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Comprehensive reef protection plan could begin with Science Ombudsman

By Jennifer Marohasy - posted Tuesday, 14 June 2016


Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has just announced a $1 billion plan to protect the Great Barrier Reef. He describes the plan as the "largest ever" financial investment in the reef, and as a "comprehensive plan". But Graham Lloyd was reporting in the Weekend Australian that there are major problems with quality assurance when it comes to scientific research concerning the Great Barrier Reef.

If Peter Ridd, a professor at James Cook University, risks being disciplined simply for querying the veracity of claims regarding damage to individual coral reefs, how can Mr Turnbull be sure that this new fund is targeting real priority issues?

Water quality has been identified as a key issue, with runoff from agriculture needing to be curtailed. But a decade ago, when I was a member of a high level Queensland Government Reef Protection Taskforce, the evidence for any impact from agriculture on the reef was wanting. Sure, there was evidence of grazing and sugarcane having an impact on the water quality in adjacent rivers and streams, but not on corals.

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That taskforce was formed by the Queensland government in response to a campaign launched on World Environment day in 2001 by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). In the first year, the campaign targeted the fishing industry claiming it was the greatest threat to the reef. In the second year, sugarcane farming was identified as the greatest threat to the reef.

I was the sugar industry representative on the Taskforce, and in order to bring my industry onboard, I wanted to be able to show the Canegrowers Ltd Board the best evidence that we were impacting the reef. The science representative on the Taskforce, Christian Roth, was tasked with coordinating the development of a science statement in consultation with experts at the CRC Reef Research Centre, the Department of Natural Resources and Mines, and James Cook University.

The first 3-page science statement was developed for the Taskforce to provide a "consolidated view of our current understanding of the impacts of terrestrial run-off on the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area". This document presented to the Taskforce on the 12 November 2001 discussed threats to the reef, but provided no reference of actual damage to the reef.

Several Taskforce members noted this fact, with the following comments being made by Taskforce members at that meeting:

'So the widespread impact (of terrestrial run-off on the Great Barrier Reef) is not substantiated.'

'Let's put the anecdotal data together as a science paper.'

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'But the scientists have tried very hard to prove there is an impact.'

'Let's not get hung up on the science.'

'Let's go forward on the basis of the precautionary principle.'

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About the Author

Jennifer Marohasy is a senior fellow with the Institute for Public Affairs.

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