Six things Queensland’s next government must do to save the Great Barrier Reef

A diver on the Great Barrier Reef with a pair of Barrier Reef Anemonefish – cousins of the clown fish made famous in the film “Finding Nemo”. Flickr/Richard Ling, CC BY-NC-ND

The Great Barrier Reef is a national and global icon, inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1981. Since then, it’s become apparent that this vast array of marine ecosystems – stretching along 2,300 kilometres of Queensland’s coast – is in trouble.

The vast size of the Great Barrier Reef put into perspective. twitter.com/gbrmarinepark

The reasons? Inadequate management of human activities in and around the reef, only made worse by climate change.

Unfortunately, federal and state governments have not done enough to help, while doing a lot to make matters worse.

With only a fortnight of campaigning left before Queenslanders go to the polls, both the Liberal National Party (LNP) and Labor have targeted dumping of dredge spoil as a high-profile problem. Labor has also raised the stakes with ambitious targets for improving water quality.

Where in the world there are World Heritage sites deemed to be ‘in danger’. UNESCO

But the current promises from the major parties simply don’t go far enough.

If they really want to avoid seeing the reef added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites “in danger” – which is being considered and which could damage the state’s reef-dependent tourism – there’s more work to be done.

Here are six things Queensland’s next government must do to save the Great Barrier Reef for generations to come.

1. Fix the reef’s catchments

A CSIRO flood plume image from 2007 showing sediment (brown) and nutrient-rich (green) floodwaters reaching the reefs of the Great Barrier Reef in Princess Charlotte Bay. AAP/CSIRO

The reef’s catchments cover 424,000 km2, or 23% of Queensland. Grazing, cropping, plantation forestry, mining, construction and urban development in the catchments all add pollutants that are a major cause of the reef’s decline.

The current targets for pollution reductions in the state and federal government’s Reef Plan 2013 are too small.

Halting and reversing the decline will need reductions of 80% and 50% in nitrogen and fine sediment loadings, respectively. That’s more than double the current targets.

Labor has committed to achieving these targets by 2025, although it has offered little detail yet on how that would done, other than promising to listen to an expert taskforce including scientists, tourism operators, conservationists, local government and others.

And the cost? Labor leader Annastacia Palaszczuk announced an additional A$100 million over five years.

That will certainly help – but it won’t be enough. Still, Labor’s promise to work out the full cost is important.

What the next Queensland government must do: Recognise that the problem and required investments are similar in scale to improved management of the Murray-Darling Basin, then work with the federal government to sustain those investments over the next 20 years. Prioritise actions for improved water quality across all the reef’s catchments, while maximising shared benefits in the catchments themselves by looking after native land- and freshwater-based species, as well as cutting greenhouse gas emissions through vegetation management. Exercise zero tolerance for reductions in water quality in the reef’s north, where adverse impacts to date have been minimal.

2. Look after the reef’s islands properly

Hinchinbrook Island, one of 1000 islands within the Great Barrier Reef. Flickr/Blue♦Gum, CC BY-ND

The Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area includes about 1000 islands, ranging from tiny coral cays to the mountainous Hinchinbrook. The state government is responsible for most of these islands and about 400 are in Queensland national parks.

The islands support globally and nationally important populations of threatened species, including large breeding colonies of turtles and seabirds. These populations are under increasing threat, mainly from invasive plants and animals. Yet funding for management, which has never been adequate, is being reduced.

What the next Queensland government must do: Increase management funding for the reef’s islands by an initial 100% (still less than required), then fully cost adequate management of high-priority islands. Develop a better system for strategic management, so that the most important islands and most urgent threats receive attention first. Develop a biosecurity strategy that balances investment in quarantine (at source points for invasive species), surveillance (for early detection of outbreaks) and control (after outbreaks have occurred).

3. Sort out fisheries

Snubfin dolphins like this one are Australia’s only endemic species of dolphin, but are vulnerable to many human-related threats, including fishing. AAP Image/WWF, Guido.J.Parra

The Queensland government is responsible for most of the reef’s fisheries. Commercial and recreational fisheries are among the highest threats to the reef’s ecosystems, and there is increasing non-compliance with the 2004 management zones.

Non-target species – including inshore dolphins, turtles and dugongs – remain at risk. Reductions are still needed in some commercial fisheries. Of critical concern is the offshore component of the East Coast Fin Fish Fishery, with many required improvements not implemented.

What the next Queensland government must do: Manage the reef’s fisheries to world’s best practice, with ecological sustainability a core principle. Amend the Queensland Fisheries Act to recognise the global importance of the reef and incorporate the principles of the reef’s Intergovernmental Agreement and all related marine park legislation. Fund independent, robust stock assessments to identify allowable take. Require all commercial vessels, regardless of size, to carry vessel monitoring systems. Exercise zero tolerance for repeated non-compliance.

4. Fix environmental impact assessments

In principle, environmental impact assessments (EIAs) enable the Queensland government to consider potential impacts on the reef when deciding whether to approve development projects.

In practice, the EIA process is token, giving the false impression that harmful developments are being regulated.

EIAs lack independence and quality control of data, and make mistakes with impunity. The LNP’s policy of cutting green tape, combined with the new “one-stop shop” for environmental approvals, makes these problems worse.

Assessment of cumulative impacts – essential to understand how the reef is dying by a thousand cuts – is primitive.

What the next Queensland government must do: Put the reef’s long-term value before short-term profits. Develop and apply world’s best methods to assess cumulative impacts. Ensure proponents consider all direct and indirect impacts of their developments. Make baseline and monitoring data for EIAs publicly available. Require independent quality control and peer review of EIAs.

A protest outside the Queensland Parliament about port expansions along the Great Barrier Reef coastline last year. AAP Image/Dan Peled

5. Forget environmental offsets – or at least make them honest

Offsets are environmental reparations that compensate for adverse impacts of developments.

In principle, offsets can be managed to achieve net benefits. Key requirements are to avoid and mitigate first, leaving offsets as a last resort, then decide if remaining impacts can be offset at all (some cannot). If they can, then offsets can be designed and costed, ensuring that long-term funds and guarantees are in place, with checks on progress, then consider approval.

In practice, offsets are little more than empty promises to accelerate development at all costs, while giving the false impression that the reef will be fine.

What the next Queensland government must do: Follow internationally recognised guidelines to decide if offsets, as a last resort, are feasible. If they are, design them to achieve net benefits for the reef. Ensure that offsets remain direct (provide measurable conservation gain) and avoid financial capture of agencies that approve developments. Insist on adequate bonds or levies from proponents as insurance.

6. Leave the coal in the ground, or else explain how it won’t damage the reef

Coal is stockpiled before being loaded on to ships at Gladstone, which is at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef. AAP Image/Dave Hunt

Both the LNP government and its Labor predecessors have over-sold the importance of coal to Queensland’s economy.

The LNP has approved five new coal-mining operations in the Galilee Basin. Deputy LNP leader Jeff Seeney has also pledged “hundreds of millions of dollars, I wouldn’t say billions” to partly fund new infrastructure in the Galilee Basin to speed up coal developments, although few details have been shared with Queensland taxpayers.

With existing mines in the Bowen Basin, the coal will be exported through the Great Barrier Reef. The indirect impacts, including port expansion, dredging and shipping, are not considered in EIAs for the mines. Separate assessments of new port developments and dredging have been expedient and low-standard. EIAs for the mines also ignore their contributions to greenhouse gas emissions when the coal is burned, which will have a measurable effect on global warming and further harm the reef.

What the next Queensland government must do: Stop exporting thermal coal (for electricity generation), for which there are renewable or lower-emission substitutes. Employ Queenslanders by making the Sunshine State a world leader in development and export of technical expertise and products for renewable energy. Continue to export higher-quality metallurgical coal, which is crucial in the iron and steel making process, but through well-managed ports.