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Monday, 1 June 1987
Page: 3678


Mr COHEN (Minister for Arts, Heritage and Environment) —For the information of honourable members, I present the Government's response to the report of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment and Conservation entitled `Protection of the Great Barrier Reef'. I seek leave to have the Government's response incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The response read as follows-

GOVERNMENT RESPONSE TO HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES STANDING COMMITTEE ON ENVIRONMENT AND CONSERVATION 1985 REPORT: PROTECTION OF THE GREAT BARRIER REEF

Madam Speaker, the Government has reviewed the recommendations of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment and Conservation's report on ``Protection of the Great Barrier Reef'', which was presented to the House in November 1985. This report reinforced the most significant recommendations concerning the Great Barrier Reef that had been made to the Fraser Government by the Standing Committee in 1981, in its second report on Adequacy of Environmental Protection. Of course many recommendations in that 1981 report have been implemented already or overtaken by events, and it would be inappropriate for the Government to take up the time of the Parliament to respond to them formally. I have written to the Chairman of the Committee, Mr Peter Milton, about this matter.

The principal issue addressed in the Standing Committee's 1985 report is the large numbers of crown of thorns starfish which have affected part of the Great Barrier Reef in the last two decades. The report also addresses briefly a number of other matters, including: the Cape Tribulation road in northern Queensland; the Ok Tedi gold and copper mine in Papua New Guinea; extension of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park northwards into Torres Strait; and regulation of offshore installations such as floating hotels.

By and large the Government accepts the Com- mittee's recommendations on the crown of thorns starfish. In 1985-86 the Government appropriated $0.971m to fund the first year of a program of research recommended by the Crown of Thorns Starfish Advisory Committee (COTSAC). We have committed an additional $0.764m in 1986-87 and further funding for the program will be considered in the Budget context. COTSAC has been reconvened in a slightly different form as the Crown of Thorns Starfish Advisory Review Committee, to monitor and review the research program which includes resurveying some 60 reefs and investigations into biological control, as recommended by the Standing Committee.

Amendments to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Regulations gazetted last year enable the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to authorise collection of crown of thorns starfish in appropriate circumstances from all zones in the Park except Preservation Zones. No revision of zoning plans, as proposed in recommendation 5, is necessary to achieve the objective of the recommendation.

Recommendation 6 concerns establishing a ``community based response to crown of thorns starfish population outbreaks''. In a December 1984 report to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, COTSAC advised that ``until more information is available, direct management intervention in the crown of thorns starfish phenomenon should continue to be limited to tactical control measures designed to protect corals at specific sites of importance for tourism or scientific research'', and that ``attempted large scale eradication programs have limited value in controlling major populations''. The Government accepts this advice. However, there are well established diving clubs in towns adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef, and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is assessing the cost and feasibility of involving them in a community based control program at important tourist sites.

I turn now to the Committee's recommendations on matters other than the crown of thorns starfish.

Honourable members would be aware of the Government's concern over construction of the road from Cape Tribulation to Bloomfield in the Daintree region of northern Queensland. The Government refused requests to fund construction of the road and I have personally inspected the damage that the roadworks have caused. Responsibility for road construction and maintenance lies squarely with the Douglas Shire Council and the Queensland Government.

An aspect of the road construction that has been of particular concern to the Government is the possibility that run-off from the road after heavy rain may threaten adjacent fringing coral reefs of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. In order to address this matter the Marine Park Authority is undertaking a comprehensive monitoring program to acquire precise information about these reefs and the impact of the road and other factors on them. As the monitoring program proceeds the Government will examine its findings and decide what action, if any, it is appropriate to take in relation to siltation from the road. At this time, the Government sees no benefit in additional studies concerning the road as recommended by the Committee.

I think honourable members would be aware that the Ok Tedi gold and copper mine in the Fly River catchment of Papua New Guinea has been a subject of considerable debate. Environmental assessment of the project is a matter for the PNG Government, which has required the operators, Ok Tedi Mining Limited, to prepare an environmental impact statement and undertake extensive monitoring of waters downstream from the mine. On two occasions the PNG Government has closed the mine following leakage and spillage of cyanide associated with the gold processing plant. In June 1984 there was an accident involving loss of drums of cyanide overboard from a barge near the shipping terminal at the island of Daru, very close to Australian waters.

Australia is concerned about any possibility of pollution from the Ok Tedi mining operation reaching the waters of the Protected Zone established under the Torres Strait Treaty or other nearby Australian waters, and has had consultations with PNG on this matter. As a result the Government is receiving data from the mining company's monitoring program and has been invited to observe the operation of that program. The Minister for Resources and Energy, Senator Evans, visited the mine site last year in company with PNG officials and an officer of my Department.

The Government is designing a program to obtain baseline environmental data for Torres Strait and is assessing the need for a monitoring program in Australian waters. At this time there is no indication that pollution from Ok Tedi is affecting Torres Strait but the Government is conscious that we do not have adequate baseline data to enable us to assess the significance of any future pollution incidents in the area.

The Standing Committee recommended that the northern boundary of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park be extended up to the southern boundary of the Protected Zone established under the Torres Strait Treaty. This recommendation appears to have been based on administrative rather than ecological considerations. The Government is committed to protection of the Barrier Reef and fully accepts its responsibilities under Articles 13 and 14 of the Torres Strait Treaty to protect the marine environment in and in the vicinity of the Torres Strait Protected Zone. As far as the Government is aware there is no current threat to the environment of the area, about 19 nautical miles wide, between the Protected zone and the Marine Park. The Government considers that the appropriate time to consider extending the Marine Park will be when the Far Northern Section Zoning Plan is reviewed in 1991.

In the meantime, the Government affirms that oil drilling and mining are prohibited in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. These activities are also prohibited in the Protected Zone, under Article 16 of the Torres Strait Treaty, for an initial period of ten years from February 1985 which may be extended. It would clearly be undesirable to allow drilling in the 19 nautical mile wide gap between the two prohibited areas. I have no hesitation, therefore, in stating that this Government will not permit oil drilling or mining in the part of the area which is under Commonwealth control, which constitutes the vast majority of the area in question. I can also assure the House that if a threat to the area should materialise before the 1991 review of the Far Northern Section Zoning Plan, the Government will give immediate consideration to extending the Marine Park by regulation and proclamation, as provided for in sections 3 and 31 of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act.

The Government is developing comprehensive legislation to regulate offshore tourist installations not only in the Great Barrier Reef Region but right around Australia. The legislation will comprehend those matters raised by the Committee. The Government has also amended the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Regulations to provide additional interim protection to unzoned areas of the Marine Park until zoning plans and the offshore installations legislation are in place.

The Government will also be proposing additional amendments to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act to allow more efficient and effective administration of the Marine Park, taking account of the increasing levels of activity which have developed in the Region since the enactment of the original legislation.

The Hawke Government came to power with a high level of appreciation of the value and importance of the Reef, which was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1981. The Government's record of achievement clearly demonstrates its commitment to protect the Reef and ensure the effectiveness of the Authority's administration of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act.

Madam Speaker, I would like to conclude by thanking the Standing Committee for its report and by reaffirming the Government's commitment to protect the Great Barrier Reef.

GOVERNMENT RESPONSE TO THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES STANDING COMMITTEE

ON ENVIRONMENT AND CONSERVATION 1985 REPORT: PROTECTION OF THE

GREAT BARRIER REEF

Committee recommendations

Government response

1. The Commonwealth Government continue to provide funds above and beyond other research funding to allow full implementation of the program of research recommended by the Crown of Thorns Starfish Advisory Committee.

Noted. $0.971m was provided in 1985-86 and $0.764m in 1986-87. Funding for implementation of the remainder of the program will be considered in the Budget context, and recommendations 2, 3, 4, and 6 are accepted subject to funds continuing to be made available.

2. The Crown of Thorns Starfish Advisory Committee be reconvened to monitor and assess the effectiveness of the research program.

2. Accepted. A Crown of Thorns Starfish Advisory Review Committee has been convened to monitor implementation of, and to review, the research program recommended by the Crown of Thorns Starfish Advisory Committee.

3. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority carry out resurveying and monitoring of some of the Reefs included in the 1985 survey by the Australian Institute of Marine Science.

3. Accepted. Resurveying of some 60 reefs by the Australian Institute of Marine Science is included in the research program recommended by the Crown of Thorns Starfish Advisory Committee.

4. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority give urgent priority to developing a research program to develop more efficient Crown of Thorns starfish population control techniques.

Accepted. The research program recommended by the Crown of Thorns Starfish Advisory Committee includes research on the feasibility of biological control by predators and diseases, and non-biological controls eg. by chemicals.

5. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority review, and where necessary amend, its zoning plans to ensure identification of those reefs where special crown of thorns population control programs might be warranted.

5. Accepted. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Regulations were amended in 1985 to change the interpretation of zoning plans so that crown of thorns starfish may be collected in all zones except Preservation Zones, with the permission of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. No further amendment to zoning plans is required.

6. (i) The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority urgently assess the feasibility and costs of establishing a community based response to crown of thorns starfish population outbreaks based on teams of volunteer divers to hand collect starfish; and

(ii) the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority establish and support such a scheme as soon as possible unless it is shown that the cost would be prohibitive or the community response inadequate.

Accepted. The Authority is assessing the feasibility of organising a network of dive clubs in towns adjacent to the the Great Barrier Reef to make a community response in appropriate circumstances. However the advice of the Crown of Thorns Starfish Advisory Committee was that there is not sufficient information to warrant extensive destruction of the crown of thorns starfish, and that experience in Japan and United States of America Trust Territories in the Pacific Ocean suggests that large scale hand collection would have limited value in controlling major populations.

7. The Minister for Arts, Heritage and Environment seek discussions on the importance of the fringing reefs with the Queensland Government and jointly sponsor an independent engineering study to determine ways of reducing the impact of runoff from the Cape Tribulation to Bloomfield Road on the fringing reefs north of Cape Tribulation.

7. Not accepted. Responsibility for road construction and maintenance lies with the Queensland Government. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is undertaking a study to assess the condition of the fringing reefs and the impact of the road and other factors on them.

8. The Australian Government consult with the Papua New Guinea Government on the need for an environmental assessment of the Ok Tedi mine giving particular regard to the possibility of the pollution of reefs in the Torres Strait and the northern Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

8. Accepted. Consultations with Papua New Guinea regarding Ok Tedi have already taken place and are expected to continue. Data from environmental studies and a monitoring program conducted in PNG waters by Ok Tedi Mining Limited have been made available to the Australian Government.

9. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority establish a monitoring program in the northern Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and Torres Strait to detect any pollution from the Ok Tedi mine.

9. Noted. The need for Australian studies in addition to an environmental monitoring program being conducted for the Papua New Guinea Government is currently under consideration. An announcement will be made in due course.

10. The area immediately north of the present northern boundary of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and south of the Protected Zone defined under the provision of the Torres Strait Treaty be incorporated in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

10. Not accepted. The Government will consider the question of extending the Marine Park in conjunction with the review of the Far Northern Section Zoning Plan which is due in 1991, but will consider an earlier extension should a threat to the area materialise. In the meantime, the Government will not permit oil drilling or mining in the areas under Commonwealth control between the Torres Strait Protected Zone and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

11. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority develop and promulgate a policy on offshore development and issue guidelines to prospective developers.

11. Accepted in principle. Policy on offshore tourist installations is being formulated in association with preparation of comprehensive legislation to control developments in all areas adjacent to Australia. In effect, the legislation will respond to the need for guidelines.

Motion (by Mr Young proposed):

That the House take note of the paper.

Debate (on motion by Mr N.A. Brown) adjourned.