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Without wetlands, what will protect the Great Barrier Reef?

UNESCO has released its latest report on the state of the Great Barrier Reef, and has once again raised concerns about excessive port development along the coast, and the state of water quality around…

Queensland’s proposed port developments threaten the state’s important northern wetlands, the reef’s first line of defence. Rex Boggs

UNESCO has released its latest report on the state of the Great Barrier Reef, and has once again raised concerns about excessive port development along the coast, and the state of water quality around the reef.

In March I was invited to Queensland to see for myself the threat posed by proposed massive port expansions along the Great Barrier Reef.

I flew over Abbott Point to examine the present coal terminal. We visited the adjacent Caley Valley Wetlands in a tinny, revealing dozens to hundreds of birds at every creek turn. Huge flocks of whistling ducks took flight as we approached, herons perched in trees or stalked among water lilies; we saw great pelicans, magpie geese, kingfishers, elegant long-necked cormorants, kites, and half a dozen other species of duck, rails and black swans. The density of birds was astonishing, the highest I have ever seen in any wetland. It was immediately clear that this was an extraordinary haven for wildlife.

The present coal terminal and connecting road and rail links follow the southern side of the wetlands to a long loading jetty. This infrastructure is large and has clearly had a significant impact, but there is much intact and unspoiled wetland left. The plan is to expand the port to become the largest coal terminal in the world; that expansion would be the end for these wetlands. The impacts on the Great Barrier Reef directly would also be considerable: millions of tonnes of dredge material are likely to be dumped near Holbourne Island and its coral reefs, with potential for much greater dispersal further offshore.

Further south we travelled by boat from Yeppoon to Gladstone. The Fitzroy River delta is one of the wonders of this coastline. Approached by sea, it probably looks much as it did when Captain Cook sailed by more than 200 years ago.

People tend to develop estuaries wherever they find them. They have lots of low-lying land to build on, easy access to the ocean and plentiful water to flush away waste. Given this long historical association, there are very few of the size and importance of the Fitzroy that are left undeveloped. This means the estuary is as significant, extraordinary and precious as the Great Barrier Reef itself. If it is destroyed it cannot be recovered. Yet it is deeply threatened by proposals for a massive new port.

The importance of the estuary is underlined by the presence of endangered and iconic species, such as a small and genetically distinct resident population of snub fin dolphin.

Travelling south we encountered the mangrove-laced Narrows, flushed by powerful tidal currents that promote high productivity and attract large animals like bull sharks and even occasional crocodiles. The northern section, like the Fitzroy Delta to which it is connected, is undeveloped and has a timeless quality about it. On the southern stretch, construction cranes and the silhouettes of bulk carrier ships loom, soon merging into a relentless string of industrial constructions.

I have never seen such a sprawling port. Every company appears to have its own separate facility, so that Gladstone is more like a collection of many ports than a single entity. There seems to have been little need to build gas hubs on the world heritage-listed Curtis Island, had land been used more wisely. Images taken before dredging operations opened up the Curtis Island jetties revealed that dredging hadn’t just deepened and widened channels, it had removed the entire network of shallow wetlands.

Gladstone’s wasteful sprawl now threatens more of Curtis Island as well as the Fitzroy Delta.

I doubt that many Queenslanders or other Australians realise what they are about to lose: the wild open spaces, places for recreation, inspiration and fun, and habitats that sustain the wider ecology of the coast, support significant fisheries and protect the Great Barrier Reef.

Wetlands along the coast are vital to the survival of the Great Barrier Reef region. They are the reef’s first line of defence from adverse terrestrial influences, retaining and trapping sediments and nutrients that would otherwise be moved offshore to stress and damage corals. They help limit the spread of flood waters, which will be an increasingly important function in the future as the climate changes. And they provide nurseries for many commercially important species of fish like prawns, snappers and emperors.

I was alarmed by the enormous threats to the unspoiled coastal environment and quality of life for Australians; one cannot ignore the global significance of the Queensland coast, the role of intact, healthy habitats in the economic prosperity of the region, and the interdependent nature of the entire coast to the outer reef region - you can’t damage one part without damaging others.

Visiting these amazing places first-hand has revealed to me how mining interests are prepared to squander the future of many to enrich just a few in the present. Open spaces and unspoiled country are the soul of Australia, embedded in the national psyche. But there is a real danger that Australia is selling its soul to the mining industry.

The World Heritage Committee was wise to send a mission to investigate. The risk to the Reef is profound.

Coastal wetland protection and protection of the Reef from port expansion, dredging and shipping are fundamentally intertwined. Without a swift change of direction, Queenslanders and the world risk ruining a living priceless treasure.

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15 Comments sorted by

  1. Rae McPherson

    Natural Resource Manager

    Wetlands have been described as the kidneys of the planet, their mico-fauna performing an essential, and for very low cost, role of cleaning up water before it moves on. By disturbing these very important "essential organs" of the landscape we risk releasing even more toxic elements into our global bloodstream.

    UNESCO has provided us with the opportunity to review what is going on with the Reef. Thank you Callum for this article, I hope the importance of wetlands and mangroves can one day become common knowledge and their protection be considered an essential element of any coastal development.

  2. Dale Bloom


    Of interest regards this is where will the increased population go?

    The nearest town to Abbot Point is Bowen, with a current population of 10,000.

    That population will increase if Abbot Point expands, and that population is already clinging to the coastline, with new housing developments occurring right along the coastline.

    It could become similar to Mackay, which went from 30,000 to over 90,000 people, with some talk of the population increasing to 280,000.

    So many people want to live beside the sea, and catch fish or crabs or collect oysters, or drive their vehicles along the beach, all of which impacts on the coastal areas.

    So it now a question of “growth versus the natural environment”, and growth is winning.

    I have personally asked many local people in Mackay if life is better now than 20 years ago with a much smaller population, and not one person to date has said it is any better.

  3. Patick von Stieglitz

    logged in via Facebook

    It's not the future that is going to kill the reef it's the past and the responsibility lies with the farmers and the poison they use for their crops. If you believe the scientists the reef is already 50% dead. WHAT KILLED IT?

    Save the reef a great asset a great passion for us all but sadly I do not think the human race is smart enough to do it. Or put it another way intelligent enough. WHAT DO YOU THINK?

  4. David Arthur

    resistance gnome

    I share Mr von Stieglitz's concern that Prof Roberts' article, while valuable in itself, makes insufficient mention of over a century os mismanagement of Queensland's rivers.

    The nutrient-rich sediment-rich toxin-loaded river water discharging to the reef lagoon has contributed to ever more severe Crown-of Thorns starfish outbreaks and smothering phytoplankton. As Mr von Stieglitz notes, this has long been due to poor agricultural practices.

    The Good News is, many Queensland farmers are increasingly…

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    1. Wade Macdonald


      In reply to David Arthur

      I don't know what you and everyone else is worried about David?

      Marine parks 'protect' marine know those lines on those maps as touted by the navel gazers. We don't need to address the real threats anymore as its already been 'protected'.

      Off Adelaide recently we had a massive fish kill with fish, penquins, dolphins and birds all found dead. All blamed on 'natural phenomenon' by the way of an algal bloom. No mention of contributing factors that increase severity/size of such events or nutrification the through aquaculture, effluent outflow and desalination etc.

      I have an idea...lets save our marine life by charging businesses fees to fly a plane over whales that swim in MPA's.

    2. Dale Bloom


      In reply to David Arthur

      I am amused by a QLD town (Mackay) that has saturation advertising on TV about how great it is to live in the area, while the quality of life and the environment in the area is actually in fast decline.

      The greater the decline, the more propaganda that has to be used to brainwash people into believing life is better with a bigger population and more industrial development.

      Much of the land being farmed near the reef is barely economic, and would be best to carry out reafforestation to reduce sediment runoff and increase biomass diversity on the land.

      Its now crunch time for government policy.

      Anymore growth and development is making it worse for the environment and worse for people as it is creating decreased quality of life, but our state and federal governments want an increased population, and increased growth and development.

    3. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Wade Macdonald

      Thanks Wade, my understanding of your comment is firstly that you agree that many contributing factors to marine deterioration occur far inland as a result of poor management practices.

      Secondly, you also raise the excellent point that land practice close to the coast, particularly disposal of desalination reject brine, and treated wastewater disposal, are also problematic. Thanks for that.

      To be fair to Prof Roberts, his GBR inspection tour did not include Bowen Basin mining or agricultural operations, so his account of his inspection may not be expected to consider them in detail.

  5. Colin Creighton

    Chair, Climate adaptation, Marine Biodiversity and Fisheries

    Hi all - great to see people are starting to grasp that the Great Barrier reef is an ecosystem and of course the area most trashed is the inshore / estuarine complexes where many species spend their nursery phase - think about 70% of professional target species over 80% of rec fishing targets and of course all the other species, flows, fluxes, nutrient assimilation, carbon sequestration and so on that keeps the entire GBR ecosystem alive and healthy. Email me if you want a copy of the Blueprint…

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    1. Wade Macdonald


      In reply to Colin Creighton

      Hi Colin,

      As I recreational fisher I will be interested in this FRDC strategy namely:

      1) Where will the funds come from and how will they be spent to produce the 3 fold productivity you speak of?

      2) How this strategy will adequately control the demands of industry sectors given the political power some sectors have over decision makers?

      3) Whether this strategy will involve uneccessary restrictions/bans on local community activities instead of addressing the real threats at their source?

      4) Government position through mangrove, seagrasses carbon sequestration and what this means for local sustainable stakeholders against unsound environmental policy through carbon trading schemes, licenced pollution?

    2. Colin Creighton

      Chair, Climate adaptation, Marine Biodiversity and Fisheries

      In reply to Wade Macdonald

      Hi Wade
      The first $40M has come from this Government's Reef Rescue initiative - so all good and with an ecological objective. For Australia though my estimates of need are closer to $300M just to repair wetlands, get rid of floodgates and acid producing drains and so on. Of course the main issue is fisheries are competing with generally marginal agriculture + urban development just likes those water views.
      As to your 2 and 3 - well given we have lost so much of our inshore fisheries the philosophy…

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    3. Wade Macdonald


      In reply to Colin Creighton

      Thanks for the response Colin.

      Quote..."fine have your argument AFTER we have actually got some productivity back"

      I haven't seen any policy on the real threats that makes a solid committment in stopping the current train wreck that's ruining our recreation? Are you suggesting the governments will reverse some of their decisions/issues that make our recreation non viable/excluded?

      E.g. Population growth, urban sprawl, CSG and offshore mining, anti fishing exclusionist advocacy, carbon trading enabled privatisation of natural resources, desalination, general pollution etc.

      The only means by which this has transpired on any level in our history is the recent NSW decision on lanbased fishing. However, was that decision based on cause and effect rationalism or politics?

    4. Colin Creighton

      Chair, Climate adaptation, Marine Biodiversity and Fisheries

      In reply to Wade Macdonald

      Thanks Wade - but hey I only can do my little bit. Sure i only have 2 children, plant well over 1000 trees a year, make sure there is minimal nutrient and sediment off my property, spend at least 1/4 of a year volunteering in developed countries, have declared 3/4 of my farm a Nature Refuge, don't consume a lot and don't even have a TV let alone a wide screen one made in Vietnam using electricity that was generated by damming the Mekong......but population control, CSG and all the rest, well a touch beyond my personal brief.

      Have a great evening.

  6. michelle sharma

    logged in via email

    I remember some time ago just after Campbell Newman was elected he made a comment on the ABC somewhere along the lines of "if its between the ships or the reef the ships win" So if my memory serves me right and I didnt hear it wrong then - how is the future looking for the reef under this present management?