Chapter 5 Tropical North Queensland
On 5 and 6 July 2012, the Committee held a public hearing in Townsville
and visited various sites in Townsville and north of Cairns. The focus of the
visit was to consider the vulnerability of marine coral reef ecosystems and
terrestrial wet tropical ecosystems to climate change, as highlighted in
submissions presented to the inquiry.
Tropical North Queensland is home to both the Great Barrier Reef World
Heritage Area, and the Wet Tropics of Queensland World Heritage Area. The Great
Barrier Reef Marine Park covers an area of approximately 344 400 square
kilometres along 2300 kilometres of Queensland’s coastline, from the tip of
Cape York south to Bundaberg. Many different habitat
types exist within this area, including coral reefs, seagrass meadows, tidal wetlands,
open waters and islands. Climate change has been
identified as the greatest threat facing the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem.
The Wet Tropics of Queensland World Heritage Area covers some 8944 square
kilometres, spanning over 450 kilometres along the north-east coast of
Australia, from just south of Cooktown to just north of Townsville.
The ‘wet tropics’ is the most biodiverse terrestrial region of Australia.
The main vegetation type is wet tropical rainforests, fringed by sclerophyll
forests, woodlands, swamps and mangrove forests; there are also several endemic
species including the lemuroid ringtail possum. Climate change is
predicted to result in changes in species abundance and distribution, increased
vulnerability to pests and weeds, and high levels of
extinction in the wet tropics of Queensland.
Figure 5.1 Location of the Wet Tropics of Queensland World Heritage Area
and the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area
Library © Commonwealth of Australia 2012
The two-day inspection and public hearing program provided the Committee
with an overview of the major climate change issues potentially affecting the
biodiversity of local and international coral reef and wet tropical ecosystems.
The key issues identified by the Committee during the site inspections included
the impacts of invasive species, ocean acidification, increasing temperatures, and
increasing intensity of extreme weather events.
The Committee’s visit to Tropical North Queensland included inspections
and briefings at Reef HQ Great Barrier Reef Aquarium in Townsville (Reef HQ),
and in wet tropics areas north of Cairns. These activities provided an insight
into the distinct ecosystem types existing in close proximity to each other,
and the common challenges faced in the region due to climate change.
Reef HQ Great Barrier Reef Aquarium
Reef HQ in Townsville is the National Reef Education Centre for the
Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA),
and houses the world’s largest coral reef aquarium. The Great Barrier Reef is
home to approximately 1500 species of fish, 400 species of hard
coral, one third of the world’s soft corals, and six of the seven species of
sea turtle. Reef HQ’s 2.5
million litre tank displays a coral reef exhibit with approximately 150 species
of fish and 120 species of coral found on the Great Barrier Reef.
On 5 July 2012, the Committee inspected Reef HQ’s research and community
awareness projects, and gained an insight into how Reef HQ’s interactive
aquarium setting engages the community on the challenges faced by the Great
Barrier Reef. At the time of the Committee’s visit there were 28 living
exhibitions showing reef supporting ecosystems and the biodiversity of the
region. The Committee met with Mr Fred Nucifora, the Director of Reef HQ, and
received briefings on the threats to biodiversity in reef ecosystems due to
climate change; the research projects being undertaken at Reef HQ by Australian
Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) and James Cook University researchers; the Great
Barrier Reef Marine Park Zoning Plan 2003; and GBRMPA’s Reef
The wet tropics of Queensland
As noted earlier, the wet tropics of Queensland is the most biodiverse
terrestrial region of Australia. The Committee visited
the Daintree Rainforest Observatory (DRO), which lies about 140 kilometres
north of Cairns in the Cape Tribulation region. Whilst travelling through the
wet tropics, and once at the DRO, the Committee received briefings from the
- Wet Tropics
Management Authority (WTMA), represented by:
- Dr Steve
Goosem, Principal Scientist; and
- Mr Andrew
Maclean, Executive Director; and
- James Cook University
(JCU), represented by:
- Mr Peter
Byrnes, Site Manager, Daintree Rainforest Observatory;
- Dr Susan
Laurance, Senior Lecturer, School of Marine and Tropical Biology;
Bradley Smith, Research Strategy and Special Projects Manager, Division of
Research and Innovation; and
- Mr Andrew
Thompson, Research Worker/Canopy Crane Operator.
Some of the briefings throughout the day focused on local rainforest
connectivity projects, research projects measuring the effects of climate
change on species abundance and adaptability, and long-term baseline data
collection necessary for measuring changes over time.
During the inspections, the Committee received the following documents:
- Cairns to Daintree
field trip map, WTMA, July 2012.
- Port Douglas to
Daintree Rainforest Observatory, trip notes, Dr Steve Goosem,
Issues explored in Tropical North Queensland
Throughout its Queensland site inspection program, the Committee
gathered evidence on how invasive species, ocean acidification, increasing
temperatures and extreme weather events are posing threats to the biodiversity of
Australia’s reefal and wet tropical ecosystems. The Committee also gathered
evidence on sustainable management practices, research and connectivity
programs, and education and community awareness projects supported in the area.
Invasive species and species decline
During the course of the inquiry, the Committee has heard about the
risks invasive species pose to biodiversity. In Western Australia and Sydney,
for example, the Committee heard about phytophthora dieback and myrtle rust as
emerging threats to biodiversity. In Tropical North
Queensland, the Committee was advised that over 200 plant species in the wet
tropics are at risk of being infected by myrtle rust. The Committee heard that,
as a windborne pathogen, there is little possibility of preventing the spread of
the disease once it has taken hold.
The spread of invasive weeds also presents threats to biodiversity in
the wet tropics. Outbreaks of weeds, such as miconia and Koster’s curse, have
been observed in the Whyanbeel area just north of Mossman.
These weeds are subject to eradication, as part of a nationally coordinated
program managed by the Queensland Government. They are considered weeds because
of their potential to damage the native and agricultural lands in Tropical
North Queensland, and infest tropical areas of other states.
The predicted increase in the frequency and intensity of cyclones will
assist in spreading invasive weeds in hard to reach places such as rainforested
hillsides. High winds, heavy rains and flooding associated with cyclone
activity create disturbances that make ecosystems more susceptible to invasion,
while also helping to spread the seed of invasive species. The spread of invasive
weeds, particularly into inaccessible locations, will make management of these
species difficult and expensive.
Species decline is an additional challenge to biodiversity in wet
tropics areas. During the Daintree Rainforest Observatory (DRO) site inspection,
the Committee heard that the world is currently experiencing the sixth mass
extinction, and that 25 per cent of species in the Australian wet tropics are projected
to become extinct.
The Committee has previously heard about the potential for loss of
species adapted to living in high altitudes in alpine regions, due to increased
temperatures. The Committee heard
about a similar phenomenon in the high altitude regions of the wet tropics,
affecting the threatened lemuroid ringtail possum (Hemibelideus lemuroides).
An endemic possum in the wet tropics, lemuroids are very sensitive to high
temperatures and poorly adapted for regulating their body temperature. In the
1980s, lemuroids were commonly found living above 1000 metres on the Carbine
Tableland. Since then, there has been a significant decline in lemuroid numbers
in the area. Furthermore, since 1999, lemuroids have been observed living at
higher altitudes of above 1200 metres. The Committee was advised that this population
decline and range shift has been partly attributed to the extreme, extended
heat wave experienced in the region in the summer of 2005.
The Committee understands that the spread of myrtle rust is of concern
in the wet tropics. At an earlier site visit to the Australian Botanic Garden
at Mount Annan, the Committee heard about the rapid spread of myrtle rust along
the east coast of Australia. The full impacts of
myrtle rust on the resilience of the wet tropics ecosystem are unknown, and there
is little way of preventing its spread. The Committee acknowledges some views
expressed about the spread of myrtle rust and possible ways to reduce its
impact, including identification of the vulnerabilities of different parts of
the forest to myrtle rust, and localised quarantine over important areas.
There are numerous national management plans for invasive species,
setting targets for reducing the impacts of invasive species on various
ecosystems. The Committee recognises
these plans and targets as useful tools in the management of invasive species,
and acknowledges the importance of cooperation between all levels of government
towards a national quarantine system which may limit the spread of diseases and
invasive weeds in the future.
Should the high levels of projected species extinction in the wet tropics
and worldwide be realised, the effects on the biodiversity of the wet tropics
region would be significant. Increased temperatures, extreme weather events and
changes in rainfall patterns contribute to the loss of rainforests. In these
circumstances, species like the lemuroid ringtail possum are forced to move to
higher altitudes to survive. Those species already living at those higher
altitudes, however, will have nowhere to go. Policies currently being pursued to
combat projected species extinctions include minimising climate change, protecting
tropical forests and increasing habitat connectivity—issues the Committee explores
later in this chapter.
Climate change threats to biodiversity
Ocean acidification has been identified as a serious threat to the
biodiversity of coral reef ecosystems. The coral reef exhibition at Reef HQ, containing
thousands of reef creatures, is exposed to the same weather elements which
occur in natural reefs. During its inspection, the Committee heard about the
detrimental impacts of a more acidic ocean on corals. As levels of atmospheric
carbon dioxide increase, the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed by the ocean also
increases, causing the ocean to become more acidic.
This affects the ability of coral reefs to grow, which could in turn reduce the
capacity of the Great Barrier Reef to repair itself after natural disturbances,
including damage from cyclones and storms, or human induced disturbances,
including damage from marine vessels and visitors.
Coral bleaching is another threat to reef ecosystems that can inhibit
coral reproduction and lead to mortality. Put broadly, coral bleaching can occur
as a result of sea temperature increases, and the ability of corals to recover
from such events depends upon the length and severity of the temperature
increase and the resilience of the reef. When waters are more acidic, corals have
been found to bleach at lower temperatures, demonstrating that the
combined effect of ocean acidification and coral bleaching can be greater than
the effect of each phenomenon alone.
In a survey of the Great Barrier Reef, carried out by AIMS scientists
and published in 2009, a 14.2 per cent decrease in coral growth since 1990 was
observed, with the rate of decline being influenced by increased sea surface temperatures
and ocean acidification. The Committee also heard
that the strength and frequency of cyclones is expected to intensify, in part
due to a warming ocean, which would put added pressure on coral growth through
increased damage to coral cover.
The Committee was interested to see the research facilities Reef HQ
provides to local researchers. Reef HQ has previously supported researchers from
The University of Queensland, who were assessing the factors affecting the
vulnerability of coral reefs to ocean acidification. At the time of the
Committee’s visit, Reef HQ was supporting researchers from JCU, who were conducting
experiments on the impacts of ocean acidification on coral strength.
The Committee heard that increased temperatures and changes in
hydrological patterns are also posing a threat to the biodiversity of wet
tropical ecosystems. During briefings given at the DRO, the Committee was
informed that current climate change research in tropical forests is focused on
the effects of increased temperatures, droughts and storms, and how they
interact with land use.
Thornton Peak is an upland refugial area of the wet tropics, with fern
forests at the summit that rely on cloud stripping to contribute large amounts
of water to the forest system and the upper catchments. The rainforests capture
water directly from the clouds and then release the water slowly, which
maintains stream flows in the dry season. The Committee understands that cloud
stripping contributes up to 70 per cent of the total water input into the
forest system in the dry season and 10 to 20 per cent in the wet season. The
Committee heard that an increase in average temperature by one degree Celsius would
likely raise the cloud base by 100 metres, reducing the level of cloud
stripping and causing significant stress to the ecosystem.
Throughout its visit to Tropical North Queensland, the Committee heard
about the current and future effects of increased temperatures and increased
levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide on the local ecosystems. The Committee was
pleased to hear about the research being supported by Reef HQ, investigating
the impacts of ocean acidification on reef ecosystems. The partnerships between
the local universities and Reef HQ appear mutually beneficial for improving the
understanding of the effects of climate change from a scientific perspective, and
for engaging and educating the community on what individuals can do to combat
the effects of climate change on Australia’s biodiversity.
The adverse impacts of ocean acidification, increased temperatures, and
changes in hydrological patterns discussed above reinforce the need to build
resilience into ecosystems to help them withstand changes in climate.
Sustainable management of reef and rainforest
The Committee’s visit to Reef HQ highlighted the importance of
sustainable management practices to the protection of the Great Barrier Reef
and the wet tropical rainforests of Queensland.
Sustainability at Reef HQ
Reef HQ demonstrates sustainable management through its coral
propagation program, the results of which are displayed in the aquarium. The
coral propagation program was explained to the Committee as operating in a similar
way to that of growing new plants from mature ones in a garden; the donor
mother colony is left in place in the research facility, with the fragments taken
from it placed in the right conditions for them to grow. Traditionally, in
order to carry out research, corals would be collected from the reef and
translocation would sometimes kill the coral. The Committee was informed about
the long-term goal of requiring little to no collection of coral from the Great
Barrier Reef in order to carry out the coral propagation program. This would
mean that the corals appearing in the displays at Reef HQ could be regenerated through
the coral propagation program, with no adverse effect on the Great Barrier Reef.
The Committee heard that the sustainable use of resources at Reef HQ
aims to reduce energy consumption. Aspects of the air conditioning and chilled
water system, and the pump and filtration system design, are contributing to
lower energy consumption. A lighting replacement program aims to transition to
the use of energy efficient LED lighting, and improvements have been made to
building insulation and building management systems for monitoring and control.
The aquarium features a 153 kilowatt roof mounted array of photovoltaic solar
panels, with an initial offset of 15 to 20 per cent in annual energy use, and a
260 tonne reduction in annual greenhouse gas emissions expected.
The Committee heard that the aim is to reduce its energy use by 50 per cent of
2006 levels by the end of 2012.
Figure 5.2 Members inspecting Reef HQ’s coral propagation
courtesy of committee secretariat
Black Mountain Corridor is a strip of rainforest along the top of the
Macalister Range that connects the northern and southern rainforest sections of
the wet tropics. The Committee heard that the Julatten area—a strip of
agricultural lands and rural residential subdivisions—has separated the Black
Mountain Corridor from the Mount Lewis and Carbine Tableland northern section
of the wet tropics. The Committee was informed about the progress and success
of local management groups in re-establishing this connection, for example,
through a tree-planting scheme that has been operating for the past six years, supported
by the local community. The Committee understands that there is a long history
of community-based rainforest tree-planting organisations also operating north
of the Daintree River.
Another area of the rainforest that has suffered due to changing land
use arrangements is north of the Daintree River in the Daintree region, home to
around 100 threatened species. Much of the lowlands in this region were subdivided
for development in the 1980s. Many of the subdivisions were targeted for
buy-back as part of the mid‑1990s local, state and federal government
Daintree Rescue Program. The Committee heard about the ongoing restoration
projects, including wildlife corridors and rainforest connectivity revegetation
projects, to repair and link these subdivisions to the rainforest once again.
These projects are aimed at making the rainforest more resilient, increasing
wildlife habitat and decreasing invasive weed encroachment.
The Committee noted that the narrow, winding Cape Tribulation Road has
been designed with large speed bumps in order to slow traffic and reduce
wildlife roadkill. These traffic calming devices are designed to help protect wildlife
such as cassowaries from further decline, after the significant loss of
population further south in the Mission Beach area due to three cyclones in
recent years. The Committee heard that
the Mission Beach area could benefit from more speed bumps to better protect
local cassowaries, given that the area is fragmented and therefore more at risk
of local extinction should further disturbances such as cyclones contribute to
The narrowness of the road allows for vegetation to grow close to it,
the rainforest canopy to grow over the top of it, and rainforest fauna to move
over it, contributing to rainforest connectivity from the lowlands through to
the Thornton Peak uplands. Minimising disruption to the connectivity of the
rainforest allows for resilience to be increased, which in turn strengthens its
capacity to withstand climate changes.
The Committee commends the progress being made by Reef HQ toward the
goal of requiring no collection of coral from the Great Barrier Reef for
research or display purposes, and sees this as an important goal for research
institutions in order to maintain as little human disruption to the structure
of the reef as possible.
The Committee also commends Reef HQ’s efforts towards the sustainable
use of resources through the adoption of reduced energy use targets. The
exhibitions and research being supported by Reef HQ are contributing to the publicly
available information on the reef and the sustainable management of reef
The Committee heard about the history of land use in the region, leading
to the fragmentation of the rainforest. This highlighted the need for regional
planning for landscape resilience in the wet tropics of Queensland. The
Committee also heard about the reasons for maintaining the Daintree Ferry;
slowing traffic in the area; and incorporating connectivity measures into the
road designs, and sees all of these as positive ways of promoting resilience in
the ecosystem and promoting sustainable practices in the local human community.
The Committee was informed of various road design features that assist with
biodiversity conservation and sees merit in such measures being implemented in
other areas of ecological significance.
The Committee heard repeatedly about the importance of building
resilience into ecosystems to assist them to better withstand climate changes,
and was interested to hear about the variety of connectivity projects in the
Wet Tropics of Queensland World Heritage Area and Daintree region involving the
local community working toward this goal. Government buy-back initiatives and
community projects are making an important contribution towards reconnecting
the rainforest, thereby increasing wildlife habitat and decreasing invasive
weed encroachment. Such initiatives are intended to help protect the region
from climate change impacts.
Research and training facilities and projects
Research conducted at Reef HQ involves collaboration between local
universities and GBRMPA. The Reef HQ turtle hospital opened in August 2009, and
is supported by the JCU School of Veterinary and Biomedical Science. One of the
aims of the hospital is to enhance community engagement by raising awareness of
these threatened species and encouraging changes in behaviour to ensure a
sustainable future for turtles. The facility allows visitors
to see the turtles up close, and learn about their conditions and how they are
being rehabilitated. In 2010-11, the hospital cared for 57 turtles, and had
over 23 900 visitors.
Figure 5.3 Members inspecting the turtle hospital at Reef
courtesy of committee secretariat
The wet tropics of Queensland occupies 0.26 per cent of Australia’s landmass,
yet supports large proportions of its native plant and animal species,
including 40 per cent of its bird species, 30 per cent of its marsupial species
and 65 per cent of its fern species. The Terrestrial Ecosystem
Research Network’s Rainforest Supersite in Far North Queensland comprises two
sectors, the first being the lowland Daintree Rainforest Observatory (DRO) in
the Cape Tribulation region. The second is the upland Robson Creek site,
located northeast of Atherton. The locations of these two sites enable
monitoring across a range of altitudes, temperature variations, and rainfall
The DRO opened in 1998, established with funding from the Australian
Research Council. The Committee heard that further funding to develop the site
as an educational and research centre had been provided by the federal government,
increasing the amount of accommodation for students and the number of
laboratories. Federal government funding had also been secured for remote
sensing devices and equipment able to automatically monitor the environment
through a wireless sensor network. The data collected through the network will
be made available electronically to researchers offsite, making valuable information
The Committee inspected the complex mesophyll vine forest at the DRO
site, viewing some of the 170 dendrometer bands placed at chest-height around
the tree trunks. Dendrometer bands are used to collect and establish baseline
data through measuring stem incremental growth, litter trap and leaf area
index. One of the purposes of
collecting the data is ‘to report on the risks and threats to lowland
rainforest canopy trees under changing rainfall and temperature scenarios’.
The Committee also inspected the canopy crane at the DRO. Identification
tags are placed on all trees with a diameter at chest height of greater than 10
centimetres, within the arc of the crane; some 680 trees are closely monitored
through the use of the canopy crane. Access is made available
to researchers from across the globe to carry out canopy-related research that
can be shared. The DRO also provides access to the weather data that has been
collected for over 10 years from the tower of the crane and in the clearing
adjacent to the rainforest.
Figure 5.4 Committee
members in the canopy crane with crane operator (left); and an example of the
identification tags placed on trees around the DRO site (right)
courtesy of committee secretariat
The Committee heard about four main areas of climate change research currently
being undertaken in tropical forests, namely:
- examining changes in
long-term plot data—to be conducted at the DRO site through long-term
altitudinal gradient monitoring;
- remote sensing of
drought and fire patterns—the DRO will set up remote sensor towers to measure
various environmental factors;
- modelling of species
- studying the ability
of individuals to adapt to changes in the environment. In situ experiments can
study the impacts of climate change on tropical rainforests, where sections of
the rainforest can be manipulated to simulate drought conditions to see how species
The DRO operates as a scientific and educational facility; one of many similar
sites around the world. The Committee was impressed by the extent of
collaboration and knowledge-sharing between research institutions, and by the
proposal for data collected on-site to be made accessible to researchers
off-site. This will allow researchers to incorporate the data more readily into
projects measuring the impacts of climate changes on biodiversity in the
The importance of collecting essential baseline data, useful for
measuring the effects of climate change on our ecosystems, was a common theme that
arose during the public hearing in Townsville and at the site inspections in
the wet tropics. The Committee considers this an increasingly important focus
for research funding bodies.
Education and community awareness projects
Reef HQ has a formal education program for school students, which saw 11
945 students participate in 2010‑11. Reef HQ also has an
educational videoconferencing program that reached 5855 students nationally and
internationally during 2010‑11, a figure the Committee heard had
increased in 2011‑12. The Committee was
informed that the videoconferencing program consists of sea-diving conferences
connecting to classrooms all over the world, including in places like New York
City and Canada, where school children can talk to scuba divers in the coral
reef exhibition about the effects of climate change on reef ecosystems. At the
time of the Committee’s visit, this program was being used at the World Expo
2012 in South Korea, where the reef divers were connecting daily to people in
the Australian pavilion.
The Committee heard that visitor numbers to Reef HQ had increased markedly
in 2011‑12, up from 121 731 in 2010‑11.
The rise in memberships and the growing Townsville population is said to have
contributed to the significant increase.
During its visit to Reef HQ, the Committee was briefed on the Great
Barrier Reef Marine Park Zoning Plan 2003 and heard about the increase in
the highly protected, marine national park (green) zones from 4.5 per cent to 33 per cent
of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. This rezoning was
prompted by the recognition in the mid-1990s that existing levels of protection
were inadequate to protect the biodiversity and therefore maintain the
resilience of the Great Barrier Reef. The zoning plan was developed in consultation
with the community in order to protect a minimum of 20 per cent of each of the
70 identified major habitat types in the Great Barrier Reef region. A notable
positive change that has resulted from the rezoning is the recovery of fish
The Committee also heard about GBRMPA’s Reef Guardian program, which
commenced in 2003 with 25 schools committed to the protection and conservation
of the Great Barrier Reef. The number of participating schools across the Great
Barrier Reef catchment has increased to 285, with over 113 000 children focused
on managing resources, conducting projects in school and in the community, and educating
the wider community. This program encourages people in the community to be
environmentally active and work together as Reef Guardians.
The Reef Guardian program has since been extended to councils, farmers,
fishers and graziers, in order to spread the conservation and protection
efforts to more parts of the community through various mechanisms.
The Reef Guardian program has grown rapidly and, with the expansion to
other parts of the community, it is an effective way of educating and
encouraging community engagement and participation in caring for the
biodiversity of the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem. The Committee sees the value
in extending the Reef Guardian program to other Australian reefs, and also adapting
the concept to other areas and ecosystem types, as was canvassed by the Wet Tropics
Management Authority at the public hearing in Townsville.
Among the issues arising across the Committee’s consideration of reef
and wet tropical ecosystems, the most significant is the impacts of increased
temperatures. The Committee was also interested to hear about the issue of
invasive species expansion into the wet tropics, having heard about similar
issues during previous site inspections.
The Committee was encouraged by the cooperative relationships displayed between
researchers and management groups, and the acknowledgments between management
groups of the reef and the wet tropics of the successful measures used in both
areas to understand and build resilience to the effects of climate change. The
Committee was particularly impressed with the Reef Guardian program,
acknowledged by other management groups as a good mechanism for enhancing
community engagement. In light of its success, there may be merit in this and
similar programs being extended to other ecosystems.
The Committee would like to thank Ms Olivia McKenna and Mr Fred Nucifora
for facilitating the Committee’s visit to Reef HQ. The Committee would also
like to thank Dr Steve Goosem, Mr Andrew Maclean and Mr Bradley Smith for
facilitating the Committee’s visit to the DRO, and all others who assisted the
Committee during its site inspections in Tropical North Queensland.
Mr Tony Zappia MP