The battle over Abbot Point risks losing the Great Barrier Reef war

Bigger picture: the Great Barrier Reef seen from the Landsat satellite. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Wikimedia Commons

“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

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.

This article was co-authored by Dr Brett Kettle, a marine scientist with 30 years of experience consulting to industry, government and the community. Among other projects, he managed the 1993 dredging at the Port of Townsville, which research scientists have recommended as “a model for all large development projects”. He also led the team of scientists that developed light-based thresholds for managing seagrasses during dredging.