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It's the science, not the reef, that is being polluted

By Walter Starck - posted Monday, 8 September 2014

In the fable about the boy who cried wolf the villagers quickly decided the boy was lying and ceased to respond to his alarms. It seems modern day journalists must be much more gullible than those ancient villagers. Every year for almost a half-century the news media have breathlessly reported alarmist claims of imminent threats to the existence of the Great Barrier Reef. Despite the fact that all have proved to be fictitious, trivial or short lived fluctuation of nature, the phony alarms never seem to lose credibility with news reporters or even provoke any investigation.

The latest such instance has involved uncritical propagation of alarmist claims regarding the threat from some additional dredging of an existing dredged shipping channel in connection with expansion of the coal loading terminal at Abbott Point in central Queensland. (See: BATTLE FOR THE REEF, reported by Marian Wilkinson and presented by Kerry O'Brien, broadcast on ABC 4 Corners Monday 18 August 2014)

Only a modicum of investigation would reveal that all of the ports along the Queensland coast have been dredged and require periodic re-dredging to maintain their entrance channels. The GBR itself is many km offshore and no detriment to the reef attributable to coastal dredging has ever been documented. A scattering of low diversity inshore reefs does occur in the region but these are restricted to rocky outcrops where wave action prevents sediment build-up and these reefs are comprised of a limited range of silt tolerant coral species.


Most of the inshore sea floor of the GBR lagoon is heavily blanketed by fine sediments accumulated over millennia. This is a windy coast and wave action resuspends the top layers of sediment every time there is a strong blow. These are naturally very turbid waters and the turbidity from dredging is only localised and short lived. The most noticeable ongoing effect of dredging is that the dredged channels create a more favourable habitat for fishes and a noticeably better fishing area than the naturally flat silted sea floor through which they are constructed. The port dredging amounts to not much more than moving some mud and sand from one place to another of similar substrate.

In the matter of the dredging at Abbott Point alternatives are suggested but not examined. One is pumping the dredge spoil onto the land but this would reguire the destruction of a large area of coastal wetlands with much greater environmental impact than simply moving it to similar sediment bottom nearby. Another suggested possibility has been to extend the existing 3 km long loading wharf farther offshore into deeper water but this would entail greater cyclone risk and much higher cost.

Environmentalists always prefer hypothetical solutions to imaginary problems, at least so long as these remain only theoretical or uneconomic. They advocated aquaculture, tree farms and biofuels until they became a reality. Now they oppose them.

Despite incessant claims of dire threats to the GBR, it is in fact in excellent condition. Fishing pressure is at less than 1% of the average sustainable level for reefs cited by the most recent and comprehensive global survey of coral reefs. Tourism only regularly visits less than two dozen of the more than 2500 named reefs which comprise the GBR. Nutrients and agrichemicals from land runoff are at trace levels and far below any concentrations known to have harmful effects. They are also well below the levels commonly found in our own food and their usage in the GBR catchment area has decreased over the past two decades. The warming and reduction in alkalinity (misleadingly called ocean "acidification") predicted for the end of the century due to climate change would in fact only result in levels that now occur naturally in other regions where reefs thrive and even reach their peaks of biodiversity. Severe cyclone frequency is not increasing and has been much lower over the past century than the previous one. Coral bleaching events are in line with past occurrences as evidenced by the characteristic scars they leave in coral skeletons and crown-of-thorns likewise as evidenced by the varying frequency of their characteristic spines in reef sediments.

Why then are all the reef "experts" so alarmed? For a start expertise is based on facts and facts speak for themselves. When we have to be told someone is an expert they probably aren't. Then too, our actual understanding of reef biology remains very limited. There is much we don't know and much of what we think we know is simply wrong. In the 1970s and 80s reef researchers were beginning to make good progress in our knowledge of reefs; but, since then basic research has largely ceased. Most research now focuses on environmental concerns and most of these are only hypothetical possibilities, not demonstrable problems. Unfortunately though, when funding is obtained to investigate a possible problem it is unlikely that the finding will be that there isn't one. The usual result is that the situation is found to be uncertain and more research is called for.

We now have a whole generation of researchers whose entire experience of the reef has been in the context of investigating environmental "problems" and they see every variation of nature as evidence of some threat. As the Law of the Instrument states, ifthe only tool you have is a hammer it is tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail.


Worse yet, the academic system from which all researchers derive has itself become the very font of political correctness and PC has come to encompass environmental correctness. By this diktat environmental concerns are morally beyond question, any attempt at objectivity is a delusion and scientific ethics are subordinate to some higher truth known to all right thinking people to be politically correct. In short the science itself has become corrupted.

One widely cited recent example of this from reef research has been the claim that the expanded green zones on the GBR have resulted in a doubling of coral trout numbers on the protected reefs. This arose from claims made in a press release issued by the lead research institution involved in the study but is inconsistent with abundant other evidence including that which is presented in the report itself. In the actual study the claim of a doubling of fish on protected reefs appears to rest on a single example from among 8 reef areas surveyed and that area had the lowest level to begin and lowest difference between fished and unfished reefs. In 5 of the 7 other areas the protected reefs actually showed a decline in coral trout numbers. In the remaining two areas no statistically significant change was found. On fished reefs, three areas showed increases in biomass while 5 showed declines. This is clearly not the "extraordinary" 2-fold increase in protected areas that was bannered in the press release and widely reported in the media. Such natural variability is in fact common between reefs and over time on the same reefs. While one might excuse this as only the result of an overzealous copy writer in the PR department no effort was made to correct this grossly misleading claim.

Another recent and widely reported study claims a halving of coral cover on the GBR over the past 27 years. Interestingly only two years earlier a co-author of this report was the lead author in another study using the same survey data but found no evidence of any widespread decline in coral cover. The only additional evidence comes from surveys made to assess coral damage from two severe tropical cyclones which crossed the reef in the two subsequent years. Naturally these surveys were made in the affected areas and not over the majority of the reefs which were outside the storm track. With a bit of statistical jiggery-pokery this new data was incorporated and smoother into a 27 year decline.

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About the Author

Dr Walter Starck has a PhD in marine science including post graduate training and professional experience in fisheries biology. He is the editor and publisher of Golden Dolphin, a quarterly publication on CD focusing on diving, underwater photography and the ocean world.

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