Topics: Great Barrier Reef, coral bleaching
Environment Minister Greg Hunt has spent the day in Far North Queensland talking to the community, tourism operators, farmers and scientists about the Great Barrier Reef.
He flew there to personally inspect the latest coral bleaching event, and he joins us on the line now.
Minister, thank you very much for your time this afternoon.
And good afternoon Chris, and it's a pleasure.
Now, what did you do up there today?
So the first thing is we announced $50 million of investment in water quality protection for the Great Barrier Reef – that's focussing really on assisting the cane farmers to reduce run-off, there's about $90 million there; another $20 million to improve grazing practices, which also reduces the soil and other things that flow into the reef; and then finally $7 million for banana and cropping farmers to reduce run-off, sediment, nitrogen, nutrients and pesticide.
After that, we met at length with the tourism sector, and many of those are running daily dives, or near-daily dives and reporting their findings, the good and the bad.
They were very upfront – there are areas that have excellent coral and there are areas that are affected badly.
And then an extended briefing with the head of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Russell Reichelt, and his senior scientists that have been conducting reef dives, and have just come off the boats after being out on the reef doing heavy scientific diving, recording, photographing of the state of the reef.
And what did they tell you?
So what they said is from – if you think of the reef in four parts heading north, the bottom area is officially described as minor bleaching; then you go from the next, as you head north is minor to severe; the third is moderate to severe; and the northern area is severe.
What was very interesting is they did a lot of photographic work to record it, and their points were that you can have two different corals next to each other – it might be a plate coral and a plate coral – one would be white, one would still have its colour.
You might have an area of four different corals, it might be four branching corals all in an area, and you might have three that are in healthy condition and one that's very poor.
(Inaudible) quite different effects, not just between the reefs, but from neighbours on the same reef, and so they're learning and studying that as they go.
The other thing is there are some early signs now that the water temperature has dropped in the very recent period of recovery.
What happens is that the algae that's inside the coral is expelled as it's under stress. If it's a really bad event the coral will die, but the coral will recoup and be re-populated by these algae and regain its colour.
I was quite surprised that that can happen within a one or two month period. So in the north it is a very severe event, no question, and that travels down to – officially the categorisation is minor in the south.
And you can see the first signs, according to the scientists, of some recovery in some areas.
My understanding of it though is that the recovery is dependent on the temperature of the water coming down and the time for the coral to recover.
That's exactly right.
So what are they telling you about the long-term outlook for the reef, because presumably if that water temperature isn't down within the next two weeks or so the coral that's died is going to stay dead.
Well no, once the coral is – so if you think of it as four stages of bleaching – where there's some early stress then they become fluorescent, then they become white, and coral can recover its colour having been white, it's a sort of a significant stressed state, and then once it dies, you're correct, it doesn't come back.
So then new coral grows; we saw a 19 per cent total increase in coral cover over the entire reef, according to the work of the Australian Institute of Marine Science, over the last three years.
That figure surprised us and many people in a very positive way.
Then at the end of that we've now been hit with a warm water event, which is a combination of El Nino and climate change.
We looked at the temperature records over the last 15 years, and you can see this year is clearly higher than other years. And so, 2015, 2014, 2013, all within a very similar range, and then this year is a clear outlier.
There has been that drop in temperature – on the advice of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, which is important – in the very recent past.
Now up here today it's been wet, wild, windy weather, which normally you'd say well that's not good, that's just what the water column needs, to be broken up, to cool down, so more wet and windy weather is exactly what they're hoping for over the coming days and weeks.
So broadly speaking, are we going to be able to save the Reef? Will it survive this coral bleaching event, or do we just have to be prepared to lose part of it?
No no, the advice from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and from the Reef and Rainforest Research Centre is very clear – that you can have plate corals which recover at the rate of 10 centimetres a year, other corals such as the boulder corals can be very very slow, like slow growing grand trees – and so there are different corals which recover at different rates.
What was most heartening was the combination of the drop in water temperature and the fact that they are seeing some earlier, and I stress early, signs of colour recovery in some corals that had been white.
Others will be pushed over the edge, and it's patchy – water temperature isn't consistent, you have different pools in different places.
But overcast windy weather like we have here today in Cairns is the best thing.
And then water quality improvement is absolutely fundamental, and that's the fourth announcement we've made of new programs and new direct investment in water quality in recent weeks as we're rolling out everything we have set up.
And from here we've got more that will be announced on that front as the programs are ready.
So water quality, crown-of-thorns are the things that we can control, and then the great global agreement on climate change, which is the Paris Agreement that Australia has signed and will now ratify.
Well you're of course just back from New York, from signing that agreement. If you speak to scientists up on the Reef though they say we need action on climate change now…
…not in a few years' time.
So how do you reconcile the fact that we've seen a huge mining project approved in Queensland, the Carmichael coal mine, when you've got scientists up there saying the impact of that on the Great Barrier Reef is potentially life-threatening?
Look I think the point is, climate change is a global issue around global emissions.
But to be fair they're saying we need to act on it…
Well we are.
…we're part of that global pact.
Australia has led the 90 billion tonnes of reduction, we have been the drivers of a 90 billion tonnes reduction from the Montreal Protocol process, which is linked to the Paris Agreement – it's about ozone protection but with a huge climate change benefit.
And what has happened through the Paris Agreement is every nation sets their own limits, including especially the poorest nations with people who are struggling to come out of poverty.
So they have all factored in the provision of electricity – renewable, conventional – and that's within their targets, which means it's within the global ability.
The other thing of course is this project isn't a Commonwealth project, it's Queensland Government through and through, for activation in another country.
The federal role is simply a judicial role to determine whether it's in compliance with federal law.
There's no policy judgement or discretion, it's a simple case of the Federal Government acting as an effective judicial decision maker, whereas the State, the Queensland Minister Steven Miles and Anthony Lyneham, they are the people with total discretion.
So that's ultimately a question for them, it's not our role to make those judgements on that issue.
They're the ones with absolute discretion over leases, licences, project go or no go. So sometimes that's a little misrepresented by some.
Minister thank you very much for your time this afternoon.
Thanks very much Chris, always happy to chat.