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Environment and Communications Legislation Committee
Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority

Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority


CHAIR: Good morning, Dr Reichelt. Welcome back. Would you like to make an opening statement?

Dr Reichelt : Thank you, Chair. For the record, my name is Russell Reichelt; I am chairman of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. I would like to provide the committee with a brief update on the state of the Great Barrier Reef and some recent improvements in our reef management, and our budget position. First, I acknowledge the traditional owners of the Great Barrier Reef and their continuing connections to the land and sea country and pay respects to the traditional owners of the land on which we are meeting today.

In December 2016 the Australian government announced a significant funding commitment to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority—an additional $124 million over 10 years. This major commitment provides the agency with the funding certainty to continue our core function of managing the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, including essential programs such as enforcing our zoning plan, which research indicates is contributing significantly to reef health and resilience through protection of biodiversity.

Protecting the reef from local pressures is more important than ever in the face of the global pressures on coral reefs worldwide. With another relatively hot summer across most of Australia, the authority is once again on a coral bleaching alert. We have had reports of bleached coral in the last few weeks in the region from Mackay in the south to near Cape Tribulation in the north. The Great Barrier Reef is under severe heat stress following last year's bleaching and an unusually warm winter, and we are working now to gain a synoptic picture of where the effects are being seen right now as coral bleaching. We build this picture from aerial surveys and reports from divers. The joint field management team is comprised of officers from Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and also tourism industry operators—all important sources of information across this very large region. The Australian Institute of Marine Science provides critical data on a regular basis and the Bureau of Meteorology provides regular heat maps that are also proving to be an accurate predictor of stress in the system.

These marine heatwave conditions, driven by a global pattern of ocean warming, reinforce the urgent need to mitigate the risks posed by climate change and to achieve the global objectives set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement. The Australian government is providing funds to build reef resilience through crown of thorns starfish control and reducing the risks posed by land run-off from sediments, nutrients and pesticides. These are local things which help the reef gain its resilience in the face of the global issues which are outside the control of the marine park authority. The authority will continue to provide up-to-date information on the state of the reef and the Australian government's recent funding commitment for our agency puts us in a strong position to implement our core programs building reef resilience.

Senator CHISHOLM: In an interview on the ABC AM program last Friday Minister Frydenberg claimed that when the Liberals came to power the Great Barrier Reef was on a watchlist. Are you aware of what watchlist the Great Barrier Reef was on?

Dr Reichelt : I am not aware of what was being referred to there. I have not seen a record of that conversation.

Mr Oxley : My division, Wildlife, Heritage and Marine Division, has the lead responsibility for engagement by the Australian government with the World Heritage Committee. A reference to being on the in danger watchlist is a reference to the fact that the Great Barrier Reef was in a cycle of annual reporting to the World Heritage Committee called state of conservation reporting, where each year we were required to make a report as the state party to the World Heritage Committee in relation to the conservation status of the Great Barrier Reef and then the advisory bodies to the World Heritage Committee, in this case IUCN and the World Heritage Centre, looked at our submission and information from other sources, and prepared what is known as a state of conservation report inclusive of recommendations for consideration by the World Heritage Committee. We were and had been in an annual cycle of reporting since the early part of this decade.

Senator CHISHOLM: Just to confirm: we were not on a watchlist, though, were we?

Mr Oxley : It is colloquially known as a 'watchlist'—being on the state of conservation reporting cycle.

Senator CHISHOLM: But there was no actual list, as such, administered by the World Heritage Committee, that we were on?

Mr Oxley : It is colloquially known, as I said, as the 'watchlist'. We have been subject to annual review by the World Heritage Committee, so, in that sense, we were among many properties all written down. So, I guess, there is a list, and that we are being scrutinised in the terms I have already outlined.

Senator CHISHOLM: So there is a document?

Mr Oxley : There is a list of properties which are subject to state of conservation reporting, yes.

Senator CHISHOLM: But we are no longer in that cycle now?

Mr Oxley : We are in a different cycle as a result of the decision of the World Heritage Committee in Bonn in 2015. We have been placed in a different situation where at the end of last year—so, by 1 December, a time frame we met—we were asked to submit to the World Heritage Centre a report on the governments'—and it is jointly the Australian and Queensland governments—progress in implementing the Reef 2050 long-term sustainability plan.

That progress update was not to go directly to the World Heritage Committee for consideration in the state of conservation cycle. It was to be reviewed by the technical advisers to the World Heritage Committee—so, the centre and IUCN—and only if they were not satisfied with Australia's progress in implementing the plan was it to be referred to the World Heritage Committee.

Senator CHISHOLM: Just in terms of the amount of money the federal government is spending on reef protection: Dr Reichelt, I think you mentioned that it was $124 million over 10 years?

Dr Reichelt : Yes.

Senator CHISHOLM: Is that the total commitment, or is there other money being spent as well?

Dr Reichelt : That figure is the sum of the increase to our previous budget just for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

Senator Birmingham: That is just the authority. It is just the sum of the increase to the authority. Is there anything additional you would like officials to go through?

Dr de Brouwer : In outcome 1.1 this evening we will have officers here who can take you through the Commonwealth funding.

Senator CHISHOLM: In terms of the money that has been committed over the next 10 years, how much of an increase is that compared to how much had been spent previously?

Dr Reichelt : What this funding gives us is stability at around our current levels. There was a series of additional short-term funds provided over a few years prior to this which were due to terminate. But in the intervening period it was deemed by this government that that funding should continue, and the announcement and the figures are: for this year, $1 million; for 2017-18, $4.4 million; 2018-19, $13.8 million and 2019-20, $15 million. This means that we now have budget stability at our current levels that would not have otherwise been the case.

Senator CHISHOLM: So there is no increase in funding. You talk about the challenge that we are facing from coral bleaching. Surely, in terms of confronting that, additional funding would be required?

Dr Reichelt : There are two elements to it. There is significant additional funding at the Commonwealth level—which the Secretary just referred to and which is in a later program—which will pick up addressing a range of other risks to the reef, which is a very significant and much larger figure. In terms of this funding: it does allow us to continue our essential short-term protective resilience measures.

We are delivering about half of the specific actions in the Reef 2050 Plan, which will now be funded. The Commonwealth's contribution to the operating costs of the new patrol vessel was a substantial $6 million, which is a really good capital increase for the Southern Barrier Reef. There is also our capital funding for our national education centre—the Reef HQ Aquarium—which is very valuable for us for explaining how the reef operates. So there are very specific targets for the increase in funding for the things that will continue, and it was good news for the authority.

Senator Birmingham: Funding to the authority is core and important in terms of its work in the protection of the reef, but it is only one component of overall support for a bigger picture analysis of funding, about which you can scrutinise the department.

The Reef 2050 Plan investment framework identified some $1.28 billion, $716 million from the Australian government, being invested in specific actions over the next five years. That, importantly, is a conservative figure because it does not include things like the operational funding for the authority or investment through the CEFC reef fund. It is about identifying specific funding for specific Reef 2050 Plan actions. We can obviously make sure officials take you through the total quantum of reef funding in the relevant sections, in addition to what the authority receives.

Senator CHISHOLM: Dr Reichelt, would it be possible for you to give us some comment on the sea temperatures that we are seeing in the Great Barrier Reef. I understand that they are two degrees above normal, and that, as you alluded to, we have seen some evidence of coral bleaching, in particular around Palm Island.

Dr Reichelt : The current temperatures on the Great Barrier Reef are about two degrees above what we call the long-run average. Unfortunately that long-run average is steadily increasing. We do not use the word 'normal' any longer; it is the long-run average. The temperatures over winter were warm, and the huge spike in temperatures in summer 2016, which had dramatic effect on corals, has received wide publicity. That is now well on the public record. We have not returned to the long-run average since then, so there is accumulating heat stress in the system.

The other thing that has been emerging from the scientific work is the fact that corals regaining their colour may well appear to be taking some time to regain their overall resilience. They lose their colour; they are bleached; they are stressed. Those that do not die regain their colour and appear normal, but things like their reproductive ability and their physiological strength are still low for some period. We are yet to find out exactly how long that is, but it could be a matter of one or two years. They become more prone to coral disease and other pressures. When we talk about accumulating heat stress we also have the issue that the corals this year are not yet fully recovered from the shock of widespread bleaching last year. I am just summing up the synoptic picture.

Senator CHISHOLM: In terms of the programs and the money being spent, would more funding assist the organisation in terms of the challenges confronting the reef?

Senator Birmingham: I am not sure that you would find an entity that probably does not come to the table that will not say that more funding—

Senator CHISHOLM: I was asking Dr Reichelt.

Senator Birmingham: We would all like limitless funding.

Dr Reichelt : That is right, in a sense of a question relating to future budgets. But, from the point of view of that analysis, the department, with us and other colleagues, has done an investment framework for the Barrier Reef, and I would refer you to that for expert opinion and analysis on where future resourcing may go, subject to future government decisions. That work has been done, and it is much broader than just our agency, even though we featured strongly in there. So, rather than speculate on what I would like future government decisions to be, there is a piece of work that is on the public record.

Senator CHISHOLM: When will the UNESCO expert committee consider its advice ahead of the meeting in Poland?

Dr Reichelt : I will hand over to Mr Oxley—

CHAIR: Just before we do, Senator Chisholm, do you have many more questions?

Senator CHISHOLM: Yes, I have a few more.

CHAIR: Okay. There are quite a few other senators with questions, so what I will do, after this one, is go to Senator Di Natale next, but then we will come back to you before we finish.

Mr Oxley : The report was lodged at the beginning of December. The technical advisers are currently in the process of assessing Australia's progress update. The normal cycle within the World Heritage Committee is that state of conservation reports or other reports or the business of the committee—that is, all the advice and papers—are released in two tranches for the committee's consideration. The first tranche is generally released in the second week of May, and then the second tranche is usually released about two weeks later. So we would expect to have public visibility of the assessment of our progress update by the end of May.

Senator CHISHOLM: Which Commonwealth and Queensland government officials will be represented at the meeting in July?

Mr Oxley : That decision has not been made at this point in time. It will depend entirely on the agenda that is set for the meeting. At the least, I would be attending and, in normal circumstances, heading Australia's delegation, and I would have two staff from the Wildlife, Heritage and Marine Division with me. It is a complex beast to engage with the World Heritage convention with a whole range of business. We would also have with us, at various points, our ambassador to UNESCO and possibly one of his support staff. Beyond that, we have not resolved the composition of the delegation.

Senator CHISHOLM: Any decision on ministerial representation?

Mr Oxley : No.

Senator DI NATALE: I am interested in the mass bleaching event that occurred through 2016, and I am interested in learning a little bit more about what looks like further bleaching in the more southern parts of the reef—or further south. Can you tell me a little bit about what is happening now? I think you mentioned earlier the question of resilience—perhaps you can tell me what that actually means in lay terms?

Dr Reichelt : The bleaching event last year was the largest ever recorded on the Great Barrier Reef. Bleaching, you may not be aware, was first recorded in a mass sense in the early 1980s—but not before that. That was in the eastern Pacific. It is called a mass bleaching event because coral bleaching is a stress reaction. You can get a local bleaching event from a severe downpour of fresh water at low tide, for instance. That can stress the coral for a few days. A mass bleaching means it is over a regional scale of tens to hundreds of kilometres, and it is very tightly tied to sea temperature. The temperature of the water on the barrier reef last year was the highest ever recorded.

Senator DI NATALE: Can we just go back a step? The temperature of the water correlates with temperature in the atmosphere?

Dr Reichelt : Yes, it is driven by that, but it is mainly driven by the temperature of the ocean, but with an overlay of local atmospheric conditions on top. There was a lot of focus on El Nino last year, but there have been El Ninos for millennia. They can cause a spike in temperature. In Australian conditions, it is weather the farmers do not like—hot, dry and still. On the barrier reef that means high radiation with no mixing—so warming waters—on top of the underlying rising sea temperatures.

Senator DI NATALE: And they are a consequence of?

Dr Reichelt : They are tightly tied to the greenhouse gas effect.

Senator DI NATALE: I just wanted to make sure we got that on record.

Dr Reichelt : From space, the ocean makes this planet a dark object. It is 70 per cent water. It stores heat in its oceans. Ninety per cent of the trapped temperature rise is stored in the ocean. We are fortunate to have it. I should probably defer the atmospheric work to the Bureau of Meteorology and stick to the coral issues that I know a lot about. But, yes, the sea temperature has gone up and it is still going up. We have a neutral El Nino at the moment. I have said publicly in the last few weeks that what would be best for the reef is an active monsoonal trough with rain, cloud cover and wind to mix the surface waters.

The pictures coming from the met bureau's heat stress maps—they can describe those—are turning out to be pretty good predictors of where we are seeing bleaching records. It is in the central third and closer to the coast than offshore. I want to emphasise that I am talking about observations of bleaching. We have not had enough eyes in the sky to say for sure whether this is the only place it is occurring. But we checked in the last week where the maps are showing there should be stress, and the corals there are showing bleaching. That is in the central region. It would be impossible to predict out more than a few weeks. We will not know the total effect of this summer's event for some months. There will be many more scientific surveys. Our surveys are essentially quick looks to see where the stress is occurring.

Senator DI NATALE: You predict more of these mass bleaching events over coming decades?

Dr Reichelt : The temperature graph, which is spikey, shows that when the temperature is just a degree or two above normal we see bleaching. The mortality occurs when it is a bit higher than that for longer. With the current trends, you would expect the bleaching events to become more severe and more frequent over the coming decades.

Senator DI NATALE: Just so we understand it a bit better, the corals of the Great Barrier Reef are a very vibrant green and yellow, so when we talk about bleaching what is actually happening at a microscopic level? Tell me how that happens.

Dr Reichelt : Corals are unusual animals that, apart from making something as large as the barrier reef by millions and billons of tiny polyps that form colonies, make a calcium carbonate skeleton, so they are white mostly—

Senator DI NATALE: So the underlying structure looks like bone?

Dr Reichelt : But they have a millimetre or less thickness of live tissue in the polyps, which are packed with billions of microscopic algae that are coloured, mostly browns and greens but some others. You have a thing that can eat protein, like an animal, and make carbohydrate using those symbiotic plant cells, so they are both plant and animal at the same time.

When stress from heating occurs, it disrupts the photosynthesis, the plant aspect. It happens exactly like Roundup works on a weed. Photosynthesis captures sunlight to make energetic molecules. The dark reaction takes those molecules and turns them into sugars. That is what happens in a lot of plants. Roundup stops the second reaction, so you have a toxic mix of energetic molecules, and it starts to kill the plant, and then the animal, through starvation. What we are seeing is a loss of colour because those coloured plants cells disappear and break down. They break down, and we also see the creation of fluorescing molecules. When people say a coral is fluorescing, it does not mean that it is healthy. It means that it has molecules in there that should not really be there in that abundance. What happens is that mostly they go white, but they are still alive, and that is driven by heat stress. The heat is acting like a pesticide on land; the heat stops that dark reaction. But when you take the heat away, it begins again and the coral cells reproduce very quickly and regain their colour.

Senator DI NATALE: Just on that point, once the cells are dead, once the cells have gone from the coral and you are left with the skeleton, there is a chance that the coral will never recover?

Dr Reichelt : They do not actually disappear. There are still some there, and they are in the water as well. When they are in such low numbers that it appears all white, but with this thin film—like cling-film thickness—of living animal material, it can still recover. My comments earlier were about how long it would take. What happens then is that the cells either pass from the seawater into the animal and they regrow, and I am sure there would be scientists who could tell us—

Senator DI NATALE: But the cells will often be killed completely?

Dr Reichelt : I think the animal would die before there were no cells left at all. But that is a finer detail because, at that point, the coral is all white and it is terribly stressed. If you take the heat away, it may or may not recover. We have found that a lot of corals on the barrier reef, some three-quarters of them, became heavily bleached and then recovered. But we found another quarter in the far north which died.

Senator DI NATALE: Which simply did not recover. Do they look like this piece of coral? Is this what you would expect them to look like?

Dr Reichelt : That looks like a dead coral to me.

CHAIR: Order! Senator Di Natale, that is a prop, and you know you are not supposed to use props either in the chamber—

Senator DI NATALE: We had the Treasurer in the House of Representatives—

CHAIR: You know as well as I do—

Senator DI NATALE: We had the Treasurer in the House of Representatives wave a lump of coal and pass it around. We had the Treasurer of this country—

CHAIR: If you do not put them down, I will call a private meeting.

Senator DI NATALE: Will the minister for the environment pass around coral in the House of Representatives to demonstrate what will happen if the Great Barrier Reef dies?

CHAIR: Senator Di Natale, I have suspended this hearing.

Proceeding s suspended from 10:08 to 10:11

CHAIR: The committee has now resumed.

Senator CHISHOLM: I have some questions on land clearing. Are you aware that land clearing has almost doubled in Queensland since 2012?

Dr Reichelt : Once you leave the marine park topic, I will refer you to my colleagues.

Senator Birmingham: There are some areas of land clearing in relation to environmental regulation or possibly in some of the fields of reporting on emissions as well, perhaps, and land management. You could see whether any officials have answers there, Senator.

Dr de Brouwer : I am happy to answer questions, but it is in those two other outcomes.

Senator CHISHOLM: Does reducing land clearing benefit the reef?

Dr Reichelt : The benefit to the reef comes from reduced run-off of sediments. Good vegetation cover restricts the run-off of fine sediments, which are currently running at between four and five times the pre-European and pre-agriculture levels. Sediments and nutrients can attach to those sediments, as well as the fertiliser aspects, and are really the direct target of a measure called the Reef Water Quality Protection Plan, started in 2003, which the authority had a major role in initially. Now its funding and management is heavily driven by a combination of the department and Queensland, but it is critically important for local water quality conditions to take action: there is land clearing but there is also management of sheet erosion, gully erosion and overgrazing in drought. There are a range of measures that are all in that plan and are actively being pursued. But as this is outside the marine park topic, if you wanted more technical details I would refer you to others. From the ocean point of view, clean water is better for the corals.

Senator CHISHOLM: Is the department aware that the Liberals and Nationals in Queensland blocked changes to land clearing laws last year?

Dr de Brouwer : Yes.

Senator CHISHOLM: Has the department looked at what options there are federally, such as using the EPBC Act to prevent the tree clearing that is happening at the moment?

Dr de Brouwer : This is really a matter for 1.5, which is about environmental regulation, but I would make the point that, regardless of what Queensland does, it is a matter of the implementation of the EPBC Act. Under federal law, the EPBC Act applies and if there is a significant impact on the reef, which is a matter of national environmental significance, then the EPBC Act is in play. So it is really regardless, frankly, of Queensland law—the federal law will apply.

Senator HUME: I have a question about illegal foreign fishing. Last year there were a couple of quite high-profile cases of illegal foreign fishing on the reef. Can you describe to the senators here the authority's capabilities in this area, or how you share and cooperate with other authorities like Border Force?

Dr Reichelt : On those detections offshore, Border Force and the Fisheries Management Authority have surveillance capacity beyond the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. There have been instances of detection in the marine park. There is powerful legislation in those portfolios to handle those. The marine park act generally is not invoked for that, because there are more provisions in those available to the department of agriculture. We want to know whether there are any impacts, so we track where and how they might have been taking. In recent times it has tended to have been Vietnamese boats taking beche-de-mer, sea cucumber, and that is of intense interest to us if it is occurring on a large scale in the Barrier Reef, because they are an essential part of the biodiversity cycle. They clean the sand and they play a strong function for clean water on normal coral reefs, and we would not want to see them depleted. So we are very interested from the impact side, but we do not have a major role other than a watching brief. We are fully informed so that we know every detection and we know, as part of an incident report. So, as soon as anyone in those other agencies knows, we know, and we cooperate where we can add information if we have intelligence relating to reports of those vessels from other operators. We do get a lot of reports from other fishing vessels about fishing activities that are not legal. We put in what we know, but the bulk of the effort comes from those other agencies.

Senator HUME: So foreign illegal fishing in the reef tends to be of sea cucumbers; it is not the predatory fish that you find in foreign illegal fishing in the Gulf of Carpentaria, for instance?

Dr Reichelt : No, to my knowledge in recent times and in decades past it was clams. There were Taiwanese vessels taking giant clam meat. So it has not been the top predators—sharks, the groupers, snappers—the line fish, basically.

Senator HUME: I hate to poke the bear and get onto this subject again, but I want to get back to the coral bleaching issue. Obviously it is not necessarily a phenomenon that is purely Australian. It has happened in Hawaii, it has happened in the Maldives and it has happened in Sri Lanka. But your authority is something of a world leader in its expertise in this area. Do you share your knowledge, your abilities and your expertise with other countries and, if so, how do you go about doing that?

Dr Reichelt : We have two avenues at the moment. Apart from the general marine management blogs and literature, we make it widely known, and there are centres of excellence in the US and elsewhere who we are in constant touch with. We have the International Coral Reef Initiative, which began in 1994, of which we were a founding member. Australia has been represented by the authority on that group ever since. That is NGOs as well as governments. It is non-binding. It is essentially a second-track type of interaction—very technical and very interested in sharing both response methods and knowledge, situational awareness. We have just recently been working with the French, who are currently the chair. Australia takes on the chair every five or six years. The foreign minister, Julie Bishop, made special reference to that group, because the current theme is not just about coral bleaching; it is about all the response mechanisms as well in the Coral Reef Initiative, and I believe it was mentioned in the recent conference of parties on climate change, as well as a special mention by Australia and the French government. The other international avenue is slipping my memory at the moment.

Mr Oxley : Just to prompt Russell's memory momentarily, the other one was the work through the World Heritage centre in the Galapagos last year.

Dr Reichelt : Of course—my apologies—that small matter! We have an ongoing, strong relationship with World Heritage Centre. The World Heritage Centre's experts, who assess the national reports that are driven essentially through the department and my colleague Mr Oxley, rely on techniques and methods developed by Australia over the last 40 years. The Barrier Reef was the first nominated marine World Heritage site, and Australia's efforts in its local management were highly recognised in the 2015 decision to not list it as an endangered property, and I think largely because of the efforts Australia is making. We are very transparent as a country.

No other country provides a report as open as the Outlook Report that we do—and it is independent. We construct that report, and it is in the act that we do it. It is in the act that we can call on the expertise we need, and it is transmitted by the minister to parliament unchanged. It is a very independent process. Interestingly, we have done two now, and the World Heritage Centre and the IUCN, which is another global nature conservation non-government organisation, adopted the Outlook Report that Australia developed for all marine properties worldwide. It has had that recognition as well. We are working closely with passing on the methods that we can to countries there. In recent times, the marine site managers—there are 44 marine sites—have been meeting. We have had our third one now, organised by the World Heritage Centre. In those meetings Australia is given special recognition, and people are very interested in what we are going to do next. What are we working on now to improve the protection for the coral systems?

Senator HUME: That is excellent. I have learnt an awful lot about coral bleaching today. Can you tell me, the piece of coral that Senator Di Natale showed you before, the one that he has quite clearly chipped off the reef: had that piece of coral been allowed to stay, is there a chance that that could still be alive?

Dr Reichelt : I do not know where that came from. I hope it was not alive on the Barrier Reef.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: A lot of people have bits of coral washed up on the beach.

CHAIR: Senator Di Natale and Senator Whish-Wilson, you have had your stunt. Now I think it is a reasonable question from Senator Hume, so I will allow her to continue.

Senator HUME: Thank you, Chair. Is there a chance that that piece of coral, when it was chipped off the reef, could still have been alive?

Dr Reichelt : I think it is in the realm of speculation. I do not know where it came from.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: It washed up on the beach.

Dr Reichelt : I will not guess and enter the debate.

Senator Birmingham: But I think as you heard before, Senator, coral bleaching incidents do not necessarily spell the permanent death of the coral. Recovery is quite possible over different time frames.

Senator HUME: I think it is quite dead now.

Senator Birmingham: Indeed.

CHAIR: After that last incident, where I had to call a private meeting, I would just remind all senators here that as chair I am endeavouring to do two things. One is to keep us on schedule and the other is to make sure that our questions remain respectful of the officials who appear before us. If there are any other such incidents, I will take a very dim view of the disruption to this inquiry. While I cannot eject anybody, I will certainly take a very dim view in terms of how I deal with it. I thank you all.

Proceedings suspended from 10:23 to 10:40