The impact of land-based activity on the health of the reef
As noted in the previous chapter, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park
Authority (GBRMPA) Outlook Report 2014 stated that two of the key threats
to the health of the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem are land-based run-off and
Therefore, this chapter discusses threats posed by run-off caused by
broad-scale land use, including threats resulting from:
nutrients from run-off mainly associated with the use of
pesticides from run-off; and
sediments from run-off mainly associated with broad-scale land
This chapter then looks at the management schemes and activities used to
protect the health of the reef, including direct control of crown-of-thorns
starfish outbreaks and indirect measures aimed at improving water quality.
The chapter also gives attention to impacts to the health of the Great
Barrier Reef that may arise from large-scale development in the future, with
specific reference to the proposed development of Northern Australia.
Finally, the context of existing plans and programs, in this chapter
examines direct and indirect impacts of non-agricultural activities on the
health of the reef, including impacts resulting from:
the modification of coastal habitats as a result of mining and
other forms of development;
the creation of artificial barriers to hydrological flows; and
the role of national parks and no-go zones in protecting the
health of the reef.
The related topic of disposal and resuspension of dredge
material will be examined in the next chapter.
As noted in Chapter 3, poor water quality has posed a major challenge to
the health of the Great Barrier Reef. The Reef Water Quality Protection Plan
2013 noted that:
Over the past 100 years, the land catchment areas adjacent to
the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area have undergone extensive development
for agricultural production, urban expansion, transport infrastructure, tourism
and mining. This has led to elevated levels of pollutants leaving these
catchments and entering the reef, with the largest contributor being
agricultural land use activities.
The Outlook Report 2014 noted that the availability of light is
central to the health and productivity of seagrasses and other plants and helps
maintain symbiotic relationships between some animals (such as corals and
clams) and algae. The amount of light at a particular depth in the water column
is directly linked to water turbidity, which is affected by the amount of
sediment and nutrients in land-based run-off.
The Outlook Report 2014 explained that increased nutrient loads in the
water of the Great Barrier Reef may contribute to the increased frequency and
severity of crown-of-thorns starfish and blooms of phytoplankton and
cyanobacteria. The starfish prey on coral species, and cyanobacteria blooms have
been directly linked to smothering corals and increasing the bioavailability of
heavy metals, having a devastating effect on the health of the reef.
Run-off caused by broad-scale land use
The committee notes GBRMPA has stated:
The best science available estimates that around 90 per cent
of the loads of sediments, nutrients and toxic chemicals entering the Great
Barrier Reef lagoon come from agricultural practices in the Great Barrier Reef
More recently, the 2013 Scientific Consensus Statement
found that the greatest risks to the water quality of the Great Barrier Reef
stem from nitrogen (often associated with the use of fertilisers), pesticides
and fine sediment discharge (often associated with soil run-off), and the main
source has been diffuse source pollution from agriculture.
To this end, this section will examine these risks with regard to:
the use of fertilisers;
the use of pesticides; and
broad-scale vegetation clearing and soil erosion.
Use of fertilisers
The committee received evidence that the environmental issue of greatest
concern surrounding the use of fertilisers was eutrophication of fresh and
marine waters. Eutrophication is the process where water becomes enriched with
nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, both of which can promote excessive
plant growth, including algae, causing a diminution in water quality.
Eutrophication can also directly harm aquatic plants and animals.
It was acknowledged:
While there are numerous sources of eutrophication, it is
clear that inefficient fertilizer use, particularly if combined with
inappropriate farm management practices, has the potential to be a significant
contributor. Poor storage, handling and transport can also result in
fertilizers entering fresh and marine waters.
Eutrophication has also been linked to outbreaks of crown-of-thorns
starfish, one of the causes of coral loss.
However, as Professor Terry Hughes, Director of the ARC Centre of Excellent for
Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University, explained:
There are two plausible but unproven theories about the
causes of outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish. One suggests that dredging and
runoff of nutrient pollution from land promotes blooms of phytoplankton which
speeds up the development of starfish larvae, contributing to outbreaks. The
other surmises that the changes we have made to the structure of foodwebs have
resulted in fewer juvenile starfish being eaten.
To that extent, the committee heard evidence that the 'scientific
indications are that the outbreaks of the crown-of-thorns starfish are indeed
related to water quality'.
Professor Hoegh-Guldberg similarly told the committee that, in relation
to crown-of-thorns, 'the best scientific evidence', produced by the Australian
Institute of Marine Science (AIMS), is that there is a 'strong link' between
water quality and crown-of-thorn outbreaks. Professor Hoegh-Guldberg stated:
...periodic flooding bringing nutrients and sediments out of
catchments, disturbances to coastal processes, leads to algal blooms that
happen more often that feed the baby starfish that then lead to outbreaks in
Use of pesticides
The Outlook Report 2014 noted that pesticides, including
herbicides and fungicides, in land-based run-off can have a negative impact on
marine plants and animals. The report went on to say:
Herbicide concentrations in flood plumes that extend into the
marine environment can exceed concentrations shown to have negative effects on
certain species of coral, seagrass and microalgae and present risks to marine
mammals. Despite this, current levels of pesticides are considered to be a low
to moderate threat to inshore coral reefs generally, but the consequences of
long-term exposure are not understood. The threat is likely to be higher in
some regions, especially when pesticides are present in combination with other
pollutants and stressors.
Submitters have called for better regulation of the use and
transportation of pesticides.
Dr Matthew Landos of the Frenchs Forest Veterinary Surgery said:
We have just recently watered down the regulation of
pesticides at the federal level. This will have a further negative effect on
the movement of those products, causing harm to the inshore areas and the
offshore areas where we are measuring these pesticides travelling. Much further
tightening of our pesticide regulation is required to allow the reef to remain,
if we want to keep it.
Frog Safe argued for a bond to be introduced for chemical manufacturers
who want to get approvals for their products to be sold in this country.
Furthermore they recommended that:
There also needs to be a policy that chemicals which have
been banned overseas need to be banned here automatically and concurrently...[and
there] needs to be more research on the effects of chemicals on corals and fish
species which come from coastal nursery areas to provide proof of the real
impact that chemicals have (which will undoubtedly be far worse than what has
been extrapolated so far).
CropLife Australia submitted that pesticides, including herbicides,
insecticides and fungicides, are critical to maintaining and improving
Australia's agricultural productivity and meeting the global food security
challenges of the coming decades. It noted that, without access to pesticides,
farmers could lose as much as 50 per cent of their annual crop production to
pests, weeds and diseases.
CropLife Australia accepted that pesticides may find their way into river
systems and ultimately end up in the Great Barrier Reef. However, CropLife
Australia cited evidence from scientific research and monitoring which
indicated that pesticides posed no threat to the overall health of the Great
Barrier Reef and argued that the mere presence of pesticides in waterways did
not necessarily mean that harm was being caused.
CropLife went on to suggest that it would be beneficial to determine whether
the concentration of pesticides in reef water actually presented a risk of
environmental harm before calling for limits or a ban on the use of pesticides
on agricultural land in catchments—an
outcome that would have devastating impacts on rural economies and Australia's
ability to produce food.
CropLife Australia stated:
...Governments need to balance the risk from pesticide use with
the benefits accorded to the entire community from pesticide use...Furthermore,
efforts to reduce pesticide concentrations to below detectable levels are
unlikely to be successful in light of constantly improving detection
technologies. These efforts may not be cost effective and may not result in
better [Great Barrier Reef] health due to the negligible impacts that these
chemicals currently have. Governments, farmers, land managers and pesticide
suppliers need to work together to develop cost effective tools, products and
procedures that will continue to reduce the risk to the [Great Barrier Reef]
AgForce Queensland submitted that, on occasion, incorrect assumptions
and toxicology impacts of pesticides have been used for pesticide modelling,
resulting in false claims about detected levels of pesticide run-off and the
consequential impact on marine organisms in coastal waters. AgForce submitted
two herbicides (hexazinone and tebuthiuron) were modelled for runoff
from cropping areas, which are not registered nor used in cropping;
(b) the area used for calculating annual herbicide runoff loads was less
than 0.16% of the grazing area and the herbicides were only applied every seven
to twenty years;
(c) end of catchment herbicide runoff values were added together across five
herbicides for comparison to water quality trigger values, but all five
herbicides were never detected together in run-off; and
(d) herbicide exposure concentrations that could impact on corals and marine
organisms were at least five times greater than any detected herbicide
concentrations monitored in end of catchment watercourses.
As a result, AgForce recommended that the Australian Government conduct
a scientific review of reef pesticide science using data derived from monitoring
collected by independent expert pesticide scientists experienced in
environmental toxicology. Such a review could help to ensure that future funding
of environmental protection programs is targeted at actual threats to the
health of the Great Barrier Reef, not perceived threats.
Broad-scale vegetation clearing and
The Outlook Report 2014 noted that past broad-scale land
clearing, 'principally in the southern two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef
catchment, has significantly affected each of the supporting terrestrial
habitats'. It went on to say:
Ongoing agricultural use of these habitats also affects their
ability to support the Reef ecosystem...The resultant loss and modification of
habitats has led to significant increases in pollutants, principally nutrients
and sediments, entering the Great Barrier Reef lagoon which has reduced the
ecosystem's ability to bounce back after impacts, especially in southern
inshore areas. In addition, the loss of freshwater coastal habitats has
affected some ecological functions and numerous marine species...
As submitted by Mr David Arthur, a major source of sediment load in river
discharge stems from riverbank erosion consequent to excessive vegetation
Although the clearing of vegetation is regulated under the Vegetation
Management Act 1999 (Qld) and the Water Act 2000 (Qld), the
Capricorn Conservation Council submitted that illegal clearing of vegetation by
both commercial entities and recreational visitors still occurs.
Submitters observed that recent amendments to the Vegetation
Management Act 1999 (Qld) have significantly reduced vegetation protection
in Great Barrier Reef catchment areas. Submitters agreed that the legislation
now allows for clearing of 'high value regrowth' and clearing of protected
(native) vegetation for new purposes such as 'high value agriculture' or
'necessary environmental clearing'. As a consequence, many hundreds of
thousands of hectares of vegetation are now vulnerable to clearing.
The Water Act 2000 (Qld) has also been amended. Submitters noted
that the requirement to obtain a river protection permit to destroy vegetation
in a watercourse or spring has been removed. Furthermore, while the 50-metre
riparian vegetation 'buffer zones' apply in certain catchments, there are
reduced protections for watercourse clearing in other areas which may impact on
the Great Barrier Reef. These changes make large quantities of riparian
vegetation vulnerable to clearing.
Submitters explained that these recent amendments may have considerable
negative consequences for land management, and may result in increased erosion
and consequential sediment and nutrient run-off to the Great Barrier Reef. The
resulting detriment to the water quality of the Great Barrier Reef will have
negative impacts on the health of the Great Barrier Reef ecology.
Offering a solution, Mr David Arthur proposed that Green Army
participants should be deployed to restore vegetation on riverbanks and thereby
minimise topsoil run-off via rivers into the Great Barrier Reef.
Management of the impacts of run-off caused by broad-scale land use
Activities, plans and programs have been designed to directly and
indirectly abate the threats to the health of the Great Barrier Reef. Direct
actions have targeted the symptoms of poor reef health by controlling outbreaks
of crown-of-thorns starfish directly.
Indirect actions have looked at combatting the root causes of poor reef health
by trying to improve the quality of water that flows into the Great Barrier
Reef from its catchments.
Direct control of outbreaks of
Direct measures have been taken to control outbreaks of crown-of-thorns
starfish. The Australian and Queensland Governments submitted that they are:
...addressing a key threat to the reef caused by destructive
outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish. In late 2013, the Government allocated
an extra $1.1 million to support culling efforts. This adds to the more than $7 million
already committed to deal with the key threats.
The Australian Government recently implemented a culling program of
crown‑of‑thorns starfish, with more than a quarter of a million
starfish culled to April 2014. The process involved using a single injection
causing an allergic reaction in the starfish which breaks it apart and causes
it to die within 24 hours. Divers deployed by the local
Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators in Cairns have found they can cull
over 1000 crown-of-thorns starfish on a 40-minute dive. The culling has taken
place in various parts of the Great Barrier Reef, including the area stretching
from Cairns to Cooktown.
AIMS has conducted research into the effectiveness of direct control
mechanisms on the total population levels of crown-of-thorns starfish. The
research looked into interventions to control starfish numbers like culling
programs, the introduction of specific diseases and the use of natural
predators. Research has also been conducted into the life cycle of the crown‑of‑thorns
starfish to better understand larvae ecology. Dr Oliver of AIMS told the
committee that it was hoped that these studies would lead to more accuracy in
predicting future outbreaks and show ways that existing aggregations could be
disrupted, such as through the use of pheromones.
Professor Hoegh-Guldberg cautioned that the task of 'trying to kill
every last crown‑of‑thorns in outbreaks across the reef is
enormous' and that solving the problem of crown-of-thorns should be 'all about
dealing with the coastal water quality issue'.
Indirect measures designed to
improve quality of water entering the reef
The 2013 Scientific Consensus Statement acknowledged that there
had been significant progress over the past four years towards better water
quality through a greater scientific understanding and measurement of 'catchment
to reef' processes and progress by the farming community towards improved land
management practices. The improved land and agricultural management practices
have been proven to reduce the run-off of suspended sediment, nutrients and
pesticides. The reduction in sediment flows and consequential improvement in water
quality help to improve ecosystem resilience to other pressures.
Submitters and witnesses also recognised the hard work of the
agricultural sector in improving land management practices and the extent to
which the sector has made financial contributions in cash and in-kind to
mitigate the impacts on water quality.
Fertilizer Australia agreed that farm management practices can assist in the management
of nutrients and ensure that run-off into waterways is minimised but argued
that these measures must be established on a site-specific basis to be most effective,
given the diverse range of soil types, use history and farming practices used in catchment areas.
Despite all the efforts made by the agricultural sector to improve land
management practices, the committee notes that the improvements may not be
enough to protect the overall health of the reef. The Outlook Report 2014
Significant investments in land management practices from
2009 to 2013 have resulted in a modelled 11 per cent reduction in the average
annual suspended sediment load delivered to the Great Barrier Reef. However,
there is likely to be a significant lag time before there are measurable and
ecologically significant water quality improvements in the Region, with effects
continuing for at least decades.
Further, the Environmental Defenders Office (Qld) stated that:
Even if all farmers adopted the [best management practices]
it will not achieve sufficient reduction in the nitrogen load from cane farms
to allow [Great Barrier Reef] recovery—the best available science says about 70
to 80% reduction is required. 100% adoption of the [best management practices]
would reduce the nitrogen load by 14 – 30% which would be a substantial
The Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland submitted that, although
agricultural practices have had some impact on stemming the flow of nutrients,
the potential cost of rehabilitation could be prohibitive. As noted, it would
therefore be important to establish whether the current policies have not just had
the effect of arresting the decline but managed to reverse the trend.
The AIMS stated that research into this is currently underway.
Mr Josh Coates of the Cairns and Far North Environment Centre voiced
concerns about the accuracy of some of the data coming from research. He
The data that is used in our reef report card, for example,
is very much based on modelling and there are some serious questions regarding
the accuracy of that modelling. What I would like to see is more on-ground
monitoring, actual recordings of things like erosion and pesticide loads, rather
than relying on modelling to determine the levels of impact and that those
impacts are being addressed.
The Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland also noted that without
ongoing monitoring it would be impossible to determine the effectiveness of the
management strategies and submitted that State and Commonwealth funding must be
amended to allow for this ongoing monitoring.
Quality Protection Plan
The 2013 Reef Water Quality Protection Plan (Reef Water
Quality Plan) set targets for improved water quality and land management
practices, identified management actions that could be taken to improve the
quality of water entering the reef and outlined specific actions and
deliverables to be completed by 2018. By 2018, the program aims for:
at least a 50 per cent reduction in anthropogenic end‑of‑catchment
dissolved inorganic nitrogen loads in priority areas;
at least a 20 per cent reduction in anthropogenic
end-of-catchment loads of sediment and particulate nutrients in priority areas;
at least a 60 per cent reduction in end-of-catchment pesticide
loads in priority areas.
The Reef Water Quality Plan also required that best management practice
systems be put in place for 90 per cent of sugarcane, horticulture, cropping
and grazing lands located in priority areas, for a minimum of 70 per cent of
late dry season groundcover on grazing lands, for an increase in the extent of
riparian vegetation and for no further net loss in the extent of natural
The ongoing success of the plan has been documented, with Australian and
Queensland Governments submitting that 'the management changes and water
quality improvements being implemented are having a positive impact on water
quality across the Great Barrier Reef catchments'.
Mr Brian Bycroft, a water quality expert and former Assistant Director
for the Water Quality Policy at the former Commonwealth Department of
Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, questioned
whether the targets set by the Reef Water Quality Plan were sufficiently
specific to achieve its overall goal of ensuring that by 2020 the quality of
water entering the reef would have no detrimental impact on the health and
resilience of the Great Barrier Reef. Further, as sustainable
load targets were not specifically defined, Mr Bycroft submitted that it would
not be possible to properly target management actions to best achieve goals and
that explicit load reduction targets should be introduced to reflect estimated
Mr Bycroft also noted that management actions should be undertaken by
reference to robust scientific evidence, not just based on best management
practice, so as to ensure that actions are properly targeted. Further, current
management strategies may need to be revised as they would require significant
land use changes to properly achieve their goals.
The report to World Heritage Committee commissioned by WWF-Australia and
the Australian Marine Conservation Society also suggested that a different
approach may be needed. It stated:
While present management measures that are primarily tackling
land based agricultural activities are likely to improve conditions for water
quality...benefits are unlikely to be realised in the short to medium term...The
underlying problem for management is that, due to the lowered resilience of the
Reef's ecosystems and the likelihood that management actions will not catalyse
immediate recovery of declined systems, halting and reversing the overall
declining condition of the Reef won't be possible using current approaches.
There is growing consensus that recovery of the Reef will require significant
additional investments and a different approach than business as usual.
Funding of land management programs
Submitters have acknowledged the reduction in funding to land management
programs. The Australian Government's initial commitment of $200 million over
five years has been reduced to $160 million, with $40 million being diverted
into the Reef Trust program.
It was also noted that, when taking into account the effects of inflation and
the fact that a wider diversity of activities have been placed under the same
budget, the amount of funding that can be put into land management programs has
effectively been reduced.
The Australian Coral Reef Society acknowledged that programs to reduce
agricultural run-off through improving land management practices have
progressed well, even if they have not reached their targets, and therefore it
would be disastrous to reduce the funding allocated to them.
The 2012 Mission Report of the World Heritage Committee also stated:
Considering the overarching importance of water quality to
the [Great Barrier Reef's] health, it is indispensable that the current level
of investment in measures to tackle this threat is maintained and the recent
positive trends are sustained.
WWF-Australia and the Australian Marine Conservation Society noted that
there was insufficient detail on how the funding commitment was to be invested,
concluding that if this investment were simply placed into supporting industry‑developed
voluntary best management practice programs without any further regulation or
standards it would be unlikely that the Reef Water Quality Plan would be able
to reach its environmental targets.
The submission by Professor Hoegh-Guldberg stated that:
A cost effective prioritisation of management actions that
explicitly considers the economic costs, feasibility, and biodiversity benefits
of a range of marine and terrestrial management actions to identify priorities
has not been done in the [Great Barrier Reef], and is urgently required if we
want to spend the limited budget effectively.
As previously noted, $40 million has been allocated to the Reef Trust
program. The Australian and Queensland Governments explained that the Reef
Trust will provide funding for activities through a range of mechanisms.
Funding will initially go to farmers and land managers to assist them to
implement land management practices to improve water quality, and then go
towards actions designed to control crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks and
reduce the incidence of new outbreaks. It will also fund programs to provide
greater protection for threatened species.
The Reef Trust will eventually also provide funds to target site-specific
threats to water quality such as urban sewage discharge.
Submitters and witnesses noted that funds derived from environmental offsets
may be incorporated into the Reef Fund.
The Mackay Conservation Group were concerned that incorporating money from
offsets into the Reef Trust may create a conflict of interest for GBRMPA. They
submitted that management activities:
...should not be tied to offsets funding. They
should be part of GBRMPA's regular budget. Such a practice just encourages
GBRMPA to allow destructive projects and spend money on projects elsewhere
which should have been funded through its budget not through offset funding.
WWF-Australia and the Australian Marine Conservation Society recognised
that the Reef Trust 'has good potential if it results in building a
multi-billion dollar fund to invest in the actions that will bring the greatest
bang for buck for [Great Barrier] Reef health', but remarked that the '[Australian]
Government contribution is only $40 million and [this] is merely a rebadging of
existing [Great Barrier] Reef funding.'
The Great Barrier Reef Region
In order to target the ongoing effects of catchment run-off, the Great
Barrier Reef Region Strategic Assessment Report recommended:
the further promotion of improved land management practices, the
development and implementation of more regionally based water quality
improvement plans for the catchments;
the development of stronger links between water quality
improvement initiatives and actions designed to protect and restore inshore
the expansion of the Reef Water Quality Plan to include other
sources of pollutants, such as from urban and industrial activities; and
the better application of water quality guidelines across the
Great Barrier Reef.
Some submitters supported the recommendations to better coordinate water
quality testing, to promote improved land management practices and to expand
the focus of the Reef Water Quality Plan to non-agricultural sources of
The Cairns Local Marine Advisory Committee suggested that providing local
government authorities with the necessary funding to improve sewage treatment
infrastructure through programs like the Reef Water Quality Plan would ensure
that in the future sewage is not dumped at sea but properly treated on land.
Property Rights Australia recommended that:
...more research be done into other causes of
"plausible" runoff such as inefficient sewage systems, fertiliser
from parks and gardens, heavy metals from tyre residue, erosion caused by urban
development and the fallout from mining.
These site-specific activities are examined in the next section.
Some submitters claimed that the agricultural sector can still do more
to better protect the health of the Great Barrier Reef ecology.
For example, the Cairns Local Marine Advisory Committee called for improved
regulation and monitoring of chemical application and run-off by requiring
farmers to register chemicals and the authorities should adopt random tests of
The Environmental Defenders Office (Qld) recommended that regulatory mechanisms
should be improved by establishing better enforcement of activities causing the
harm, a re-examination of application allowances and an extension of the
current regulatory regimes to all industries and catchments.
AgForce Queensland disagreed, opining that the best way to change land
management practices would be through creating an 'economic imperative', that
is, by showing farmers that if they put certain land management practices in
place it would increase their financial bottom line and, at the same time,
deliver environmental outcomes. The committee also heard that the improvement
of land management practices is an ongoing and evolving process that cannot be
measured by reference to static points in time and therefore the discussion
should focus on where the process is going rather than on what has happened in
AgForce observed that a major component of reef science is undertaken remotely,
using computer generated models. AgForce argued that this research method
undermines the potential to build connections between scientists and land
managers. It was recommended that there should be increased community
involvement in regional monitoring of run-off as this could foster more
community ownership and also a better understanding by scientists of the need
to co-manage issues such as productivity, and economic and environmental
AgForce Queensland opined that the risk of sediment run-off from grazing
is determined more by the condition of grazing land rather than by grazing
management practices. AgForce supported the new practice of monitoring
fractional ground cover as an indicator of the condition of grazing land. This
practice was used by agricultural industry groups five years ago in research
and development. It recommended that in the future reef science should be built
on existing industry science to avoid 'reinventing the wheel'.
The 2013 Scientific Consensus Statement suggested that, in
addition to continuous improvement in land management practices,
transformational changes in some farming technologies may also be necessary to
reach the ultimate goal of 'no detrimental impact on the health and resilience
of the reef'.
Fertilizer Australia suggested that changes to the type of fertiliser
used may make a difference:
There are a number of commercially available products
including nitrification inhibitors and controlled release technologies that
have shown good results in other parts of the world. However they have a
significant cost and have not been widely adopted in the [Great Barrier Reef]
Field research in the [Great Barrier Reef] catchments to
better quantify the efficacy of these products in local conditions would
provide valuable information to growers and policy makers about the technical
potential and economic viability of these products.
Future impacts from large-scale
The extent and nature of future development has been and will be
directly and indirectly influenced by the assessment and approvals processes,
which are discussed in Chapter 8. More specifically, some submitters and
witnesses expressed concerns about proposals to develop Northern Australia.
especially development that would result in large-scale land clearing, animal
husbandry and diversion of existing hydrological flows.
The proposed development of
The Cairns and Far North Environment Centre submitted that the push to develop
Northern Australia, including catchment areas, could pose a significant threat
to the health of the Great Barrier Reef. The submission noted:
Approvals that result in large scale land clearing, damming
of seasonal flow rivers and runoff from large agricultural and intensive animal
husbandry concerns would pose a significant threat, not only to the current
natural values of the [Great Barrier Reef], but its existence as an ecosystem
in its current stable state...
As a consequence, the Cairns and Far North Environment Centre
recommended that the approval of large-scale development of the Cape York
Peninsula, or other catchments adjacent to the reef, should not be allowed to
be fast‑tracked; rather:
The precautionary principle must be applied, particularly in
areas of limited scientific understanding of biodiversity and interactions of
ecosystems that depend on each other (for example, reef and rainforest).
Professor Mumby of the Australian Coral Reef Society expressed similar
concerns about the Queensland Government's plans to develop the Cape York area.
He noted that development and economic opportunity are not inherently
problematic, but it is important to have a discussion about what they may mean to
the future state of the Great Barrier Reef.
WWF-Australia and the Australian Marine Conservation Society submitted:
Significant agricultural and mining development in Cape
York's eastern catchments is likely to cause significant adverse impacts to [the]
northern section of the [Great Barrier Reef] unless appropriately controlled,
yet the draft Cape York Regional Plan does not contain any provisions to ensure
that adverse impacts to the [Great Barrier Reef] are avoided. These impacts
could include increased sediment loads caused by vegetation clearing, water
quality degradation caused by contaminated agricultural runoff and alteration
of catchment hydrology caused by mining activities...it is essential that all
development activities in Cape York’s eastern catchments are strictly
controlled to protect the northern section of the [Great Barrier Reef] by
ensuring degradation which has occurred to the reefs central and southern
sections is avoided.
The 2012 Mission Report of the World Heritage Committee also recommended
strict adherence to the precautionary principle when assessing the potential
impact of development. The report further commented:
An extension of the footprint of development outside of
currently industrialized areas would clearly present a significant threat to
the [outstanding universal value] and integrity of the property.
Impacts from non-agricultural activities
Site-specific activities have had broad-ranging direct and indirect
impacts on the health of the Great Barrier Reef. The health of parts of the
reef has been affected by the poor quality of water flowing into the reef as a
current mining activities and practices;
legacy mines; and
urban developments, including residential and tourism
There have also been direct site-specific impacts to the health of the
Great Barrier Reef stemming from:
the construction of artificial dams, weirs, estuarine barriers
and fishways; and
challenges to the protection offered by national parks and other protected
This section examines each of these issues in turn.
Current mining activities and
The Queensland Resources Council explained that the resources sector is
a significant contributor to the economic wealth and stability of Queensland
and the nation. This contribution has indirectly helped fund environmental protection
programs. Resource companies have also contributed directly to a broad range of
environmental programs that have had direct or indirect benefits for the
management and protection of the Great Barrier Reef.
However, these benefits are partially tainted by the impacts that the resources
sector has had on the health of the Great Barrier Reef. The committee received
evidence that examined the impacts of current mining activities and practices
on the quality of water flowing into the reef from catchments.
The Australian and Queensland Governments submitted that:
The Queensland Government manages water quality impacts from
mining and industrial operations primarily through the use of regulatory
approvals...and by working in partnership with the resources sector to support
continual improvement in on-site water management and disposal strategies.
The Queensland Government also requires that regulated
structures such as tailings dams are designed, constructed, operated and
maintained to a high engineering standard that reflects the environmental risk
associated with the contents of the structure and local climate conditions.
Despite these precautions, mining and industrial activities may have
impacts on the quality of water entering the Great Barrier Reef. The 2012
Mission Report of the World Heritage Committee acknowledged that mining
activities in the region's catchments do pose a risk of pollution and
sedimentation of waterways draining into the Great Barrier Reef. However, mine
discharges are not as significant a threat to the water quality of the Great
Barrier Reef as nutrients and pesticides from agricultural sources, as shown by
the fact that the catchments having the worst effects on water quality were not
the main catchments impacted by mining.
This was reiterated by the Outlook Report 2014:
While the contribution of pollutants from terrestrial point
source discharges, such as mining and industrial releases, sewage, wastewater
and stormwater, is relatively small compared to diffuse pollutant sources, discharges
can be locally significant.
Submitters argued that the relative impacts of mining activities must
still be taken into account due to the projected increase in resource
extraction in the catchments and the possible cumulative effects of these activities.
The potentially adverse impacts to the Great Barrier Reef include the release
of toxic waste and legacy floodwaters into the river systems draining into the
Great Barrier Reef, and the modification of catchment hydrology caused by
diverting and damming watercourses and disturbing groundwater discharge areas.
Although the Capricorn Conservation Council called for better regulation
of the extraction of resources, it noted that improvements have been made to
some mining practices, such as water management. These improvements have
resulted in 'fewer pit total flooding events and uncontrolled discharges,
increased water quality monitoring and reporting, improved compliance regimes
and agreed water quality standards'.
Queensland Nickel Yabulu Refinery
Previous activities of the Queensland Nickel Yabulu Refinery were bought
to the attention of the committee. WWF-Australia submitted a report to the
inquiry specifically examining the impacts on the Great Barrier Reef of mining
activities by the Queensland Nickel Yabulu Refinery. The report noted that the
refinery, located at Yabulu, has been operating since 1974, producing nickel
and cobalt from imported laterite ore through leaching the ore in ammonium
carbonate and then washing it in an ammonia solution. The waste streams of the
process are passed through stills to remove some of the ammonia and carbon
dioxide before being sent to, and stored in, an on-site tailings storage
It was submitted that, historically, the excess wastewater from the TSF
would be discharged via a pipeline, 1.8 kilometres into Halifax Bay. However,
since 2004, a permit to discharge has been required. The refinery held a permit
to maintain and then decommission the pipeline until 2013, but this permit did
not allow for discharge through the pipeline.
WWF-Australia reported that in 2004, 2009 and 2010 the refinery
requested permission to discharge via the pipeline, but permission was not
granted. GBRMPA cited the refinery in 2009 and 2011 for unauthorised discharges
in 2009 and 2011 but did not prosecute the infringements.
The WWF-Australia report explained that:
While the precise concentrations of contaminants within the
TSF are currently unavailable, the contaminants known to be in the
system...suggest that these ponds do represent a significant threat (if released)
to the ecology of Halifax Bay (within the [Great Barrier Reef]) and the coastal
area adjacent the Yabulu refinery. Acute toxicity effects aside, the
unauthorised release in March-April 2011 equated to approximately 20% of the
total nitrogen load released from the Burdekin catchment annually, the single
largest source if inorganic nitrogen input to the [Great Barrier Reef]. This
single release was more than twice the size of the reported gains achieved
under the Reef Rescue and [the] Reef [Water Quality] Plan programs...
The Australian and Queensland Governments stated that the refinery had
not been in contravention of the conditions of its development approval under
the EPBC Act, which remains in force until 2031. However, a variety of
compliance actions have been taken against the refinery by the Queensland
Government since it began its operations. In 2013, the Queensland Government,
taking into account community concerns, amended the environmental authority
conditions attached to the refinery's development approval to require better
water management and improved dam safety.
It was submitted that:
In April 2014, shortly after Cyclone Ita crossed the coast in
the Townsville area, the tailings dams at the Yabulu Refinery reached capacity
and water from the dams began flowing over the spillway. In response, the
Yabulu Refinery ceased deposition of tailings material and initiated mitigation
measures. The matter is being investigated by the Queensland Government and the
GBRMPA. The Yabulu Refinery is required by the Queensland Government to
increase the capacity of its tailings dams before the next wet season begins in
Abandoned mines continue to pose a risk to the quality of water entering
the reef from catchments. Many abandoned mines have been left in the same state
as they were when mining activities ceased. WWF‑Australia and the
Australian Marine Conservation Society claimed that the uncontrolled release of
contaminated water from abandoned mine sites has had adverse impacts on
freshwater ecosystems that support and maintain the health of the Great Barrier
Reef ecology. It was recommended that:
Due to the projected increase of mining and CSG development
in [Great Barrier Reef] catchments, it is essential that all relevant
legislation is strengthened to ensure that adverse impacts to the [Great
Barrier Reef] potentially caused by mining and CSG development are avoided and
minimised to greatest extent possible.
With regard to rehabilitation of legacy mines, the Capricorn
Conservation Council noted that:
...there is little evidence of any success in rehabilitating
the often sodic soils of the region to any state useful for productive
agriculture or natural habitats and corridors.
Save the Reef suggested that no meaningful rehabilitation of land is
currently carried out in Queensland because the program for rehabilitation of
old mines was put on hold by the current Queensland Government. It was claimed
that, as a result of this failure to rehabilitate legacy mines, contaminated
run-off from tailings storage facilities is inevitable during heavy rainfall
events, even if waters are routinely pumped out of these facilities. Similarly
to WWF-Australia and the Australian Marine Conservation Society, Save the Reef
called for more regulation of the resources industry.
The evidence of the Australian and Queensland Governments contradicted
the submission of Save the Reef in part, stating:
The management of abandoned mines in Queensland is overseen
by the Queensland Government through the Abandoned Mines Land Program.
Abandoned mines are sites of former mining activity for which no individual,
company or organisation is responsible.
The Abandoned Mines Land Program manages the public safety
and environmental risks associated with abandoned mines.
Urban developments including residential and tourism developments
The committee heard that run-off from urban developments has had a
detrimental effect on the quality of water that enters the Great Barrier Reef.
The main issues raised were related to stormwater, sediment and nutrient run-off
and the release of sewage into the Great Barrier Reef.
Urban run-off and sewage
In relation to planning and development approvals, the Australian and
Queensland Governments submitted that water quality impacts from diffuse urban
sources have been managed under the State Planning Policy: State interest—water quality. Under
this policy, developers have been required to incorporate drainage and erosion
and sediment controls during the construction phase and water sensitive urban
design features to address ongoing stormwater, sediment and nutrient run-off
controls after completion. The policy also:
...encourages continual improvement in on-site water management
and disposal strategies by requiring best practice environmental management
adapted for local climatic condition...The State Planning Policy also protects
Great Barrier Reef wetlands by ensuring development is regulated to prevent the
loss or degradation of wetland environmental values, and ensuring wetlands
continue to function to protect water quality of receiving waters.
In contrast, the North Queensland Conservation Council stated:
Run-off from non-agricultural, in particular urban,
activities would appear to be the blind spot when it comes to protecting the
[Great Barrier] Reef.
WWF-Australia and the Australian Marine Conservation Society noted that
key issues affecting the Great Barrier Reef include increased contaminated
urban stormwater run-off, the capacity of existing sewage treatment plants to
manage current and future pollution loads and whether tourism development
located in the coastal zone would be able to avoid and minimise impacts caused
by wastewater discharges, marine moorings, loss of critical coastal habitat and
increased sedimentation resulting from the clearing of vegetation.
The North Queensland Conservation Council observed that the removal of
vegetation from urban blocks remains uncontrolled, stormwater from urban
settlements is free to drain directly into the waters of the Great Barrier Reef
and plastic shopping bags are still being widely used. Although these sources
of pollution may be relatively small when compared to some of the perceived main
threats to the health of the Great Barrier Reef ecology, given that the
majority of the population living in the reef catchments create the sources of
pollution, they must be taken seriously.
The Whitsunday Residents Against Dumping raised concerns about the
marine disposal of urban sewage.
This concern was reiterated by Property Rights Australia, which observed that
'if nitrogen is a major part of the problem then untreated urban sewage has to
be part of the problem also'.
General Electric highlighted that, as the population in catchment areas
is projected to grow by 44 per cent over the next 17 years, the discharge of
secondary-treated sewage is likely to be an increasing issue for the water
quality of the Great Barrier Reef.
General Electric observed that:
All coastal sewage treatment plants that discharge into the
marine environment had been required by Queensland Government policy to meet
the most stringent treatment standards (i.e. tertiary treatment) by 2010.
However, due to a discontinuation of funding programs, most of the funds
for upgrading the sewage treatment plants had to come from local government
rates, making it less economically viable for smaller communities to upgrade
their secondary treatment processes to tertiary treatment. The company
recommended that sewage plant upgrades by local authorities be considered for
funding under Reef Trust and the Australian Government's National Stronger
Regions Fund, making the upgrade process less financially onerous on the local
The Alliance to Save Hinchinbrook submitted that the directions calling
for a high ecological (ecologically sustainable) standard of installation and
management of sewage should be upheld as, without this direction, lower
standards would prevail, potentially causing problems for water quality in the
future as the human population in catchments expands.
Sewage originating from vessels
With regard to sewage originating from vessels, the Alliance to Save
Hinchinbrook observed that most marinas do not have waste disposal facilities,
and those that do have these facilities do not allow the emptying of sewage
from porta‑potties and the like into their toilets. Therefore, where no
waste disposal facilities are available, all sewage generated on board a vessel
enters the Great Barrier Reef. The alliance went on to state:
The marine sewage regulations contain elaborate directions as
to particle size and where macerated sewage can be dumped inside the Great
Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. Quite clearly these regulations have little
to do with ecological considerations, and much to do with aesthetic and human
health considerations. Apart from those rare sites where there may be
land-based facilities, the total amount of sewage going onto the [Great Barrier
Reef], its value as nutrient and particle pollution, is exactly the same as
before the regulations came into effect.
The Cairns Local Marine Advisory Committee submitted that it had been
lobbying for some time for sewage pump-out facilities to service the large
tourism and recreational fleet based in Cairns. The submission stated that:
It is time to review the inconsistencies in state and federal
legislation and fund the facilities required to ensure sewage is not dumped at
sea, but properly treated on land.
Dams, weirs, estuarine barriers and
Capricorn Conservation Council submitted that ecological barriers and
the consequential loss of river corridors and changes to water flows and
quality will have consequences for the Great Barrier Reef. Capricorn
Conservation Council also observed that dams, weirs and estuarine barriers have
reduced the connectivity of river systems. This has affected migratory species,
including fish and turtles. Although attempts have been made to create
artificial fishways using fish lock systems, little is known about their
Dams and weirs also drown remnant riparian vegetation.
The Outlook Report 2014 also acknowledged that:
...artificial barriers to river and estuarine flow...affect the
natural hydrology of the catchment and those Great Barrier Reef species that
move between freshwater habitats and the sea. Many marine and estuarine fish
species use the freshwater systems for part of their life cycle and can be
affected by changes in water flow and the presence of artificial barriers. Artificial
barriers have [also] disrupted sediment supply to some beaches.
The role of national parks and
National parks and 'no-go' zones for development play vital roles in
protecting the health of the Great Barrier Reef. These areas provide numerous
benefits to the overall health of the Great Barrier Reef by supporting a high
level of biodiversity, providing a refuge to different species, helping to
control flood waters, allowing for the discharge of groundwater and acting as a
filter for nutrient rich waters. The modification of these areas may impact on
their capacity to perform these functions and may also have significant effects
on the feeding and reproductive habits of many marine species.
A report by the Environmental Defenders Office (Qld) noted that:
In the past year, the State Government introduced amendments
to the [Nature Conservation Act 1992 (Qld)] which weakened protection of
protected areas, including the national parks and other protected areas in the [Great
Barrier Reef] in Queensland's jurisdiction.
The Cairns and Far North Environment Centre's submission raised concerns
about allowing proposed activities such as 'emergency grazing' in national
parks and national reserve system properties, as such activities could increase
sediment and nutrient loads reaching the Great Barrier Reef.
The Outlook Report 2014 noted that clearing or modifying coastal
habitats has had a significant effect on the feeding and reproductive habits of
many marine species and has also diminished the number of dry season refuges of
marine species. These activities have the potential to increase the volume and
speed of freshwater flows in the future, especially when taking climate change
WWF-Australia and the Australian Marine Conservation Society cited that
an estimated 70 to 90 per cent of coastal wetlands in the Great Barrier Reef
catchment have been lost. It was submitted that:
It is critical that these remaining areas are protected from
future developments and become 'no-go areas'.
Not only do wetlands buffer the impact of pollutants entering
rivers, streams and the Great Barrier Reef, they also support a
high level of biodiversity, provide flood control, groundwater discharge and
The Environmental Defenders Office (Qld) recommended that:
More areas in, adjacent to and in the catchments of, the [Great
Barrier Reef] should be classified as national parks and afforded the highest
level of protection. Queensland and GBRMPA should develop a plan for increasing
the protected area estate, including mapping of 'no-go' zones for development
in the [Great Barrier Reef], its coastline and catchments.
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