Nature rather than nurture will determine future of the reef

Courier Mail (Brisbane), November 26, 2002

THE matter of damage to the Great Barrier Reef caused by human activity is much in the news, with a public perception that the Reef is being destroyed by one or all of land run-off, water turbidity, wonky holes, chemical pollution, crown of thorns starfish out breaks, tourist pressure, sea-level change and climate change. Against this background, the Productivity Commission's independent assessment that "there is no conclusive evidence yet of water quality decline within the GBR lagoon or of any resulting damage to ecosystems'' is particularly important, despite the mysterious "yet".

The commission's conclusion agrees with studies completed in the 1990s by sedimentologists at James Cook University, and with more recent comprehensive investigations in the Cairns region. This research shows that muddy water is a natural phenomenon in all inshore reef waters, that inshore reefs thrive in such conditions, and that abundant space is available for sediment deposits before they impacts on the main reef tract. At current rates of production, a direct sediment impact on the Reef is going to take more than 100,000 years to occur, a little beyond the usual electoral cycle.

The Productivity Commission added the caveat that there was circumstantial evidence of water quality decline, but seems to have failed to detail what this evidence is. In any case, there also is abundant evidence of both a direct and circumstantial nature that water quality is unchanged, and that the Reef is in excellent shape, as was concluded in a recent summary of the health of the world's coral reefs by noted reef expert Dr Clive Wilkinson.

In its discussion of future options, the commission also repeatedly uses the ``precautionary principle'', not least because the Reef is of World Heritage status. The precautionary principle is just a long name for common sense. Badging common sense with such a pompous name has been an effective ploy used by those whose main aim is to disrupt, or stop, change of any kind, because, for any change - be it planned or unplanned - the human mind is capable of imagining many possible risks.

Common sense applied to any situation says that if you perceive your action likely to cause a bad result, then you don't undertake the action.

It is entirely possible that the GBR will be affected some time next year by a large meteorite which will destroy it. The precautionary principle says that because we can imagine this possibility, we are duty bound to take steps to protect the Reef.

Sensibly managing threats to the environment is not about combating every single threat that can be dreamed up in the vivid imaginations of environmentally concerned citizens. Rather, it is about judging the balance of risk on the wide scale of possible misadventures. On such a scale, "regional'' threats to the Reef from water turbidity, sediment run-off, urban, tourist or agrichemical pollution, crown of thorns outbreaks, wonky holes and meteorite impacts are far-fetched possibilities.

On the other hand, to ignore climate and sea-level changes as long-term factors as part of Reef management would be the same as ignoring a child crossing a road when a car is comIng.

Importantly, climate and sea-level changes are mostly natural phenomena, as is water quality. It therefore is quite wrong, not to mention unfair, selectively to blame effects of changes in any of these factors on Queensland farmers and graziers, as some have done.

For a wonder of nature such as the Reef, which we all want to preserve, applying the precautionary principle to every imaginable risk, however remote, is not sensible or economically feasible. Rather, we should take the approach of spending money on carefully monitoring the environment, on managing any demonstrated human, or unwanted natural, impacts, and - as an investment in the future - on supporting the best broad-based research that we can afford. This research should be judged by its excellence rather than on its perceived ``relevance'' or ``usefulness''.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, with the help of other agencies, does an excellent job of monitoring and managing short-term and local human impacts throughout the Reef province. And, hopefully, the authority may learn to deal with larger and longer-term cycles of change, those of a ``geological'' scale, better than it does.

In Australia, research remains badly underfunded, especially given that many leading OECD nations are making significant increases in their spending from a higher base than Australia's. Last week, the US Congress passed a remarkable bipartisan motion to double the annual $US4 billion ($7.5 billion) budget of the National Science Foundation, the world's top funding agency for undirected science of excellence.

Friends of Great Barrier Reef can only hope our Prime Minister remains true to his trend of following an American lead, and that Simon Crean and Bob Brown support him.


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