Saturday, 22 March 2014

The battle over Abbot Point

 by Alison Jones and Dr Brett Kettle

Reef park approves dumping plan
Abbot Point near Bowen in Queensland. Source: The Australian

“Save the reef” has become a popular catch-cry among many environment groups, with Greenpeace’s Great Barrier Reef website shared more than 125,000 times on social media to date. It and many similar campaigns have focused heavily on “massive dredging, dumping and shipping” for coal and gas ports, particularly the recent Abbot Point dredging decision.
There is no doubt that there are reasons to be gravely concerned about the Great Barrier Reef, with less coral in some parts of the 2300 km ecosystem than three decades ago (the finer points of the issue are detailed here, here, here and here).
Yet groups such such as Greenpeace, the Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS), WWF, as well as The Greens, some scientists and, increasingly, the media and community, are wrong to portray dredging and dredge spoil disposal as a major threat to the reef’s survival.
This deliberate misrepresentation of the facts is evidenced in a recent comment by Felicity Wishart from the AMCS that: “If we are scaremongering it’s because the evidence is clear that there are real concerns to be worried about.”
Rather than saving the reef from decline, “scaremongering” over the Abbot Point dredging plan and the subsequent diversion of management, research and conservation efforts, are now threatening to undermine efforts at tackling the more serious issues facing the reef.
We risk seeing hundreds of millions of dollars poured into studies, offsets, monitoring, campaigning, legal costs and holding costs unrelated to the major factors that really affect the reef – just at a time when every available dollar is needed to focus on measures aimed at improving the reef’s resilience.


Wanted: reef science free from politics

Image sourced: Reef hysteria
According to the Australian Institute of Marine Science, nearly half of the reef’s decline to date (mostly in the southern part of the reef) can be attributed to impacts from cyclones, 42% to the crown-of-thorns starfish, and 10% to coral bleaching.
It is clear that the Abbot Point disposal site has no coral or seagrass and that risks from dredge spoil are low. Even ardent opponents of dredging have acknowledged that it is possible to manage port developments properly, pointing to the 1993 dredging at Townsville as an example.
Of the many dredging programs in Australia, there are few cases in which trigger levels have even been breached, and none where impacts have exceeded those that were predicted.
If coral really has declined by half since 1985, as reported by the Australian Institute of Marine Science study, Australia appears to have as little as a decade to identify solutions, and then another decade to trial, implement, and scale them up.
If that time frame is correct, then it is even more urgent that we avoid devaluing the role of science in helping us “manage, mitigate, adapt or even discover solutions”, as Australia’s Chief Scientist Ian Chubb recently wrote on The Conversation.

A more urgent set of priorities

Granted, scientists need to get better at predicting and measuring the low-level, long-term, far-field and cumulative effects of dredging.
However, most of the technical ambiguity around dredging impacts is about fine-tuning tactical operational issues of dredge operation, or the optimum location of material placement to achieve a balance of community priorities.
The more important science challenges for the future health of the Great Barrier Reef are aimed at sustaining its various uses. These include improving our knowledge of how the reef changes and adapts to disturbance, and learning how to manage the reef to minimise harm and to boost its ability to recover. These will involve refocussing a bewildering array of scientific resources into a unified strategy.
So what should we be putting more effort into if we’re to look after the health of the Great Barrier Reef in a future that includes accelerating change?
Significant funds that might otherwise go to research are currently spent on trying to remove Crown-of-Thorns Starfish, even though scientists acknowledge that “manual killing can only work on the scale of a few hundred square metres”. This is despite the fact that the causes of outbreaks are still inferred, rather than known with any confidence.
Nutrients in municipal sewage are discharged all year round, but the relative risk this poses to the reef compared to that in agricultural runoff and flood waters, is still unclear.
Maintenance dredging, which involves the removal of fine sediments from near the coast, has the potential to reduce catchment-generated fine sediments that impact coastal reefs. The extent of this possible benefit has not been studied.
The ultimate problem is that the body of science available is often incomplete and there is no overarching, risk-based synthesis.



If the Reef indeed faces accelerating change at a time when human uses also continue to accelerate, then it is inevitable that intervention programs for high value reefs – currently confined mainly to small-scale starfish control and coral reseeding – may become more urgent.
Mangroves, corals, seagrasses, fisheries and even the seabed itself are all capable of deliberate manipulation if it were deemed necessary to do so to protect, preserve or enhance a use or value of the reef. Options like building artificial coastal wetlands or even “barrier islands” to protect the coast might seem outlandish, but are technically feasible.
Yet little of the underlying science for this has been done, leaving a significant policy gap to guide potential future works. We should start studying these problems now.


Barriers to decision-making

As scientists, we like to imagine that regulators devour our work and convert it into useful policy. The unfortunate reality is that our work is unintelligible to all but a handful of people, and in the real world, reef users struggle to adapt their everyday practices to such complex advice.
For instance, reef managers now insist that industries that use the reef should incorporate the concept of resilience into their impact assessments. But many are understandably frustrated at being asked to adopt something so poorly defined.
Scientists need to rise to the challenge of translating their work into practical guidelines that can be implemented today. In the words of another contributor to The Conversation, “scientists should be provoked into thinking about the way science advice is given and how they communicate".
This also means shying away from “scaremongering” that masks the real issues, creates widespread confusion and destroys the public’s confidence in their ability to rely on scientists. Its time for scientists to reject scaremongering or distortion of their results; to produce more cogent and practical guidance for policy makers; and to restore the faith of the community in science as a tool to help solve environmental problems. For the Great Barrier Reef, the clock is ticking.

Originally published as: The battle over Abbot Point risks losing the Great Barrier Reef war

Cross post under The Conversation republishing guidelines.

Conversation logo


  1. It is wrong to make claims that , because there is no actual reef (coral) under the site where they are to dump spoil, that it is not affecting the reef.
    I have read many reports by scientists and experts in the field of Marine matters that, more than 75% of all marine creatures spend at least some portion of their life cycle in mangrove forest environment.
    The reason that the GBRWHA listing covers the entire area from the low water line of the mainland to beyond the outer reef takes this into consideration.
    The area between the actual reefs and the mainland mangrove forests is just as vital and important as the physical reef itself.
    The area between the mainland and actual reefs is vital because all fish and creatures on the reef are not born on the reef, many are born in the inshore environment. Much of the food chain for reef fish and other creatures comes from the mangrove forests and waterways along the coastline and they use this vital zone between the reef and maniland to move from place to place.
    Many people claim that if it is not actual coral outcrops and reefs, then it is not reef and so is not important.
    This is where many get it wrong.
    It is not the fact that spoil is dumped into the marine creature "transit zone" (the area between reef and mainland) but more about what is contained in that spoil being dumped there.
    It may not be over coral formations but it is vitally important for the entire GRB as a whole.
    The effects of "content" in dredge spoil could not be more clearly demonstrated than what was perpetrated in Gladstone where ASS and heavy metals and toxins were stirred up with the dredging and dumped into the harbour.
    We all know the results of that disaster. You only have to look at aerial photos of the harbour to see that it was not a flood that lasted for more than 2 years, but dredge spoil plume that turned the harbour into little better than a sewer for 2 years or more. There was coral within the harbour but it is now gone forever and the marine creatures of all kinds were almost entirely eliminated.
    The same could happen in any area between the actual reef and the mainland because it is the transit route for reef creatures traveling between their natural habitat areas.
    Don't be fooled into believing that the area with no actual coral is unimportant and this shoulkd be taken into consideration when planning any dumping into the GBRWHA.
    In the case of Gladstone the sad thing is that because of the massive lighting from the LNG plants, Gladstone harbour is changed forever because it will never see night time ever again. This will also affect the Marine life that travels from reef to mangrove forests and should never be allowed to happen again.

  2. Yes, Peter, there was no reef within Gladstone harbour and that was stuffed up and it's the fishermen who are suffering the most from that. You wrote:
    "It is not the fact that spoil is dumped into the marine creature "transit zone" (the area between reef and mainland) but more about what is contained in that spoil being dumped there.
    It may not be over coral formations but it is vitally important for the entire GRB as a whole.
    The effects of "content" in dredge spoil could not be more clearly demonstrated than what was perpetrated in Gladstone where ASS and heavy metals and toxins were stirred up with the dredging and dumped into the harbour.
    We all know the results of that disaster."

    It's the contaminates that are contained in the dredged material that is the key to this to my thinking. I'm prone to support Abbott Point going ahead for the same reason that it was logical for me to support the case that the dredging in Gladstone stuffed up the harbour.
    Gladstone had a long history of heavy industry with contamination being laid down in the slits. Maintaining existing channels never showed up the problem but when this long term accumulated contaminates was disturbed to build a new shipping channel to the new LNG plants, then the disaster unfolded.

    But Abbott Point does not have this history of heavy industry.

    1. Actually there were coral reef outcrops growing in Gladstone harbour but they are gone now, being either covered up or smothered with silt.

  3. Much of the above article is BS. The former chairman of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Graham Kelleher, said the dumping within the marine park off Abbot Point would pose a threat to corals because the fines would be transported over considerable distances by ocean currents, the same way that coral spawn is dispersed to help reefs regenerate.
    To say they are not dumping on coral so its ok, is ridiculous, and more than 200 scientists signed a petition opposing the dumping. It has also been revealed that the present marine park authority originally favoured the more logical on- land spoil disposal, but changed its mind and recommended that approval be granted.
    They claimed no political pressure had been brought to bear. Yeah, right...
    In Gladstone, there is another Federal investigation underway into the effects of the badly constructed and leaking reclamation bund wall. Dredging there, with the wall leaking acid sulphate soils and heavy metals back into the harbour, coincided with a major toxic algae bloom, outbreak of the fish disease across a wide range of species, and hospitalisation of some humans with life threatening injuries.
    Another Senate inquiry is sue to start next week so hopefully some more facts will emerge after they were previously swept under the carpet.
    The authors of the above article should have done some more homework...

  4. That's not to say I'm totally opposed to the Abbot Point expansion either Dale, just the ocean dumping as a cheaper alternative to the safer disposal on land, providing that was done properly rather than the debacle we saw in Gladstone.

  5. There are none so blind as those who cannot see, so the saying goes. But there are also those who don't want to see.

    At least I can see the ship in the above article photo appears to be pumping out foreign ballast water into GBR lagoon waters.
    Is that Abbott Point ballast water dumping approved ?

    And has anybody yet seen approval of the dumping of excessive nutrient loading?

  6. And by the way for the long term readers here:

  7. "Non-climate related stresses such as pollution", they say. Quote:
    The oceans are a new focus of this latest round of IPCC assessment, and while one cannot preempt the report to be delivered next week, there are likely to be some important ramifications for our ability to deal with the growing impacts from non-climate-related stresses such as overfishing, pollution, and habitat destruction, as well as ocean warming and acidification.

    (Will Google ever get up to date and make live links on the chat site?)
    Meanwhile I suggest it's worthwhile to copy and paste the following link because the IPCC is now 'looking' at the oceans and appears to be trying very hard to blame damage on climate change, CO2 in other words.
    There is no apparent mention (as yet) about damage to oceans caused by excavation of coastal ecosystems.

  8. I believe you should try to contact a very experienced diver who has been diving the Great Barrier Reef for many years in Papua New Guinea and Cairns. I heard him speaking on ABC radio last Friday and I believe he is one who can explain to all of you just how the reef changes over the years and how it repairs itself. I wish they had put the interview on the ABC site but when I phoned, they said it wouldn't be as they do not have enough resources to put all interviews on site.. However, his name is Bob Halsted. His information attests to what other experienced divers and those who work the ocean for whatever reason who say that the reef is in as good a situation now as it was Thirty years ago. We know that the crown of thorn starfish have their own predators. I am tired of all the scaremongering that some groups go on with. Not having experience myself I know that I would believe people who actually have continued experience rather than someone who does their research in an office somewhere.

    1. Ove Hoegh-Guldberg

      Director, Global Change Institute at University of Queensland

      I just read about this bloke from John's link above - Professor - he has been adviser to this that and everything else to do with Climate change. I would like to know how many dives he has done on the actual reef. He advises to the IPCC and that is enough to see where his research would lay.

    2. Disclosure Statement
      Ove Hoegh-Guldberg receives funding from the Australian Research Council and carries out research on coral reefs and the impacts of climate change. He is affiliated with the University of Queensland, AIMS, Stanford University and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation. He is a Coordinating Lead Author for the AR5 of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
      University of Queensland does not contribute to the cost of running The Conversation. Find out more.
      The Conversation is funded by CSIRO, Melbourne, Monash, RMIT, UTS, UWA, ACU, ANU, Canberra, CDU, Curtin, Deakin, Flinders, Griffith, JCU, La Trobe, Massey, Murdoch, Newcastle, QUT, SAHMRI, Swinburne, Sydney, UniSA, USC, USQ, UTAS, UWS, VU and Wollongong.

  9. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  10. Looks like even more dredging will be needed for Abbott Point as there is now a proposal for LNG export from there as well. Article in the SMH, Huge gas project proposed for Abbot Point following coal terminal approval

    "Hong Kong-based Energy World Corporation has submitted plans to pipe gas 1000 kilometres from the Cooper Basin to Abbot Point, and then export as much as 2 million tonnes of LNG per year to Asia, according to documents posted on the federal environment ministry's website.

    The so-called CAPLNG facility would require dredging of at least 500,000 cubic metres of material to be disposed of on land. The Australian Marine Conservation Society estimates the dredging would amount to about 800,000 tonnes."

  11. The two faces of this article co-author, Dr Allison Jones:

    A proposed marina development at Great Keppel Island will severely affect water quality, coral and dugongs of the Great Barrier Reef, says a Central Queensland University (CQU) researcher.
    Dr Alison Jones of CQU's Environmental Management Centre at Rockhampton said last week there were 70 coral species around the island and 40 of those were most at risk from the proposed 560-berth marina at Putney Beach.
    Dr Jones said the university had completed the coral research last month as part of an ongoing study, Refugia Mapping of the Keppel Islands of the Great Barrier Reef.
    She said the substantial dredging needed to construct the marina and subsequent dredging needed because of the shallow water would disturb the pristine waters.
    "Maintaining good water quality... is a key priority to maintain the health and resilience of coral reefs," she said.
    "The marina development will irrevocably change the hydrodynamics of Putney Beach, threatening the long term health of coral reefs adjacent to and in front of the development."
    Increased sedimentation would reduce the amount of seagrass, a food source for dugong and other marine organisms in the area, she said.
    An increase in the number of boats accessing the area would also jeopardise the quality of water surrounding the marina....

  12. And more from Dr Jones (seems dredging for massive coal/ LNG port expansions is ok for corals but a small scale tourism development is a no-no):
    ""There is inevitable risk of long term pollution from oils, anti-fouling paints, sunscreens, rubbish disposal, sullage and organic matter disposal which are all associated with marina activities. There is also risk of further sediment disturbance from the propellers of boats manoeuvring to enter the marina," she said.

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