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Image: imago/Harald Lange

A dire future for the Great Barrier Reef

Interview: Irene Quaile
September 1, 2014

Australia's iconic reef is under threat from pollution and climate change. Jon Day, recently resigned as the reef's Director of Heritage Conservation. He told DW that plans to dump spoil will put the reef at risk.


DW: The Australian authorities have approved the dumping of dredge spoil from the planned Abbot Point coal port inside the marine park. What effect would that have on the reef?

Jon Day:Abbot Point is only one of many port expansions happening. It could potentially become the largest coal port in the southern hemisphere. So we are talking about a large amount of expansion which will include both dredging and dumping the spoil in the marine park or World Heritage Area. This is known to have an impact. There is recent research talking about the effects of dredge spoil smothering coral and sea grass beds, and it can be carried much further than was previously thought.

But the authority you worked for gave its approval?

It did. It is a complex process. But in my opinion, the alternatives to dumping in the marine environment were not properly considered. They may cost more, but we're talking about a world heritage area. Not only were they not properly costed, but I think people didn't take into account the legacy impacts. This means the things are still impacting this area, and the things we know are likely to happen in future, like climate change. It's the cumulative pressure of a whole range of things that are causing the problems, and in my view that's what we need to look at when considering the impact of these activities on the marine environment.

Jon Day
Jon Day believes alternatives were not considered.Image: DW/I. Quaile

So the Great Barrier Reef is already under considerable pressure from other factors?

Absolutely. Many of these occurred decades ago or even longer. Take for example the mining that happened in the catchment literally 100 years ago. Some of the activities are still causing pollution to flow into the rivers that then flow into the marine park. But more recently there are impacts from agriculture in particular, along the coast of Queensland. Take sediment that's caused by grazing, the herbicides and pesticides put on to the sugar cane farms or fertilizers. They are all coming down the rivers and impacting the marine environment.

The striped triple fin is a master of camouflage amongst the coral - one of the many wonders of the reef.
The striped triple fin is a master of camouflage amongst the coral - one of the many wonders of the reef.Image: imago/OceanPhoto

When we did a major report in 2009, we identified four critical issues facing the future of the reef: climate change, where things like coral bleaching are already happening, and acidification is known to be coming; then water quality coming off the land, impacts from coastal developments and unsustainable fishing practices. These are still the critical issues today. The agency I used to work for has just published an updated report. It makes it clear those are the same pressures facing the reef today. In addition, we have major developments like the ports, increase in shipping, increase in population, and increase in recreational use. The cumulative impact of all these pressures needs to be considered when making these decisions.

Has anything been done to address these issues, which have been recognized for a long time?

Things are happening in all these areas. But the bottom line is the pressures are building up to the point where we are on a downward trajectory. So the Australian and the Queensland governments are working together on many fronts to address these issues, but other pressures are increasing, and the cumulative impact of all these pressures means the health of the reef is declining.

That is very bad news for a World Heritage site and a reef which has iconic status for people all around the world?

Absolutely. There is no other world heritage site that has more biodiversity than the Great Barrier Reef, just because of its sheer size. If it was put on the coast of the US it would stretch from the Canadian border all the way down to Mexico. It also stretches from the coast out to the very deep ocean. Within this we have amazing biodiversity and we have an obligation to protect that for the world. I'm not saying all of this is totally threatened. The reports say the northern reef is actually reasonably healthy. But the southern two-thirds in particular the inshore coastal area, is really suffering from these activities. So these are the areas where we have to improve on in our management.

Australien Meeresschutzgebiet Great Barrier ReeSepia kobiensis, another of the weird and wonderful inhabitants of the World Heritage marine site. Breitkeulen-Sepia
Sepia kobiensis, another of the weird and wonderful inhabitants of the World Heritage marine site.Image: imago/OceanPhoto

UNESCO has indicated that that status could be threatened by developments such as the dredging for the coal port. How much influence does this have?

Australia is a signatory to the World Heritage Convention, so if the site was to be listed on the World Heritage endangered list at next year's meeting in Germany, which would be very important. The tourism industry would not be at all happy. But that endangered list is not a "forever" label. Many sites which are put on the list then manage to come back off it. However, it would indicate international concern. Because it's an internationally iconic area, it's an issue for everyone in the world that we try to protect it for future generations. This might mean some changes to the way we do things, and some greater restrictions.

You mentioned that one threat to the reef comes from climate change. At the same time, this latest port expansion activity is to support the development of the greenhouse gas producing coal industry in Australia. Is there not a contradiction there?

I think you've struck a very important point. I'll have to leave that to the politicians. But this point has been raised by a number of NGOs. With regard to climate change, some people say: “that's not happening yet”, yet we can actually see evidence in the Great Barrier Reef of climate change impacts right now. Take the turtles that nest on the beaches. The sex of the offspring is determined by the temperature of the sand. Research is showing that the increasing sand temperature means within 20 years we are likely to have a complete feminization of the turtle population in the northern barrier reef.

Another example is the amount of extreme weather or cyclones. In the last six to eight years we've had a number of very intense cyclones crossing the reef, with major impacts. Now this is not an unnatural event, but what we are seeing is much greater frequency and intensity of the cyclones than we've ever seen in the past. So climate change is definitely happening, we know it's going to get worse. The issue of acidification will have a huge impact on many species and habitats. These are things we know are happening, and are likely to increase, yet we are not taking them into account in making our decisions today.

Jon Day recently resigned as Director of Heritage Conservation at the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

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