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Great Barrier Reef ‘research’ – A litany of false claims

By Jennifer Marohasy - posted Monday, 10 October 2011

We may live in the information age, but how true are many of the scientific claims we read and hear? For ten years the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has been campaigning to ‘Save the Great Barrier Reef’.  When the WWF campaign was first launched in June 2001 it was claimed Diuron was killing seagrass and dioxins were killing dugongs and so both these pesticides should be banned. Ten years on and the ban on Diuron appears imminent, but the chemical is probably no more harmful than the dioxin that was found to be natural.

The WWF campaign is an example of prejudice against industry and pesticides and also how alarmism is increasingly favored over evidence resulting in junk science.   

My introduction to the exploitation of the Great Barrier Reef as a reason for banning chemicals came in August 1998 soon after I started working for Queensland Canegrowers. Jon Brodie, a scientist with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) phoned me as the industry’s new environment manager, with information that a soon-to-be published research study had found elevated levels of pesticide residue, most likely from sugarcane farming, accumulating in the fat tissue of dugongs.


I was concerned, alarmed, I wanted to see the data. But I was told it was not yet available. When I was finally faxed the few pages, I found it was primarily an analysis of the type and quantity of dioxins found in the fat tissue of dugongs that had been killed in fishing nets. Reference was made to another study which analysed dioxins found in cane land soils and commented that perhaps there was a link.

Meanwhile a dioxin expert at the University of Queensland, Brian Stanmore, advised me that the particular dioxin generating the concern and interest was very common. Four years later, in 2002, investigations undertaken by the National Research Centre for Environmental Toxicology, concluded that the pesticide Brodie had phoned me about in 1998, was in fact a natural, non-toxic dioxin common along the entire Queensland coast.       

Just a year earlier, in 2001, when it was already apparent that there were problems with the claim that runoff from sugar farms was killing dugong, WWF made exactly this claim at the launch of their ‘Save the Great Barrier Reef Campaign’.

Their campaign was well resourced and immediately stirred governments into action with various committees and enquiries established.

I found myself on the Reef Protection Taskforce as the Canegrowers’ representative.  The Taskforce was to advise the Queensland Government on the development of a Reef Protection Plan to “reduce the impacts on the Great Barrier Reef of land based sources of nutrients, sediment and pollution” and was lauded in a WWF campaign progress report as a key WWF ‘anti-pollution achievement’.

But the WWF representative on the Taskforce, Imogen Zethoven, was not happy when the first three-page science statement presented to the Taskforce for endorsement didn’t include anything about damage to the reef. 


Zethoven demanded it be redrafted, and government obliged. The revised statement came out with a covering email with comment that: “whilst there is no evidence of widespread deterioration (of the Great Barrier Reef), there is documented evidence of localized deterioration on individual near-shore reefs.”  

It was another three days before the scientific papers purporting to support this claim were provided and heading the list was an unpublished report commissioned by the Queensland Department of Fisheries hypothesising that Diuron from cane lands was the cause of mangrove dieback at the mouth of the Pioneer River in 1999.

The report was the work of Norm Duke, then a botanist at the University of Queensland, subsequently funded to publish a series of research papers on the issue, each generating a media headline claiming Diuron from cane land killed mangroves.  

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About the Author

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

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