Ask not for whom the bell tolls – it tolls for the Reef

By Rebecca Smith

The Great Barrier Reef is fucked. Let me say that again – the Great Barrier Reef is fucked – but not for reasons that you may think.

It is one of the seven wonders of the natural world, the largest coral reef system on the planet, and of such outstanding universal value that it was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1981.  Gough Whitlam passed laws to stop Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s bid for oil rigs on the Reef, and at the time of its listing as World Heritage it was indeed a superlative ecosystem. But the recently released Outlook 2014 report paints a grim assessment of the Reef, with climate change and poor water quality poised to demote it to just the ‘Barrier Reef’, or perhaps the ‘Great Algae System.’

The state of the Reef

Algae replace corals in high nutrient, high sediment waters, although last year the Australian newspaper found a positive spin to this story, because these coral-smothering plants are colloquially called ‘red coralline algae.’ Sounds like coral, so it must be like coral….. The Great Barrier Reef is not on the World Heritage list solely for its corals, but for its once extensive sea-grass beds and the iconic rare creatures the once abundant sea-grass meadows support.

The Reef has been in the news again lately, partly because its condition is now officially ‘poor’, and partly because of a contentious decision by the Orwellian-titled Environment Minister, Greg Hunt, to exacerbate its terminal condition by approving dredging and dumping of over 3 million cubic metres of dredge spoil in the marine park. Hunt’s approval of the Carmichael mega-coal mine in the Galilee Basin, which if mined will be the biggest coal mine ever gouged into the Australian landscape, also gives government endorsement to runaway climate change which will decalcify and kill any coral surviving the dredging.

The state of the Reef is so parlous that UNESCO’s World Heritage arm is threatening to formally place the Reef on the World Heritage in Danger list, with the potential of such causing fear in the hearts and wallets of Queensland tourism operators. So far, almost all World Heritage in Danger sites are in impoverished third world counties, in war zones, or both. Rich, first world Australia cannot look after its own World Heritage areas despite a raft of chimeraic ‘protection’ laws with as much bite as a gummy bear.  As leading reef experts say, it is not a matter of if the Great Barrier Reef will be placed on the In Danger List, but when it is placed on the List of Shame.

Wrecking the Reef

With all the hullaballoo about the Abbott Point expansion and the Carmichael basin approval, all the petitions sent to stonewalling politicians, all the advertisements of mainstream environmental groups, one would think that the primary cause of water degradation is from mining and port expansion. A quick look at before-and-after pics of the ruined Gladstone Harbour demonstrates the damage caused by dredging, and only those who believe ‘climate change is crap’ (most of the federal Cabinet and the Queensland Parliament) are unaware of the threats posed by warmer and acidified oceans. Coal = increased emissions = more climate change = dead reefs.

While the public divests from coal-investing banks and pressures government to act on mining and dredging, I find myself eerily on side with the Minerals Council of Australia on an important missing component in the dying Barrier Reef. In an article published in the Townsville Bulletin, Michael Roche, head of the Minerals Council, wonders why environmentalists do not pick on the farm-based pollution that is the cause of most of the poor water quality in the Great Barrier Reef lagoon. That’s right – the cause of most of the poor water quality. I have asked a number of environmental groups the same question, and have yet to receive a satisfactory or logical answer.

In April of this year, I accompanied a group of activists on the Galilee Road Trip organized by Lock The Gate and 350. We travelled to cattle properties at risk from nearby coal mining operations in the Galilee Basin. The graziers were friendly people and clearly loved their way of life, but I couldn’t help feeling the climate change and reef-saving environmentalists were a tad hypocritical.  Let us look at the issue of declining water quality and its source on the Great Barrier Reef.

A longitudinal study on coral cover in the Great Barrier Reef began in 1985 and was published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Science journal in 2012. It found a 51% decline in coral cover in the Reef over the last 27 years. The worst-affected areas are the inshore reefs off the Fitzroy and Burdekin catchments, where coral cover is in much worse shape than overall. In the 1960s coral cover on the Reef was at 50%, but by 1985 it was only 28%, and since then has declined non-linearly to 13% of the Great Barrier Reef. If the coral cover declines at the same average rate, there will be only 10% left in seven years – but if the decline continues at the same rate as during the last six years (1.47% per year, as opposed to the mean rate of 0.57% per year), there will only be 5% coral cover left by 2022.  The decline is especially bad south of Bowen, where coral cover has decreased from 35% to 8% since 2006. This projected decline is 90% of original cover in six decades, and is already half of what it was a mere 27 years ago.

In that time we have seen a raft of laws ostensibly designed to protect the very values that have made the Reef great, and we have seen the Reef continue to fall into poorer and poorer health.  The decline is attributed to mass-attacks from Crown of Thorns starfish (COTS), 48% from cyclones, and 20% from coral bleaching. We know climate change leads to warmer waters and higher intensity cyclones that smash up reefs. COTS graze through coral colonies like there’s no tomorrow, and have been especially bad since the Queensland floods of 2011, while coral bleaching is a phenomenon whereby the colourful symbiotic zooxanthelle in the coral die, leading to the death of the whole organism. The latter two causes of decline are associated with nutrient-rich waters, while the first is climate change.  Michael Roche’s deflection is worth considering, because that crap water quality fomenting COTS outbreaks and the nutrient-rich waters causing coral bleaching and destroying inshore reefs did not come from isolation – it came from catchment cattle properties.

The cattle connection

Let me be clear – the poor water quality plaguing the Great Barrier Reef comes from cattle. All those bovines munching away in catchments draining into the Reef, shitting in creeks and river systems draining into the Great Barrier Reef, are the major cause of that declining water quality we hear about. The most degraded sections of the Great Barrier Reef are the central and southern sections – from about Townsville down to Bundaberg. Cattle country. Seagrass in this region has also taken a massive hit over the last four years. The Queensland floods hold part of the blame, but the reason so much sediment and nutrients piled into the Reef after this major flooding event was because upstream vegetation has been cleared for cattle grazing.  Sediments smother coral and seagrasses, and create conditions conducive to algal growth and COTS larvae survival. The nutrients leached down from pasture-building and cattle shitting in creeks and riverways feeds the COTS larvae which then grow up to devastate coral.

Eighty per cent of all sediments and nutrients in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area come from cattle grazing, and 75% of these come from the Burdekin and Fitzroy catchments alone. So why aren’t people who love or rely on the Reef up in arms about the huge impacts of grazing? And why is the survival of the cattle trade in the North – fuelled by unconscionably cruel live export – more important than the survival of one of the natural wonders of the world?

The overarching scientific consensus is that the key Great Barrier Reef ecosystems are showing declining trends in condition due to continuing poor water quality, cumulative impacts of climate change and the increasing intensity of extreme events, and that this crap water quality comes from the agricultural activities upstream. Three-quarters of all the sediments and nutrients come from two huge catchments whose predominant activity is cattle grazing.

Various Reefplan initiatives over the past 5 years have gone a small way to reducing the outflow, for example, assisting farmers in fencing river and creek banks to prevent cattle traipsing through; but this is voluntary, and very expensive.  Pre-eminent coral reef scientist Terry Hughes reiterated that the ‘main danger for corals is sediment run-off from land’ – which is mostly cattle – and for which the government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars when it is only working ‘to a small extent’, and a reading of the Outlook Report indicates the initiatives have been a failure.

The elephant in the room

Then there is the issue of climate change. Are we going to believe it’s ‘crap’ because we like our barbeques and aircons? Agriculture is a major cause of greenhouse gas emissions, with livestock causing more emissions than the country’s entire transport system. Of these, ruminants are responsible for about 10% of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, yet we are encouraging more cattle grazing to ‘feed the hungry of Asia’ – the middle-classes hungry for western diets, that is. The looming Trans-Pacific Partnership is set to sell out the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and allow for corporations to sue Australia for any environmental provisions left after Abbott packs them off to the Abbottoir, something even Howard balked at. This government is set to negotiate these away because there is nothing left to bargain with, and they desperately need something to trade off for the possibility of an eventual free-trade agreement for Australian beef with Korea and Japan. So, more cattle will be trampling through catchments, remotely killing the Reef.

This brings me back to my question – why don’t environmentalists and mainstream environment groups focus on the cause of poor water quality that has destroyed over half the Reef since I first moved to North Queensland 27 years ago? The inshore reefs and fringing reefs (the most accessible) are ruins, and tourist boats no longer leave from Townsville because the nearest reefs 70km away are essentially dead. Further, sea-grass has been reduced from meadows to tiny remnants, and dugong researchers did not detect a single baby dugong in the Great Barrier Reef last year. Dugongs breed only when there is sufficient food supply, and like green turtles, starve when their sea-grass meadows are smothered or killed by terrestrial herbicide run-off.  Cattle grazing is the single greatest cause of these problems, but climate change groups give it a big miss, as do Reef protection groups.

My thoughts on this matter are that meat-eating environmentalists (arguably an oxymoron) find it easier to locate the substantial speck in the mining industry’s eyes than take the logs out of their own. To acknowledge the extreme impact of cattle on the Great Barrier Reef means to question one’s own lifestyle and dietary choices, and to see graziers not as bush stalwarts feeding Australia, but as the environmental vandals they are – and they only exist because the collective ‘we’ want what they sell. It is so much easier to blame a huge multinational mining company than ‘mum and dad’ graziers, or ourselves.

So the Great Barrier Reef is fucked. Despite a raft of laws and initiatives under the former ALP governments, the water quality has continued to decline to the poor state it is in now, with no sign of abatement. The state and federal governments have repealed and are repealing the already weak environmental laws, and are scouring the world markets to sell more and more beef. When discussing legal protection and the Great Barrier Reef, Greg Hunt helpfully laid out his government’s intentions by informing us that our regulatory burden was ranked 128 out of 148 countries by the world Economic Forum, and even Zimbabwe, Burkina Faso and Libya are considered more friendly than Australia.

If we loved our Reef, we would look after it.

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