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Economics Legislation Committee
Australian Institute of Marine Science

Australian Institute of Marine Science


CHAIR: Welcome to the agency and to Minister Scullion. Thank you for filling in for Minister Canavan this evening. Is there an opening statement?

Dr Hardisty : Thanks very much for letting us make an opening statement. First, I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the sea country and all the places that AIMS works. AIMS was set up by an act of parliament in 1972, with the Great Barrier Reef as our initial focus. Our headquarters was in Townsville in North Queensland. In the wake of the recent floods in and around Townsville, I would like to acknowledge the great work of the emergency services, including the Army, during a very difficult time. I would also like to thank all the AIMS staff, who kept working, even as floodwaters threatened their homes. They volunteered to keep our facilities at Cape Cleveland running, even as our road was cut, and then banded together to help our colleagues whose homes were flooded to clean up and dig out. It was a pretty bad time for a lot of people. I just wanted to acknowledge that. Thank you.

But even as all that was going on, AIMS and its partners were working hard to wrap up the $6 million Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program, the RRAP, feasibility study, which began last year with funding from the Commonwealth government. The study, involving a consortium of over 100 experts from more than 20 organisations—including core partners CSIRO, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, James Cook University, University of Queensland, Queensland University of Technology and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation—has investigated the long term at-scale potential of a wide variety of ways to help reefs recover from damage and adapt better to warming waters. The long-term objective is to provide governments with options for at-scale restoration and adaptation. Currently, such options do not exist.

The report will be delivered next month, but I can share some high-level conclusions from our work, very briefly, if I may. No. 1: the potential economic, social and environmental benefits to Australia of at-scale restoration and adaptation on the GBR are significant, in the tens of billions of dollars, if it can be done right. No. 2: at-scale restoration and adaptation of the GBR is technically possible but, at present, there are no deployment-ready techniques. The feasibility study has identified techniques that, with future research and development, could be deployed over the coming three to 10 years. No. 3: a significant collaborative and coordinated R&D effort is needed before at-scale intervention can be made technically feasible, affordable, safe and acceptable to the public. No. 4: achieving the mission will depend on deploying an integrated package of intervention measures designed to work together and reinforce each other over time. There's no silver bullet. Lastly, there is a significant risk of not acting. There is now a window of opportunity. The longer we wait to develop feasible options, the more expensive and difficult it will be to intervene successfully and the greater the risk that the window of opportunity will close.

AIMS will shortly release the latest edition of its biennial The AIMS Index of Marine Industry, which measures the economic value of Australia's marine industries. In 2001 and 2002 total income, based on the marine environment, was about $27 billion. In 2015-16 it was $68.1 billion, an increase of over 250 per cent during that period. And for the first time in the history of the index, in this latest version, which will be issued next month, tourism and recreational activities have eclipsed offshore oil and gas production as the main contributor to the Australian economy amongst marine industries.

As Australia's north continues to grow and develop, the marine estate will increasingly deliver more value and be subject to mounting stresses. Vast areas of our northern marine estate remain virtually unexplored. Meanwhile, key marine ecosystems, such as coral reefs, are in decline and will require significant investment if we are to safeguard them and the economic and social benefits they represent for the future. There is much work to be done.

CHAIR: Thank you, Dr Hardisty. Senator Stoker?

Senator STOKER: Thank you, Chair, and Dr Hardisty. You touched on it a little in your opening statement, but I'm hoping you can elaborate for me, please: what's been the impact of recent flooding in Townsville on the operations of AIMS?

Dr Hardisty : We've been able to continue our work during the floods and during the aftermath. It hasn't really affected our ability to deliver the things we need to deliver. Boats were out doing their normal work on the reef during the floods. The only thing that happened is that our site was cut off. There's only one road in. It was flooded. And we had some personnel who had to remain on site to keep essential facilities, like our national sea simulator and the very valuable experiments that are contained therein, running. Those people had to stay out there quite a long time. But, overall, we kept going; we kept working. So we're pretty proud of that.

Senator STOKER: Understandably. What efforts were made to support staff who were affected by flooding?

Dr Hardisty : That's a great question. We have an emergency business continuity program in AIMS. In fact, my chief operating officer and I were discussing, just before Christmas, that we needed to run an exercise in September to test how well we would respond. We were busy thinking up scenarios that might test our organisation. Well, one arrived a bit sooner that we thought. The first thing we did was make sure that the site was secure, that people who needed to stay on were on and anybody else who needed to get out got out before the road was completely inundated—including me. I live on site, so my family and I had to leave.

We then activated the committee and the first thing we did was find out where every single person was. We had a roster: where are you; are you okay; do you need help? We catalogued every single one of our people and made sure we knew where everyone was and what their status was. The next thing we did was start to offer support for people who were in real distress—I think 20 people whose homes were badly flooded, full of debris et cetera, some of them really badly, with cars flooded et cetera. We immediately reached out and provided them with interim support, because they in some cases had nowhere to go. So they stayed with friends or we put them up in hotels for a period of time until they could dig out.

When the recovery started, we organised AIMS volunteer crews. So we got a roster of everybody who wanted to volunteer to help and we identified what they could do, when they could attend, what their physical restrictions might be and what equipment and expertise they had that might be relevant, and we organised teams to go in and help each of our colleagues to clean up. David did a couple of them. Teams went in and everyone just pitched in. It was a pretty amazing experience. I think the morale of the organisation has been actually lifted by coming together. But it doesn't really help some of the people who were really badly affected. But thanks for asking.

Senator STOKER: Congratulations on taking a difficult situation and turning it into something that sounds like it was a good opportunity for community engagement and for staff bonding.

Dr Hardisty : Absolutely, and a lot of our people were volunteering in the broader community.

Senator STOKER: The consequence, I suppose, is something I'd like to turn to now. There have been some reports that the flooding will result in large sediment run-offs impacting marine areas around Townsville, including on the reef. Can you tell me, firstly: is that so? Would you outline what research AIMS is undertaking to deal with this issue.

Dr Hardisty : We have crews and boats out right now monitoring those affected areas. We're looking at salinity. For instance, we know that, in the waters near Townsville and in some of the other outlets like the Burdekin, salinity has dropped almost by half. Instead of salty water, you've got brackish water, and that can have a real effect on a whole variety of marine organisms. There are also significant sediment plumes that are reaching right out into the reef. Some of them have gone tens of kilometres out to the reef. Sediment can block light and have detrimental effects on coral growth and survival. We're out there right now trying to figure out what's going on. But we've got a program planned for April. In April, we're going out there specifically to do the monitoring—because you need a little bit of time to determine what the effect was. Going out there right now helps us determine immediate acute effects, but really it's the chronic effects that are probably more significant.

Senator STOKER: We hear a lot about AIMS's work on the Great Barrier Reef, but can you provide us with an update of some of the other research and other projects that are being undertaken?

Dr Hardisty : Yes. I was in Perth on Tuesday doing the mid-term seminar on our North West Shoals to Shore program, which is a program that's funded by industry in WA out of the Good Standing Agreements, with a number of organisations partnering, including the pearl industry—the Pearl Producers Association in WA. It's a big industry out there. We're looking at the effects of marine seismic surveys that the oil industry undertakes on a regular basis up and down that coast on demersal fish—commercial fish species like red emperor—and on pearl production itself. It's halfway through a three-year program of about $20 million. It is really exciting, actually. That's a great example of the kind of external work we do where we really engage with industry to deal with problems that affect their stakeholders and affect them. If we can learn more about what is actually occurring rather than relying on anecdotal evidence or strong opinions on either side, we can hopefully land in a place where everyone benefits by being able to put proper policies in place that help industry operate safely but protect the vital interests of stakeholders, who are also out there producing wealth and creating jobs and so on from the marine environment. So, that's perhaps the one that's at the top of my mind right now, but that's pretty exemplar. We work with the port of Darwin, for instance, to help them manage the port and the bay, because there are a lot of sediment problems and so on that are really affecting them. We have an ongoing relationship with various port authorities as well so that they can continue to operate but do so in a way that, again, is protective of the environment but allows them to get the most out of their business.

Senator STOKER: Thank you very much. Thanks for the work that you do.

Dr Hardisty : Thank you.

Senator KIM CARR: I understand the minister has offered a briefing on Friday afternoon. You may well be aware there's a funeral on in Melbourne for former senator Barney Cooney. The normal practice when you have ministerial briefings is to actually seek a time from the other party, rather than offering unilateral arrangements. I do apologise; I won't be able to meet that schedule. Perhaps we can sort out some other time that's mutually agreeable. I'd be keen to get a briefing off you on matters in terms of the operations of the agency.

Dr Hardisty : Yes, sir.

Senator KIM CARR: While you're here, how many vessels do you have in your current research fleet?

Dr Hardisty : We have two major vessels of 20-plus metres. These are ocean-going, coastal, state-of-the-art research vessels. The one on the west coast is RV Solander. It's the newest and most capable of our fleet. For the first time ever, it made the journey all the way across the Top End over Christmas and New Year, and worked up in the far north of the Great Barrier Reef. Now she has gone back to her home port in Darwin. On the east coast on the Great Barrier Reef, we have RV Cape Ferguson, which is much older. It's 20 years old and nearing the end of operational life. We also have a number of smaller open vessels.

Senator KIM CARR: Tinnies?

Dr Hardisty : Yes. Glorified tinnies with big motors on the back.

Senator KIM CARR: You mentioned you have one vessel due for replacement, the 20-year-old vessel?

Dr Hardisty : Yes, sir.

Senator KIM CARR: Are you engaged with the departments of Treasury and Finance about the long-term replacement strategy?

Dr Hardisty : We haven't begun that process yet.

Senator KIM CARR: I see. What does it cost to replace a vessel?

Dr Hardisty : A replacement vessel for RV CapeFergusonour current estimates are in the order of $50 million.

Senator KIM CARR: What's the operational life of the CapeFerguson?

Dr Hardisty : I'm going to ask David to help me here.

Mr Mead : They don't technically have a particular cut-off. Once they get, sort of, past the 20-year period, operating costs start to go up. It's another hurdle at the 25- to 30-year period associated with survey requirements, which we seek to avoid. We would be seeking to replace this vessel prior to that time. If not, it would need to go into a fairly extensive refurbishment program.

Dr Hardisty : I think the key is—and we've already started to see this now—that faults start to appear, more maintenance is required and dependability and reliability start to go down. The curve can be pretty steep.

Senator KIM CARR: A refit is not going to fix it?

Dr Hardisty : It could do. There could be a life-extension program.

Senator KIM CARR: How much would that be?

Dr Hardisty : That would be in the $1 million to $3 million range.

Senator KIM CARR: Solander is doing the Gulf of Carpentaria and Joseph Bonaparte Gulf—is that what you were saying?

Dr Hardisty : Those are some of the areas, but she plies all the way from Exmouth all the way up—

Senator KIM CARR: So you do the north-west cape? You do the reef systems of the north-west still?

Dr Hardisty : For the first time ever in January, but normally she has never crossed the gulf all the way to the other side. That was the first time. It's a long journey.

Senator KIM CARR: How long did that take?

Mr Mead : About four days.

Dr Hardisty : Four or five days of steaming to come around the top.

Senator KIM CARR: Why did you feel it was necessary to do that?

Dr Hardisty : We felt that we had an opportunity to survey the Far North, through some new funding that we obtained through the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, to understand—

Senator KIM CARR: That was the $6 million?

Dr Hardisty : No.

Senator KIM CARR: What's this money, then?

Dr Hardisty : I think this was the first contract that the Great Barrier Reef Foundation provided through that $443 million grant. It allowed us to survey the far north of the reef. Usually it's very difficult for us to get up there more than every two years. Because of everything that has transpired in the last little while, with the back-to-back bleaching, it was a unique opportunity to go there and study those reefs now, a couple of years after the bleaching, and determine what survived and why, and take samples and try to understand if recovery was occurring. It really filled in a big gap in our understanding of the reef as a whole. Cape Fergusonis 100 per cent booked, so we needed to bring Solander around.

Senator KIM CARR: That makes sense. You've been CEO now for a little while. How long exactly?

Dr Hardisty : 18 months, sir.

Senator KIM CARR: So you've had a bit of time to assess the organisation?

Dr Hardisty : Yes.

Senator KIM CARR: You've released a new strategy document. What are the main ambitions you are trying to achieve through that process?

Dr Hardisty : Our strategy document outlines three major impacts that we want to deliver for the nation out to 2025—so, over the next seven to 10 years, essentially. The first is to continue our traditional mission in helping to understand and provide the research that helps underpin protecting Australia's marine ecosystems. The second is that we want to demonstrate that we're providing at least $100 million in environmental, social and economic net benefit to Australia every year—so, roughly double the investment that the nation makes in us. The third is that we want to act to help protect coral reefs from the effects of climate change. Those are our three stated impact goals.

Senator KIM CARR: My reading of it is that you're suggesting you actually need to step up. AIMS itself needs to step up to meet these challenges, to meet this new environment? Does that mean you're able to actually do that within your capabilities with the financial resources you've actually got at the moment?

Dr Hardisty : I think the way I look at it is that the challenges in the marine environment right now are such that there is a lot to do. At the moment, we're doing everything we can, but there's a lot more that needs to be done.

Senator KIM CARR: I'm just wondering how you do that within your existing resources.

Dr Hardisty : One of the ways of doing it is to take the existing funding that's provided by the Commonwealth as our appropriation funding, which is about $45 million a year, and leveraging that up through working with external organisations, industry and other departments to increase our ability and capability. We add another $25 million a year, so we basically are a $70 million a year effort. Without that $25 million of leverage, we would be not nearly as capable and we would be doing far less in terms of assisting Australia to deliver what's required.

Senator KIM CARR: But given how important the marine environment is for this country—in terms of your international competitors, you're saying AIMS are No. 2 in the world, is that right?

Dr Hardisty : Actually, I'm really proud to say that just before Christmas we reached No. 1.

Senator KIM CARR: How did you do that?

Dr Hardisty : By providing excellent science, by being very mission directed and focused, by collaborating extensively and by working with great partners.

Senator KIM CARR: Who says you're No. 1?

Dr Hardisty : The ranking is based on the publication of peer reviewed journals—in particular, articles. So, it's one measure. It's one we like to use because we do very well at it.

Senator KIM CARR: I'm not complaining. I use it myself on occasion.

Dr Hardisty : But there are other measures.

Senator KIM CARR: Who has agreed with you that you're No. 1?

CHAIR: I do!

Dr Hardisty : Thank you! Basically, it's an objective system.

Senator KIM CARR: I've got that, but where do I look for verification of this assertion? Have the Americans agreed that you're No. 1?

Dr Hardisty : We haven't phoned them up and asked them.

Senator KIM CARR: You haven't told them?

Dr Hardisty : They actually use the same indices that we do.

Senator KIM CARR: Of course they do, and they agree you're No. 1.

Dr Hardisty : Our objective in our strategy states really clearly that we want to try to be in the top three.

Senator KIM CARR: I got that.

Dr Hardisty : It balances up and down. There's no doubt that—

Senator KIM CARR: I was happy to cop No. 2, but you were the one that put No. 1 on the table!

Dr Hardisty : Yes, sir. Well, we are proud of it. But the way it balances up and down, the next time we speak maybe we'll be No. 3. But we want to stay in the top tier.

Senator KIM CARR: How do you maintain your standing internationally?

Dr Hardisty : I would say that there are a couple of key things that have let us—let's face it—punch way above our weight for a relatively small nation. The other big ones, by the way, are in the UK and the US. They receive a lot more funding than we do. They're larger. They've been around longer. There are a couple of key things that have allowed us to do really, really well. We have unrivalled infrastructure. Those vessels that I mentioned are really unique around the world in terms of capability. You've got to be able to get out there on the water and do things in the water. You can't just be in the office and modelling.

Senator KIM CARR: But they've got to be maintained. That is the question.

Dr Hardisty : They have to be maintained and, if we lose those assets, we fall behind pretty quickly. The other one is the National Sea Simulator. This is one of the jewels in our crown, which you know of very well—better than me.

Senator KIM CARR: I'm very keen on this.

Dr Hardisty : There's nothing like it in the world. It's the world's most sophisticated research aquarium complex. People come from around the world to collaborate with us and to learn from us.

Senator KIM CARR: When is that due for updating?

Dr Hardisty : The current facility is operational and has ongoing maintenance. We have applied for an extension, an expansion, of it. I'll pass over to David, who is one of the architects of SeaSim, to comment on that more.

Senator KIM CARR: Ms Weston wants to add something here, I see.

Ms Weston : The collaborative research infrastructure funding we expect to assist with this sometime after the forward estimates. I might say, too, that the government also provided some funding through modernisation funding for a solar capability, solar panels which have been put on the roofs—I know it's been raining—at AIMS to help them with their power.

Dr Hardisty : I would be really remiss if I didn't also add, to answer your question about why we're doing well: it's our people. There is the stuff, but you've got to have the people to use it, and we have just some of the best people in the world.

Senator KIM CARR: Thank you very much. Given the hour, I'll leave it there and put the other questions on notice.

Senator KETTER: Mr Hardisty, once you get through the feasibility study, you're going to need $100 million for reef resilience and adaptation going forward. Is that what's going to happen under RRAP?

Dr Hardisty : That's the longstanding plan—that $100 million of Commonwealth funds currently earmarked for RRAP would be matched by an equivalent sum from philanthropists, raised in the international markets, and $100 million from the research providers as in kind and other contributions, to create a $300 million research package over five years. That's the scale of effort—probably, frankly, the minimum scale of effort—that's going to be required if we want to create another set of levers that we can pull to help the reef other than the conventional ones which we've been using for a long time.

Senator KETTER: What role will the foundation play in providing that funding?

Dr Hardisty : Currently, with the funding agreement in place and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation's recently published investment strategy, that money would come through them into—we are recommending, anyway—a consortium of research providers and operators that would be independently governed and that would deliver the necessary research and development outcomes.

Senator KETTER: What's your optimal method of receiving that funding?

Dr Hardisty : We're agnostic on how the money comes, as long as it comes.

Senator KETTER: Is it important that funding comes in minimum amounts? I guess this depends on the outcome of the feasibility study, but are you looking for a large amount up-front? Or are you looking for smaller amounts as you progress through the remaining period of time for the program?

Dr Hardisty : We're working right now on developing the detailed cost estimates around those five years. David, do you want to comment on that?

Mr Mead : At the moment the profile looks reasonably flat across the five years, and the reason for that is that we're likely to be seeking to explore a wider range of options initially and then progressively narrowing in and focusing on the most prospective. So, as you're going you're effectively shifting investment from those that are less prospective into those that are more so, and the net of that combination is a fairly flat investment requirement.

Senator KETTER: Have you had discussions with the foundation about how the funding will be applied—the frequency, the amounts?

Dr Hardisty : We've had initial discussions with the foundation. They're part of the feasibility study program, as I mentioned in my opening statement. They sit on the executive committee, which I chair, and all this is open and transparent. So, as we've moved along the process, they're aware of what's going on, and we brief them regularly. We're in close contact.

CHAIR: Thank you for appearing at estimates today.