contracts with government, industry and, increasingly, philanthropic organisations. In 2017, AIMS expects to bring in around $20 million in external revenue, or 30 per cent of its budget. This injection of funding allows us to extend the research that we undertake against delivering that overarching strategy.

While the AIMS Act provides us the mandate to work pretty much anywhere in Australia and even in Antarctica, over the last 43 years we have focused our efforts primarily on tropical Australia, where the opportunities and challenges associated with our marine estate are very significant, as I am sure you understand.

AIMS's commitment to excellence sees us ranked No. 1 in Australia and No. 2 globally in academic rankings of marine biology. At the same time, our commitment to working with key stakeholders ensures that this excellence is translated into delivering the evidence base for policy development and decision making by governments, industry and the community. Excellence is not enough for us; it is very much about the translation of our research into uses for Australia.

We have an extensive research portfolio on the Great Barrier Reef. We work with industries, such as ports and resource companies, and with local and state governments and traditional sea country owners across northern Australia to support the sustainable development of our coasts, and for over 20 years we have been the lead environmental research provider to the offshore oil and gas industry and associated regulators across the North West Shelf and the Timor and Arafura seas. Over the last decade, in particular, AIMS investment in world-leading infrastructure and research all focused on the critical issues for Australian has resulted in a growing demand and use of our research in assessing industry investment, environmental management and conservation decisions.

It is clear that a key driver for this growth in our business has been a period of very significant growth in the marine industry. Since 2008, AIMS has worked with Deloitte Access Economics to produce the AIMS Index of Marine Industry, which documents the value of the marine sector to the national economy. The 2016 AIMS Index was launched recently by Minister Sinodinos, and it indicates that in 2013-14 Australia’s marine industries—fisheries, aquaculture, tourism, shipbuilding, offshore oil and gas et cetera—contributed $74.2 billion in direct value to the economy. The value of this 'blue economy', as we call it, has doubled in the last decade, is growing much faster than the national economy and contributes more than agriculture. Furthermore, it is projected to be worth more than $100 billion by 2025. Given this rapid expansion, the requirement for a strong evidence base on which to make wise decisions about the future of our marine estate is, arguably, now greater than ever. Recognising this, in 2015 the National Marine Science Committee, led by AIMS, developed a National Marine Science Plan. I would commend this to you as a reference to Australia’s future marine science needs.

Finally, I would like to summarise the 2016 AIMS Great Barrier Reef Long-term Monitoring Program, which was released on the AIMS website this afternoon. This is the 33rd year that AIMS has undertaken its large-scale monitoring of the reef. The data we have collected provides a comprehensive and authoritative overview of the state of the GBR and allows us to put the major bleaching event of 2016, which I assume you may have heard of, in the context of the last three decades.

You will no doubt be aware that in 2012 AIMS reported that the average coral cover of the Great Barrier Reef had fallen by half over the preceding 27 years. The decline was the result of cumulative impacts of cyclones, outbreaks of the crown-of-thorns starfish and coral bleaching. In 2012, coral bleaching had been responsible for only 10 per cent of that quite large decline in the health of the reef. During 2016, parts of the reef were subjected to the most severe bleaching event on record, while other parts suffered from a crown-of-thorns starfish plague, which has been slowly moving south from Cairns to Townsville. By the end of 2016, coral cover in the Northern GBR was less than half of what it was in 2011 due to mortality caused by two severe cyclones, an ongoing crown-of-thorns outbreak and that severe coral bleaching in 2016. This decline is unprecedented in the 30-year time series we have collected.

Over the long term, coral cover on the central GBR has shown a general decline, and in 2011 reached its lowest level following Tropical Cyclone Yasi. Between 2011 and 2015 it steadily recovered, but again in 2016, in response to coral bleaching and crown-of-thorns, we saw a small decline. Coral cover on reefs in the Southern GBR fell to their lowest levels in 2009, following a series of storms and Tropical Cyclone Hamish. However, without any disturbances since then these reefs have rebounded strongly over the last seven years and by the end of 2016 coral cover was back up to more than 30 per cent. Averaged over the whole GBR, coral cover declined by about a quarter during 2016, and this was on the bottom of a 30-year decline that had already taken half of the reef.

I would emphasize that these data do not include the impacts of severe bleaching during the summer of 2017—it happened again—or the ongoing devastation of crown-of-thorns in the central Great Barrier Reef during that time or the impacts of Tropical Cyclone Debbie. 2017 has been a year with cumulative impacts of different stressors that have created a perfect storm for the GBR, and we expect that they will have had led to very significant mortality, particularly in the central region. Our assessment of 2017 will be provided in 2018.

I will leave it there.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. Is it just you and Mr Mead who have come down today?

Mr Gunn : We have our CFO, who has just joined us, and we thought we would give them the experience of coming to Senate estimates for the first time.

CHAIR: Terrific, and have you all come down from Townsville for the day?

Mr Gunn : We have, yes, especially.

CHAIR: That is very kind of you, and are you here overnight?

Mr Gunn : Yes.

Senator Sinodinos: It would be hard to get back tonight.

Mr Gunn : The last plane to Townsville left a few hours ago.

CHAIR: The reason I ask is I know it is quite a big deal for you and your team to come down from Townsville. One of the reasons you were called to estimates today was that the Greens specifically wanted to ask you questions, yet they have not had the courtesy of turning up today, which I think is extraordinarily rude. I would like it if you could take on notice what it has cost the department to have you come down here and spend the night and appear in front of estimates to answer questions for a group of people that are not here.

Mr Gunn : Will do.

CHAIR: The good news is, because you are appearing, we have actually worked out a couple of questions for you. My first question is about the AIMS Index of Marine Industry. You mentioned it in your opening statement. And, by the way, thank you for that very comprehensive opening statement. If you could table that it would be terrific. You mentioned the strong contribution that marine industries make to our national economy. Could you tell us a little bit more about how the marine research community is helping to underpin the growth of the marine industries?

Mr Gunn : As I mentioned in my opening address, a lot of Australia's research has been in a discovery phase for quite a long time. We declared our Australian Fishing Zone in about 1979, the year before I was first employed as a marine scientist. At that stage, we were bound to go and map out our Australian Fishing Zone and were bound to discover the territory we had just declared. What we have found since 1979 is that the declaration of that one has opened up. Many industries like the oil and gas industry, the fishing industry and the aquaculture industry have expanded. Marine tourism has expanded during that time, and as each one of these industries has begun and expanded, marine research of all types, from geology to biology to physics, has contributed to that growth. They have contributed to Australia's Ocean Policy, which was declared in 1998, which guided a lot of our conservation measures that have been rolled out, like the national marine reserve system, for example.

Recognising the synergy between science and policy and industry, in 2015, the National Marine Science Committee, which brings together all of Australia's marine science peak bodies and universities and a lot of the policy agencies, came together and developed a National Marine Science Plan in concert with end users. We now have a decadal plan that we believe will help industry and policy and regulators grab the evidence base required to continue that growth. As I said earlier, it is an amazing rate of growth, when you see that in 2016 it is worth more than agriculture in value-add to the nation.

CHAIR: Thank you for that. Was that initiated in 2015?

Mr Gunn : Yes.

Senator KETTER: This might be too early to quantify, but has anyone done any work in relation to the degradation of the Great Barrier Reef and the impact that it has on the blue economy?

Mr Gunn : An estimate of the value of marine tourism, or the Great Barrier Reef general economy, was made about five or six years ago. It was estimated to be between $5 billion and $6 billion per year, largely for those coastal economies, those small and medium-sized cities along the coast, that rely on tourism and associated industries for their livelihoods. The threats we are talking about in the Great Barrier Reef, which I took some time to outline earlier, threaten the very viability of the reef and thus the viability of that tourism industry. The flow-on impacts on those coastal economies would be quite huge. It is very clear that, in other parts of the world where coral reefs have been lost, there has been a very significant reduction in tourism and a range of other flow-on effects.

I believe that the body called the Great Barrier Reef Foundation will at the end of this month, on 26 June, be launching a new evaluation of the value of the reef. They have been leaving enough hints that it is going to be a lot greater than the $6 billion that was estimated five or so years ago. So, by any measure, it is a very major component of the blue economy and Australia's economy.

Senator KETTER: There are certainly many reasons to be concerned. I note that local tourism operators are concerned that we not alarm customers. We still want people to go to the Great Barrier Reef and to participate.

Mr Gunn : Absolutely.

Senator KETTER: There is a fine balance we need to take there between obviously not understating the damage that is occurring and not harming the tourism industry.

Mr Gunn : Very much. I think in 2016, the year that we had our fullest assessment, we were very careful to make sure that where the bleaching was occurring at that time was outside of their core area of operation, which is around the Cairns area and the Whitsundays. At that stage the bleaching was not occurring where major tourism had. In 2017 Cairns was hit very badly by bleaching and the Whitsundays was hit very badly by a cyclone. So we have seen quite a quantum shift in the tourism industry's view of how important it is to get on top of a range of issues, such as climate change and management of cumulative stresses on the reef, and maybe even getting in and doing some major approaches to intervening to support the reef in the future. They have gone into absolute join-the-action mode, which I think is a really powerful thing for them to have done.

Senator KETTER: I should place on the record the fact that I visited your centre near Townsville a couple of years ago and was extremely impressed by the national sea simulator and the demonstration of the giant triton and its effects on crown of thorns. It is extremely valuable work being done there. Finally, I would like an update on your partnership with Boeing in respect of developing innovative technologies to monitor the health of the Great Barrier Reef.

Mr Gunn : I mentioned earlier the 33 years we have been collecting data on the Great Barrier Reef. As I am sure you know, it is more than 2,000 kilometres long and 3,000 reefs. We have been running a boat around that reef for the last 33 years, having people diving off the edge of it and getting towed around to count corals. We are hoping that Boeing will help us run that through a series of drone flights. We will not have to get in the water and we will probably reduce costs by an order of magnitude if we can get this new technology underway. We are in our second year of an arrangement with them. There are a number of ongoing projects. We are already doing some on the ground testing of some of the new technologies they have brought to Australia through the collaboration.

Senator KETTER: Thank you very much.

Senator BUSHBY: I note in your opening statement that the AIMS Act provides that you have a mandate for working across Australia's EEZ but that you focus on the tropical part of Australia, for whatever reason. Does that mean that you work with other agencies? As a senator from Tasmania I am particularly interested in the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies.

Mr Gunn : The National Marine Science Committee is a collaboration that involves IMAS. In fact, CSIRO is a really significant contributor. Their headquarters are in Hobart—I am a Hobartian too; I have been in Townsville for only five years. Yes, we do a number of collaborative projects with both IMAS and CSIRO in different ways. CSIRO is a very large organisation and we are quite a small one. We extend our research by being collaborative by nature. I think 93 per cent of the papers we write are co-authored with somebody from another organisation, as a metric of collaboration. Yes, there is an Australian consortium of marine scientists who work very closely together.

Senator BUSHBY: Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for appearing tonight, Mr Gunn and Mr Mead. Again my apologies for the late hour, even later than you anticipated. It was fascinating to hear from AIMS today.

Senator Sinodinos: Madam Chairman, can I add that this may be the CEO's last estimates.

CHAIR: Is that right, Mr Gunn?

Mr Gunn : I very much hope so—not in any derisory way, but I very much hope so.

Senator Sinodinos: We have just been through a process of appointing a new CEO. John Gunn has been very kind to stay on. In anticipation of that, thank you very much for everything that you have done for AIMS and for the Australian government and people.

Mr Gunn : Thank you, Minister.

CHAIR: Thank you. There being no further questions at this time, the committee's consideration of the 2017-18 budget estimates will resume tomorrow at 9 am with further examination of the Industry, Innovation and

Science portfolio. I thank Minister Sinodinos, the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science and all witnesses who have given evidence to the committee today.

Committee adjourned at 21:55