Management of shipping
in the Great Barrier Reef
This chapter examines key issues raised in relation to shipping
in the Great Barrier Reef, including:
rates of shipping through the Great Barrier Reef;
management and regulatory measures in relation to shipping
(including the proposed North-East Shipping Management Plan); and
the impacts of shipping.
Trends in shipping traffic through the reef
There was a consensus in evidence to the committee that shipping is
increasing in the Great Barrier Reef region, although there were differing
perspectives on the likely extent of this increase.
The Outlook Report 2014 states that shipping in the Great Barrier
Reef region 'has increased substantially since 2000, driven mainly by industrial
and mining activity'. It forecasts that 'the number of vessel calls to ports
adjacent to the region will increase by about 250 per cent over the next
20 years'. This forecast is based on 'projected export capacities,
information from existing development proposals and predictions for the region's
four major ports' and, in particular, growth in the mining and liquefied
natural gas industry and port expansions. The report provided a graph
indicating that by 2020 there will be around 7500 vessel calls to Great Barrier
Reef ports (including around 4200 coal vessels), up from around 4000 total
calls in 2012.
However, the extent of any future increases in shipping was the subject
of discussion in evidence to this inquiry. GBRMPA pointed out that there is
uncertainty in forecasting shipping volumes:
As levels of shipping activity are affected by a number of
economic factors, it is difficult to predict the amount of shipping that will
occur through the waters of the Great Barrier Reef in future years.
The Queensland Ports Association observed that, in recent times, there
have been 'a number of widely varying and in some instances inaccurate
estimates of future shipping numbers in the GBR'.
WWF Australia and AMCS also acknowledged that 'estimates vary for the projected
increase in shipping' in the Great Barrier Reef region.
Mr Roche from the Queensland Resources Council explained that 'there is a
difference of view about what is a realistic picture for the expansion of the
industry over the decade'.
He tabled a document indicating that 'at the upper end of official forecasts,
ship calls could increase from a current 4600 vessels a year to around 6000 by
At the other end of the spectrum, some submitters and witnesses referred
to a Greenpeace report predicting that coal ships passing through the Great
Barrier Reef World Heritage Area will increase to around 10,000 by the end of
However, the Queensland Resources Council described these figures as
'ludicrous' and 'incorrect'. Both the Queensland Ports Association and the Queensland
Resources Council noted that forecasts are being lowered, reflecting changes in
market conditions, including lower resources demand, over the past 12–18 months.
Queensland Ports Association also submitted that 'any increase in shipping
traffic of itself, presents a minimal change to the risk if managed
The committee also received evidence that the size of ships in the region
is increasing, and that there is a global trend towards longer ships with
The Mackay Conservation Group, for example, were concerned that the use of
larger ships means that there is a need for more dredging.
Indeed, the committee notes that the GBRMPA Region Strategic Assessment states
In order to accommodate deeper draft ships, some ports may
require more capital and ongoing maintenance dredging into the future.
However, Mr Anderson of Ports Australia told the committee that, while 'container
ships are getting a lot bigger', he did not think there will be a 'massive
increase in the size of vessels coming to Queensland'.
Dr Reichelt noted that GBRMPA is looking at the 'idea of a reef-class
vessel that is wider and shallower and does not need deep channels'.
Management and regulatory measures in relation to shipping
Other submissions and witnesses argued that work is being done to
minimise the risks of shipping to the reef. In particular, government and
industry groups told the committee that shipping in the Great Barrier Reef region
is well managed, highly regulated and relatively low risk.
For example, Commodore Rod Nairn of Shipping Australia told the
committee that 'the existing regulatory environment for shipping in the Great
Barrier Reef is both comprehensive and efficient'.
The Australian and Queensland Governments submitted that:
Commercial shipping has been occurring in the reef area for
around 100 years and all but the smallest vessels are confined to a few
well-defined routes. The shipping is highly regulated by international,
Commonwealth, state and local regulations and reef-specific policies. Despite a
substantial increase in ship movements since 1996, groundings have reduced in
the same time period.
The committee received evidence referring to a range of existing
measures that regulate and manage shipping through the Great Barrier Reef.
the Great Barrier Reef has been declared a Particularly Sensitive
Sea Area (PSSA) by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), which was
extended southward to the southern extent of the reef and enables Australia to
to apply specific maritime controls, such as compulsory pilotage, designation
of shipping routes and mandatory location reporting;
the Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait Vessel Traffic Service
(REEFVTS) to monitor ship movements in the Great Barrier Reef and intervene if
shipping moves beyond defined limits such as designated shipping areas;
a compulsory pilotage regime for certain ships
which covers certain parts of the reef, including the inner route of the Great
Barrier Reef and around the Whitsundays;
numerous international conventions which Australia has ratified
that relate to the safety of shipping and protection of the marine environment;
ship quality vetting.
The Queensland Ports Association concluded that:
Overall the impacts and risks to the [Great Barrier Reef]
from shipping are considered to be extremely well managed and are improving
over time to address the increased shipping volumes and related risks.
North-East Shipping Management Plan
In addition to these measures, the Australian and Queensland Governments
referred to the draft North-East Shipping Management Plan (as mentioned in
Chapter 2), noting that the plan 'identifies measures to manage risks
associated with shipping' in the Great Barrier Reef region and that:
These measures are to be implemented through a work program,
to prevent or mitigate ship-sourced pollution and other environmental impacts
associated with the projected growth of shipping over the next 10 years.
The plan was made available for public comment and consultation in
August 2013, and will be finalised this year.
Some submitters and witnesses were concerned that the Strategic Assessment
contains little detail on measures to reduce risks from shipping but rather
defers to the proposed North-East Shipping Management Plan.
Most industry groups were supportive of the North-East Shipping
For example, Shipping Australia described it as 'extensive', stating that it
provides 'an integrated approach to the planning, regulation and management of
ports and shipping activity' in the Great Barrier Reef region, and 'should
allay any fears that shipping activities may negatively impact' on the reef.
The Minerals Council of Australia agreed that the North-East Shipping
...should provide further confidence that shipping through the [Great
Barrier Reef] area will remain well managed into the future and present a low
risk to listed [Great Barrier Reef] values.
Mr Simon Meyjes of Australian Reef Pilots noted, for example, that there
are proposals under the North-East Shipping Management Plan to extend the some
of the compulsory pilotage areas south and possibly make it mandatory by 2020.
However, many submitters and witnesses were critical of the North-East
Shipping Management Plan. For example, the Cairns Local Marine Advisory
Committee submitted that the draft North-East Shipping Management Plan:
...falls short in addressing issues such as sediment plumes
from shipping movements (under-vessel clearance), noise pollution and the
expected increases in size and number of vessels both visiting Queensland ports
and travelling past without coming ashore in Queensland.
The Cairns and Far North Environment Centre (CAFNEC) commented that the
plan 'is characterised by a lack of detail regarding existing and future
impacts of shipping in the [Great Barrier Reef] region and a lack of real
commitment to addressing impacts...'. CAFNEC suggested that 'the plan should be
withdrawn and resubmitted with adequate detail on both known and potential
WWF-Australia and the Australian Marine Conservation Society recognised
that the draft plan 'provides an important set of priority actions', but submitted
that urgent changes are needed if the Great Barrier Reef is to be adequately
protected. Their suggestions included, for example, requiring compulsory pilotage
for the entire Great Barrier Reef region, regimes to encourage the use of high-standard
ships in Great Barrier Reef waters, and improved marine biosecurity
Other issues identified in relation to the draft North-East Shipping
Management Plan included the lack of ship speed controls (as discussed later in
and the inadequate consideration of underwater noise pollution.
These issues are both discussed further later in this chapter.
Impacts of increased shipping
The committee heard a number of concerns related to the potential
impacts of increased shipping on the Great Barrier Reef, including:
increased ship strikes, affecting mainly larger animals, such as
dugongs, whales, turtles and dolphins;
increased acoustic noise pollution from ships (and dredging);
the risk of ballast water being released from ships moving
through the reef, which carry contaminants and invasive species;
the use of tributylin (TBT), an antifouling agent used on ships
shipping incidents, accidents and collisions with the reef system
However, Commodore Nairn of Shipping Australia suggested that, compared
to the major threats to the Great Barrier Reef:
...the negative impacts of shipping seem to be a
disproportionate focus, as they are in fact negligible in the reef environment
and are far outweighed by the economic benefit to Australia of effective
shipping operations, which accounted for $60 billion in trade in Queensland in
The committee received evidence during the inquiry on the risk of ship
groundings and collisions; as well as two other issues in relation to shipping
where it was argued that management measures could be significantly improved:
ship strike and underwater noise pollution. All of these issues are discussed
It was noted that there have been improvements in shipping safety
management in the Great Barrier Reef over the past decade (see further 'Management
and regulatory measures in relation to shipping'), and that there have been
very few shipping incidents,
the main exception being the grounding of the Shen Neng in April 2010.
In particular the introduction of the REEFVTS in 2004 was a noted improvement
by several witnesses and submitters.
For example, in expressing support for the REEFVTS, the Queensland Resources
Council submitted that:
Shipping incidents since the introduction of REEFVTS have
reduced from on average 1 a year to a single incident in the REEFVTS coverage
area since 2003 (being a temporary bulk carrier grounding in the Torres
Strait). The Shen Neng incident at Douglas Shoal in 2010 occurred outside the
then coverage area for REEFVTS. That coverage area was subsequently expanded to
included the southern area of the GBR.
However, Mr Meyjes of Australian Reef Pilots warned against complacency,
citing recent examples of shipping accidents elsewhere in the world which 'remind
us of our vulnerabilities'. He noted that 'all of these accidents occurred as a
result of some form of human error'. He suggested that although:
...shipping in Australia appears safe because we do not see
high accident rates, that does not that a bad accident is not perhaps around
the corner. We believe a lot more can be done and should be done in practical
terms to ensure the safety of shipping.
He expressed a particular concern:
Ships that do not have a coastal pilot or a port pilot on
board are navigated through dangerous waters with crews of unknown training
often from ships registered in foreign flags of convenience, where safety
standards are not shared with Australia...We are not at all confident in the
training standards delivered by a lot of other countries...We are aware of the
ready availability of forged qualifications in some countries.
The Keppel and Fitzroy Delta Alliance expressed support for compulsory
pilotage and for pilots to have sufficient training, skills, experience and
knowledge in relation to the Great Barrier Reef waters.
Mr Leck of WWF-Australia identified 'reducing the risk of shipping by
prohibiting rogue vessels from entering the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage
area' as a key action to improve the management of the reef.
Mr Roche also mentioned the RightShip program, which he told the
committee ensures that 'bulk carriers are subject to independent vetting to
exclude substandard ships from reef waters'. He suggested that the committee
consider 'recommending that such vetting apply to all commercial shipping
through the reef'.
The Capricorn Conservation Council acknowledged that improvements have
been made to 'better track ship movement', but noted that 'incidents of ships'
captains taking short cuts through [Great Barrier Reef] are still occurring'.
Indeed, the committee notes that crew members of a bulk carrier were recently fined
for taking a short cut through the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
The submissions from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW)
focused on 'the increasing risk of ship strike to whales in the Great Barrier
Reef as a result of current and projected increases in shipping'. Ms Livermore
from IFAW expressed concern that 'there is no ship strike strategy' and that 'there
has been no attention to ship strikes either within the Great Barrier Reef or
in Australian waters to date'.
IFAW explained that an analysis of shipping traffic in the Great Barrier Reef
shows 'considerable overlap between shipping lanes and critical whale habitat'
(including mating and calving grounds).
In terms of evidence of ship strikes, IFAW submitted that:
While records show just a handful of reports of ship strikes
of humpback whales in Australia, it is widely recognised that these figures
likely under‑represent actual incidences. Many mariners do not know of reporting
requirements for ship strikes and in many cases ship strikes may go unnoticed;
even an animal as large as a whale pales into insignificance against a 300m
However, Commodore Nairn of Shipping Australia told the committee that
he has 'not been involved in a ship strike', despite having spent 20 years at
sea (and 15 years inside the Great Barrier Reef) and that 'the speeds of my
ships were 15 knots and less'.
Mr Meyjes of Australian Reef Pilots similarly noted a discussion with a senior
pilot who had 'spent nearly his nearly his whole life on the reef and has not
personally experienced a ship strike with a whale or a dugong but he has seen
carcases at sea. We would all have to assume that these things happen'.
Nevertheless, IFAW suggested further steps be taken to reduce the risk
of ship strikes. IFAW noted that efforts elsewhere in the world 'have focused
on separating areas where whales and ships are or reducing ship speeds'.
They suggested that 'ship speed controls should be introduced in the Great
Barrier Reef to reduce the risk of fatal ship strikes on whales'.
IFAW noted that the most common speed for ships passing through core whale
habitat areas of the Great Barrier Reef was around 12‑14 knots. Ms
Livermore, IFAW, explained that higher ship speed increases the risks of fatal
At these speeds, if a ship hits a whale there is a 50 to 70
per cent chance of it being killed instantly...at 18 knots there is a 90 per cent
chance a whale will be killed; if you reduce the speed down to 10 knots there
is only a 30 per cent chance. Speed is really the key: the severity of the
injury a whale will sustain after being struck is directly linked to ship
Ms Livermore proposed a speed limit of 10 knots in the Great Barrier
Reef Marine Park, particularly for cargo and container ships in critical whale
IFAW further suggested a number of additional measures to reduce the risk of
ship strike to whales, including:
...assessing whether shipping lanes can be moved at all to
avoid areas of whale habitat; alerting mariners to areas of whale habitat
through navigational charts, the REEFVTS system, and other targeted awareness
programmes; improving mariner awareness about the risk of ship strikes and the
need to report incidences; and producing as a priority the Government's planned
ship strike strategy...
In response to questions on notice on this issue, the Department of the
Environment advised that an 'expected action' out of the North-East Shipping
Management Plan is the development of the National Vessel Strike Strategy for
cetaceans, which will aim to 'minimise the risk of vessel strikes and the
impacts they may have on human safety, property and marine megafaunal
populations'. The Department further advised that the objectives of the
data collection to understand the scale of the problem in
development of more assessable and efficient reporting procedure;
development of mitigation measures in response to this
Finally, the Department noted that 'the development and implementation
of appropriate mitigation measures will be undertaken with relevant
stakeholders including the shipping industry and may include speed
As noted in relation to the draft North-East Shipping Management Plan
earlier in this chapter, some evidence suggested that the issue of underwater
noise has not been adequately addressed in the Great Barrier Reef region.
For example, Mr McPherson explained that noise pollution comes from both
shipping and port conservation and maintenance.
He further explained that noise can 'alter habitats of marine animals and
potentially mask communications for species that rely on sound to mate, feed,
avoid predators and navigate' and can have stress impacts on those mammals.
Australians for Animals similarly referred to a range of research which
outlines the impacts of underwater noise on marine mammals.
Mr McPherson and Australians for Animals noted that research indicates
that noise pollution impacts may also affect other aspects of the marine ecosystem,
not just marine mammals. For example, shipping noise may also mask the 'biological
noise of coral reefs', and that masking could inhibit 'the settlement of coral,
crab and fish larvae on the reefs'.
Mr McPherson noted that underwater noise is a recognised marine
pollutant under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea
(UNCLOS) and that in April 2014, the International Maritime Organization (IMO)
approved voluntary guidelines for the reduction of shipping noise from
commercial ships on the marine environment. The guidelines address issues such
as measurement of shipping noise, ship design and maintenance to help reduce
noise and also suggest that:
Speed reductions or routing decisions to avoid sensitive
marine areas including well-known habitats or migratory pathways when in
transit will help to reduce adverse impacts on marine life.
However, Mr McPherson submitted that there appears to be a 'strong
reluctance' by Australian authorities to recognise marine underwater noise as a
pollutant impacting the GBRWHA despite its international acknowledgement. Mr
McPherson told the committee that:
There is no reason why acoustic noise pollution, as defined
by UNCLOS in 1982 and accepted by IMO, should be so clearly ignored. In fact,
reduction of shipping noise pollution offers one of the most readily documented
and readily achievable pollution mitigation schemes going...
Mr McPherson recommended that shipping noise be mitigated by 'improved
propulsion system redesigns and by more appropriate scheduling of shipping
through the [Great Barrier Reef] on a seasonal and locational basis'.
Australians for Animals were similarly concerned that the issue of
underwater noise is being ignored, including by the recent draft North-East
Shipping Management Plan and the Queensland Ports Strategy.
The committee notes that noise pollution is acknowledged as an issue in
the Great Barrier Reef Region Strategic Assessment, which identifies 'an urgent
need for greater understanding of the ecological impacts of noise within the region
and for guidance on measures to avoid or mitigate these impacts'.
However, Mr McPherson was critical of the Strategic Assessment's treatment of
noise pollution and refuted the statement that there is a need for further guidance.
He suggested that international organisations have in fact provided that
At the same time, the committee heard there is a move towards newer
ships with built-in noise reduction systems and/or which are more efficient at
The committee was told that lower speeds would mean that ships are quieter.
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