Referral of the inquiry
On 17 February 2019, the Senate referred the following matters to the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee (the committee) for inquiry and report by 1 October 2020.
The identification of leading practices in ensuring evidence-based regulation of farm practices that impact water quality outcomes in the Great Barrier Reef, with particular reference to:
the existing evidence-base on the impact of farm water runoff on the health of the Great Barrier Reef and catchment areas;
the connectivity of farm practices throughout the Great Barrier Reef catchment areas to water quality outcomes in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park;
relevant legislation and regulation, including in relation to impacts of water quality, farm management and soil runoff;
proposed changes to regulations that would impact on farm productivity and the potential benefits and costs of such proposed regulation;
the wider economic and social impact of proposed regulations to restrict farm practices; and
any related matters.
Conduct of the inquiry
Information about the inquiry was made available on the committee's webpage. The committee wrote to federal and state government departments, industry stakeholder groups, community groups and individuals to invite submissions. In total, the committee received 120 submissions. A list of organisations and individuals that made public submission, together with additional information authorised for publication, is at Appendix 2.
The committee held three public hearings. Two consecutive days were held in Brisbane on 27 and 28 July 2020, and a final hearing was held in Canberra on 28 August 2020. The committee had originally scheduled hearings in Brisbane, Townsville, Cairns and Canberra in March 2020, however due to COVID-19 these hearings did not proceed.
A list of witnesses who appeared at the hearings is at Appendix 3. Submission and Hansard transcripts of evidence may be accessed through the committee's website.
During the course of the inquiry, concerns were shared by science representatives about the conduct of some senators during the public hearings. In correspondence from Professor Ian Chubb, Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg and Dr Geoff Garrett, the committee was advised that their participation in the inquiry was in the belief that the inquiry was a 'genuine attempt to understand better the extraordinary and interrelated complexity of the [Reef's] ecosystem'. However:
Given the disturbing nature and tone of the hearings in Brisbane in July, we should have anticipated the discouragement we now feel. We should have sensed that when some Senators don't want to know about the seriousness of an issue, they tune out anything that is inconsistent with their fixed views and preconceived ideas. And no matter how much evidence they are given, or its rigour, nothing changes if it doesn't fit what they want to believe.
The committee thanks all organisations and individuals who made submissions to the inquiry and appeared before the committee to give evidence. In addition, the committee thanks stakeholders for their understanding and flexibility due to the delays caused by COVID-19.
Notes on references
References to Hansard are to the proof transcript. Page numbers may vary between the proof and the official (final) Hansard transcript.
Structure of the report
This report is divided into seven chapters. Chapter 1 provides an overview and background of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, key stresses on the Reef, and an overview of the agriculture sector that operates within the Reef's catchment regions.
Chapter 2 provides details on the governance framework, including overarching plans that guide the management of the Reef.
Chapter 3 considers the condition of the Reef and the scientific basis for concerns about the impact of water quality on the health of the Reef. This chapter details views about the scientific evidence-base of Reef science and water quality issues.
Chapter 4 outlines discussions about the peer review process and the replicability of Reef science.
Chapter 5 examines the agriculture sector's response to the Reef regulations package, their advocacy for the continuation of a voluntary model and opposition in some parts of the sector to the regulation of agricultural practices within the Reef's catchment regions.
Chapter 6 considers the agricultural sectors' concerns about the barriers to the adoption of best practice.
Chapter 7 considers the role of collaboration and cooperation between scientists, farmers and governments. This chapter considers the role of citizen science, and the importance of research and development to advance the technologies and farming techniques used within the Reef's catchment regions.
The Great Barrier Reef
The Great Barrier Reef (the Reef) is the largest tropical reef system in the world, comprising of approximately 3,000 individual reefs and encompassing over 2,000 kilometres of the Queensland coast. The Reef's ecosystem contains the greatest species diversity of any World Heritage Area on the planet, containing:
56 per cent of the world's hard coral species;
33 per cent of the world's soft coral and sea fan species;
six of the world's seven species of marine turtles;
54 per cent of the world's mangrove diversity;
23 per cent of the world's seagrass diversity;
13 per cent of the world's species of starfish, sea urchins and cucumbers;
seabird breeding colonies on island of world significance; and
one of the world's most important populations of dugongs.
The Reef is a complex, diverse biological and physical structure, meeting the Coral Sea in the east and the Queensland coastline to the west. This coastline includes many catchments, rivers and estuaries, with water flows governed by the distinct wet and dry seasons that play a vital and varied role in the discharging of fresh water into the Reef. This freshwater discharge, along with waves and wind, significantly impacts near-shore regions of the Reef through the resuspension of seafloor sediments. The deeper offshore region is more influenced by the ocean currents and the Coral Sea, including the 'upwelling of nutrient-rich water from the deeper ocean'.
This diversity of species, beyond the common reference of coral, in particular the Reef's seagrasses and inshore ecosystems, were emphasised by various submitters and witnesses. Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg stated that the Reef:
…is a set of individual pieces…a continuous, integrated system that stretches from land to sea and from north to south…[that] unites people, communities and industries in the common principle of protecting while enjoying the [Reef].
Whether near-shore or offshore, the Reef's lagoon is relatively shallow, with much of its sea floor receiving sunlight. It is this access to sunlight that has enabled photosynthetic organisms to prosper, such as its corals and sea grasses. Also important for the production and growth of these organisms is the nutrients found in the Reef, such as nitrogen and phosphorous; however, their evolution has occurred in 'a naturally low-nutrient and high-light environment'.
Value of the Reef
The Reef's total economic, social and icon asset value is estimated to be $56 billion, and is estimated to contribute $6.4 billion annually to the Australian economy, and of that figure, $2.9 billion to the Queensland economy. This annual direct economic contribution is driven largely by tourism but also includes commercial and recreational fishing. The Reef supports an estimated 64,000 full-time jobs nationally, and 24,000 jobs regionally, and is visited by more than two million tourists each year.
The Australian Institute of Marine Science explained the significance of the Reef for both the Australian economy and jobs in Queensland. They commissioned a Deloitte Access Economics report that found that tourism has become 'the largest subsector of the blue economy, beating the offshore oil and gas sector for the first time' in Australia. One of the biggest contributors of the 400,000 full-time equivalent jobs of the marine economy is tourism, which is largely concentrated on the Reef.
WWF-Australia commissioned a report in partnership with the Queensland Tourism Industry Council and the Queensland Farmers Federation. This report found, based on tourism expenditure, that the Reef is worth $7 billion per year, with a total asset value of $21 billion.
Beyond its economic value, and in addition to the Reef's ecological value as host to a significant proportion of the world's marine species, the Reef holds important social and cultural value for both local residents, the broader Australian public and for Indigenous communities. Over 70 Indigenous clan groups maintain connection to the Sea Country within the Reef's region and continue their Indigenous heritage traditions, in particular, the Wulgurukaba and Bindal Traditional owners.
In recognition of its environmental, social and cultural value, the World Heritage Committee listed the Reef as a World Heritage property in 1981, due to its:
…natural significance which is so exceptional as to transcend national boundaries and to be of common importance for present and future generations of all humanity.
Health and the future of the Great Barrier Reef
Despite the Reef's natural significance at a national and global scale, its ecosystem has deteriorated, with widespread concern for its future. One of the greatest threats to the health of the Reef is rising sea temperatures and extreme marine heat waves caused by climate change (see below). Other compounding issues, including water quality concerns due to land-based run-off, have added to the Reef's vulnerability.
Ocean temperatures globally have warmed at an unprecedented rate. This warming phenomenon is driven by the world's oceans absorbing excess heat and energy, which accounts for the absorption of '90 per cent of the extra heat trapped by increased greenhouse gases since the 1970s'. Subsequently, annual sea surface temperatures recorded for the Reef have been persistently high over the past two decades, with above-average temperatures recorded every year since 2012. Present day temperatures are approximately 0.8 degrees Celsius warmer than when records first began in 1900, as demonstrated by Figure 1.1:
Figure 1.1: Sea surface temperatures anomalies for the Great Barrier Reef waters, 1900—2018
Source: Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report 2019, p. 56.
Organisms living in the Reef are sensitive to these temperature increases, especially coral. A thermal stress of one degree above the long-term summer maximum temperature for an extended period can result in corals ejecting the algae that live in their tissue, a process known as coral bleaching. The risk associated with climate change and global water temperatures are not only a concern for the Reef, but for all of the planet's tropical coral reefs: it is predicted that 70–90 per cent will disappear with a 1.5 degree increase in temperature, with greater losses at a 2 degree increase.
The first reported scientific observation of coral bleaching at the Reef occurred in 1929, and at the time was considered a rare, small-scale event. Since that time there have been five mass coral bleaching events in the last 23 years, with the first in 1998 and the worst on record occurring in 2016, 2017 and more recently in 2020.
The 2016 bleaching event led to severe bleaching of the northern third of the Reef, and in 2017 the bleaching largely impacted the central region, with minimal impact to the southern third of the Reef. The 2016 event caused over 100 reefs recording post-bleaching coral mortality, with an estimated 30 per cent of shallow-water coral cover lost in 2016, with further declines in 2017.
According to evidence received, these mass coral bleaching events do not occur in isolation; rather, they are part of a range of events that have collectively impacted on the health of the Reef. The 2019 Outlook Report stated that the combination of the 2016–17 bleaching events, five severe cyclones since 2014 and an increase in crown-of-thorns outbreaks had 'resulted in the greatest loss of coral habitat ever recorded on the Reef'. The report also noted emerging evidence of flow-on effects on the Reef's fish and bird populations. However, it also pointed out that not all reefs were affected, and those that escaped bleaching, cyclones and crown-of-thorns remained in good condition. When asked about the cumulative effects, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority explained:
…we need to think about cumulative impacts. Disturbance has always been a part of the ecology of the Great Barrier Reef. Particularly, cyclones and floods are nothing new. But, of course, the dynamics of those sorts of weather events and in particular now the advent of extreme marine heatwaves—overall, our envelope of extreme weather is being driven and worsened by climate change. So we're seeing that the recovery time between events is shrinking and the impact of individual events is growing. So what we would have said 20 or 30 years ago was, 'We have some concerns around crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks and perhaps some concerns about overfishing.' Those concerns are now being compounded by an increasing disturbance regime driven by climate change. Of course, the acute events, such as a marine heatwave or a cyclone are exacerbated by longer term chronic impacts, such as degraded water quality in our inshore systems, so you've got the double whammy of increasing impacts from events but also retarded recovery processes driven by more chronic influences, such as degraded water quality.
In total, the 2019 Outlook Report considered 45 threats to the Reef's ecosystem and heritage. Of those threats, ten were listed as very high risk threats relating to climate change and land-based run-off impacting the Reef's water quality. The Outlook Report emphasised the importance of time critical action, and:
Without additional local, national and global action on the greatest threats, the overall outlook for the Great Barrier Reef's ecosystem will remain very poor, with continuing consequences for its heritage values also. The window of opportunity to improve the Reef's long-term future is now. Strong and effective management actions are urgent at global, regional and local scales…society must play a pivotal and urgent role in mitigating impacts and adapting to change.
The findings from the 2019 Outlook Report continued the reporting of ongoing deterioration of the Reef's conditions. The first Outlook Report in 2009 warned that the Reef was at a cross-road, 'with decisions made in the next few years likely to determine its long-term future'. At that time the Reef's overall condition was considered poor, indicating ecosystem deterioration in the next 20 years and a few healthy and resilient areas in 50 years 'without significant additional management intervention'. The 2014 report portrayed an even more worrisome picture:
[The Reef] has worsened since 2009 and is expected to further deteriorate in the future. Greater reductions of all threats at all levels, Reef-wide, regional and local, are required to prevent the projected declines in the Great Barrier Reef and to improve its capacity to recover.
Concern for the long-term health of the Reef was renewed after the most recent and widespread mass coral bleaching event in March 2020. The 2020 bleaching event was the second most severe on record and the most widespread. It was the first occurrence of a bleaching event occurring across all three regions of the Reef, with initial aerial surveys recording one quarter of individuals reefs were severely affected.
Australia's obligations under the UNESCO World Heritage Convention
Reports concerning the health of the Reef have had implications on Australia's obligations under the UNESCO World Heritage Convention (the Convention). The condition and efforts by the Australian and Queensland governments to uphold Australia's requirements under the Convention have been regularly reviewed since 1981. In recent years, specific concerns have been raised by the World Heritage Committee about the water quality in the Reef.
In 2015, the World Heritage Committee noted with concern that the overall outlook for the Reef was 'poor, and that climate change, poor water quality and impacts from coastal development are major threats to the [Reef's] health'. The committee welcomed the implementation of the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan that includes measures to reduce 80 per cent of pollution run-off into the Reef by 2025 and additional investment to accelerate water quality improvements. The World Heritage Committee requested the Australian Government provide a report on the state of the Reef by 1 December 2019. Then in 2017 the committee noted with serious concern 'the coral bleaching and mortality that affected the [Reef] in 2016 and 2017, and reiterated its request for a report by the aforementioned date to be considered by the committee in 2020.
In December 2019, the Minister for the Environment, the Hon. Sussan Ley MP, announced the submission of the State Party Report to address the state of conservation of the Reef. The Minister highlighted the significant pressures facing the Reef 'caused by climate change and poor water quality caused by land-based run-off' and steps taken by the Australian and Queensland governments to address these issues. The State Party Report detailed efforts by both governments to improve water quality outcomes in the Reef, and made special reference to the Queensland Government's regulation because '[t]hese Reef Protection laws regulate agricultural activities to cut excessive fertiliser use and to actively manage erosion risks in all Reef catchments'.
The World Heritage Committee was due to meet in July 2020 to consider Australia's State Party Report and the status of the Reef, but this meeting was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Agriculture within the Great Barrier Reef catchment regions
The administrative boundaries of the Reef are separated into six natural resource management regions (see Table 1.1 and Figure 1.2). These regions include 35 catchments (see Table 1.1) that drain 424,000 square kilometres of coastal Queensland. These catchments are predominately found in rural areas, and are influenced by summer monsoonal rains and cyclones.
Across these regions, primary industries include sugar cane farming, banana production, grazing, grain production and horticulture. Grazing accounts for 73–77 per cent of agricultural land use across all regions (33.7 million hectares in total) and is primarily beef cattle grazing. Dryland cropping accounts for 2.4 per cent (1.16 million hectares on average), whilst sugarcane makes up 1.2–1.4 per cent of land use, followed by irrigated cropping and horticulture crops (0.4 per cent and 0.2 per cent respectively). Sugarcane and horticulture are prevalent on the coastal floodplains that receive high rainfall and sufficient irrigation. The Fitzroy region also hosts grain crops and irrigated cotton production, which is prevalent inland. Ninety-four per cent of Australia's banana production occurs in the Tully, Innisfail, Mareeba and Lakeland regions of far north Queensland, covering 11,300 hectares across approximately 260 farms.
Agricultural production within the Reef's catchment areas is estimated to be valued at about half of the Reef's economic benefit, generating approximately $3.7 billion annually and employing up to 35,000 people. The sugarcane industry provided a range of estimates on its economic contribution. Canegrowers reported that sugarcane is a '$2 billion industry…and responsible for, directly or indirectly, the jobs of 40,000 Australians'. The Australian Sugar Milling Council submitted that the total economic contribution from the raw sugar manufacturing sector in 2017–18 was in excess of $4 billion and supports more than 22,600 jobs. Regionally, the Burdekin district's annual crop of eight million tonnes equates to approximately $280 to $320 million per year. Despite its size, the sugarcane industry is contracting due to a myriad of factors. Canegrowers reported that within the last twelve months, the industry had contracted by 12,500 hectares.
AgForce Queensland Farmers reported that the beef, sheep and wool and grain sectors in Queensland 'generated around $6.2 billion in gross farm-gate value of production in 2017–18'. Whereas Australia's banana industry, which is largely based in far north Queensland, is worth $600 million annually, and estimated to employ more than 12,000 people (including flow on employment) in north Queensland.
Table 1.1: Administrative regions, population centres & catchment systems.
Bundaberg, Harvey Bay, Maryborough and Gympie.
Kolan, Burnett Burrum and Mary rivers; Baffle Creek.
Rockhampton, Gladstone, St Lawrence and Emerald.
Styx, Shoalwater, Fitzroy, Calliope and Boyne rivers; Waterpark Creek.
Mackay and Proserpine.
Proserpine, O'Connell, and Pioneer rivers; Plane Creek.
Bowen, Townsville, Ayr and Charters Towers.
Black, Ross, Haughton, Burdekin and Don rivers.
Cairns, Innisfail, Ingham and Mareeba.
Daintree, Mossman, Barron, Mulgrave-Russel, Johnstone, Tully, Murray and Herbert rivers.
Olive Pascoe, Lockhart, Stewart, Normanby, Jeannie and Endeavour rivers; Jacky Jacky Creek.
Source: Compiled by Committee.
Figure 1.2: Ecosystems and administrative regions of the Great Barrier Reef
Source: Queensland Department of Environment and Science, Submission 72 – Attachment 1, p. 8.
The agricultural sector is the steward of the region's natural resources, and the committee heard repeatedly that the farmers take their environmental responsibility and care for the Reef seriously. For this reason, considerable time, energy and capital have gone towards establishing farming practices that limit the impact on land and water ecosystems. Many agricultural representatives emphasised their support for protecting the Reef and its ecosystems.
Agricultural practices in these catchment regions have been guided by collaborative partnerships between farmers, agricultural peak bodies, governments, research institutes and environmental groups to reduce land-based run-off and improve the profitability of farmers' operations. One key program is the industry-led, voluntary best management practices (BMP) programs, such as the Canegrowers' Smartcane BMP in the sugarcane industry, and AgForce's Grazing BMP for graziers. These BMP programs have subsequently become mandated under the Queensland Government's Reef regulations package (see Chapter 5 for further details).
The banana and horticulture industries operating in the Reef's catchments have also implemented BMP programs. The banana industry has had Banana BMP Environmental Guidelines in place since 2013, with 92 per cent of growers benchmarked against this BMP checklist. Horticultures BMP program, Hort360, is applied to approximately 60 per cent of all horticulture operations within the Reef's catchment regions.
Despite industry's efforts to address land-based run-off into the Reef, measurements have indicated improvements were not meeting timeframes and water quality targets outlined under the Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan (Reef 2050 WQIP). Further, government and scientific bodies reported that the uptake of BMP programs across the farming sector remained low. This point has been contested by a significant majority of agricultural-based stakeholders. These divergent views concerning the evidential basis of land-based run-off caused by the agricultural sector is considered in Chapter 3, and debate concerning the adoption of BMPs across agricultural industries is considered in chapters 5 and 6.