An article posted late last night on the NYT website reports that the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, an independent Australian government agency whose purpose is to protect the Great Barrier Reef, has approved the dumping of 3 million cubic tons of sediment and dredging mud within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (a UNESCO World Heritage site). The dumped material will be dredge spoils from the port at Abbot Point, which is going to be expanded for the purposes of coal exploration. Two Indian companies and Aussi mining billionare Gina Rinehart have major coal interests inland and the expansion of the Abbot Point port will bring in an estimated $28 billion in coal projects. According to the GBRMPA the dumping site, while inside the marine park, is sand, silt, and clay bottom, but contains no coral reefs. This is good news, but the physical dumping isn’t the only concern. The coal production will lead to a proposed export of 120 million tonnes coal per year. This export will result in a major increase in shipping in and around the marine park. Wave energy, waste, and the physical hull of large ships (like coal shipping containers and cruise ships) can cause serious damage to fragile reefs. Even though the dumping isn’t on any reefs, it is within the park and the shipping will also impact the park. This is an issue for conservation reasons, as the reefs have been suffering quite a bit of stress as of late. Additional pollution, wave action, and nutrient loading can cause corals decline and death and lead to a reef dominated by algae (as seen in today’s photo).
Perhaps more importantly, UNESCO expressed some concerns over the marine parks conservation, urging those in power to expand protection and ensure that major development is not permitted (see page 65 of this document). Loss of the “World Heritage Site” label would be extremely detrimental for tourism and conservation efforts. People travel to areas just to see such sites and UNESCO funds its sites. UNESCO posted this on their website this morning, so the site is already under review. Stay tuned and see what happens in May. the GBR is one of the natural wonders of our world, and is the biggest biologically produced thing on the planet. It is extremely diverse and truly fascinating. It also stands as one of the best examples of reef protection in the world today, with more mileage protected than any other reef system. Let us hope that coal production is not the parks downfall.