Topics: Great Barrier Reef, coral bleaching, Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, election timing, tax cuts
I’m very pleased to be here in Cairns with the head of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Dr Russell Reichelt.
Because of the Pacific-wide issue relating to an El Nino, we have been inspecting in an aerial surveillance program coral along the ribbon reefs from Cairns to Lizard Island and just north of Lizard Island.
What we are seeing is evidence there is clearly a coral bleaching event. There’s good and bad news. The reef, of course, is 2300 kilometres long. The bottom three quarters of the reef is in strong condition. As we head north of Lizard Island, it becomes increasingly prone to bleaching.
As a consequence of that, we are moving to level three in terms of the coral bleaching standards and the actions the Government will take.
Essentially, from a lay person’s perspective, what you could see today is patches of bleaching which increased as you approached and particularly surrounded Lizard Island.
Travelling north from there, as you approach Cape York, the advice from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is that there is more severe coral bleaching.
So in the bottom three quarters; minor to moderate bleaching. As you go into the top quarter; significantly more severe bleaching.
So it is a matter of genuine and real concern.
So that then leads to the actions. By declaring this a level three event, that means we are moving to immediately increasing the monitoring, and that’s being coupled with action that is being taken reef wide.
The reef wide action in the immediate term is what we’re doing to reduce the crown of thorns – that builds resilience. It has had so far on the advice we’ve received, more and better impacts than had been expected.
We are also – and we just recently announced an additional $3.8 million – providing resources to reduce sediment and nitrogen runoff from farms throughout the major river valleys and estuaries of the reef.
And then of course we are now moving to greater monitoring, and we will add to that which is being done by the Australian Research Centre for Coral, we will add to what the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is doing. They will step up – and today was the first step in that – additional activity from here on.
And we will also – and I announced this today – be supporting the University of Queensland, led by Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, in their new monitoring program, which builds on that which has occurred in the past.
The best advice that I have from Dr Reichelt and Dr (inaudible), is that this is not as severe at this stage as 1998 or 2002, which were both El Nino related events.
It is, however, in the northern parts, a cause for concern, and now it is a cause for additional activity, additional action, on top of all of the steps which have been taken so far.
This is, as I would stress, part of a broader El Nino pattern. Australia has thankfully been spared some of the conditions which have occurred elsewhere across the Pacific. But it is serious, and it is a matter for immediate further action.
I’ll ask Russell if he’d like to say something.
Thank you very much. We have been stepping up our surveys over the last few months. This top level of action – level 3 – is driven by the increasing reports of coral mortality.
And there’s more extensive bleaching in the very far north – we’re talking the top half of Cape York – particularly the inshore regions.
We’ve been watching hot water pooling there for the last month, so the science behind this is fairly good at predicting when bleaching will occur. And the good news for us is the reports coming from the James Cook Centre of Excellence, that the southern two thirds of the reef appears to have withstood the hot summer we’ve had. And we’re really hoping the next few weeks we’ll see a cooling down even further in that area.
We’re pleased to see the increasing support from Government for better and faster surveys. The new project that the Minister’s announcing today is really high technology, and will speed up the rate at which we can get a full snapshot of the reef, using stereo photogrammetry underwater – face imaging recognition software – very much faster than the old diver underwater days.
So we’re looking forward to doing a better job and understanding what is causing the pressure and where on the reef, because I think the crown of thorns and other things still require our full attention – we need to separate those out from the effects of the bleaching.
Okay so I just have one more thing I’d like to add in relation to Tasmania. Both the Australian and Tasmanian Governments have received the report into the Tasmanian World Heritage Area.
I’m delighted that the report finds that the Tasmanian World Heritage Area is in extremely good condition and very well managed.
We accept all of the recommendations. I know that the Tasmanian Minister has already made that point. And so we are delighted that the report finds that there is excellent condition and first class management – but it does come forward with important recommendations, and all of those recommendations have been accepted by the Australian and Tasmanian Governments.
Just talking about bleaching, you flew over the area today, what did you see?
So I saw one of the world’s great reef systems, which is overwhelmingly intact.
But what you can see are patches of white or grey. As you go closer to Lizard Island – further north – they increase.
But when you look at the ribbon reefs, as a lay person, you see an extraordinary vista, which is still overwhelmingly reef, and that’s consistent with the advice of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.
So as I say, it’s good news and bad news. And the bad news is that there are patches, which become more prominent the further north you go. But the overwhelming health of the reef is solid in the bottom parts.
And researchers are saying the bleaching is the worst it’s been in decades. Would you agree with that?
Look, I can only go on the advice of Dr Reichelt, and his formal advice to me was that at this stage, 1998 and 2002 were more extensive, more extreme, and with greater consequences. This event is not, however, over.
We can hope that there will be grey skies and rain in the northern quarter in the coming weeks. So at this point, the formal advice from GBRMPA is it is not yet as extreme as 1998 or 2002 but it’s a continuing event.
The Climate Council has released a report today saying hot spells around the country this month is another sign of global warming. Does the Government agree?
The advice from the Director of Meteorology is for me never to try to speculate on individual weather events.
But climate change is real, and it’s significant, and it’s important.
That’s why Australia played a fundamental role in helping to bring about the Dubai roadmap for the Montreal Protocol, which is delivering 90 billion tonnes of emissions reduction, why the Kyoto II agreement was struck in Australia’s office at the Paris conference, and why Australia played a very important role at the Paris conference in striking a global deal.
Just back to the World Heritage Monitoring Mission – as you say they’ve released a report. The report provides 20 clear recommendations to help manage the area, and one of those recommendations is the banning of special species timber harvesting in the World Heritage Area – so you’re accepting that?
Look, that was an item for the Tasmanian Government – they have accepted that today. And we obviously recognise that’s their decision to make, and acknowledge it. And between the two governments, we have made a clear, categorical and unequivocal statement, we accept all 20 recommendations.
Was it a policy failure from the start?
Look, it’s a matter for the Tasmanian Government
And do you expect there will be an impact on the timber industry with that recommendation being followed through?
I understand that the Tasmanian Government will work with that particular sector. It’s not a surprise, because what has been found here is that tourism is both sustainable and to be encouraged, so long as it’s carefully managed.
This is one of the world’s great wilderness areas. There had been many early signs from the World Heritage Committee that they would come to this conclusion.
And I think what’s to be welcomed is the fact that the management is good, the health is good, tourism is to be welcomed, but that they’ve made clear decisions on mining and logging.
And just to the crossbench now, is working with the current crossbench for the next four years untenable after the Senate voting debate over the past week?
Look I’m always optimistic in terms of working with the crossbench. We’ve been fortunate to have seven major and sometimes controversial piece of legislation pass through the Senate just in the environment space. So I will always work constructively with the Senate of the day.
Why does the Government believe the Government could do all the things it has to do for a double dissolution with just two sitting days available?
Look, I certainly wouldn’t speculate on that notion. Our goal is to pass the legislation we want passed – we want to see the Australian Building and Construction legislation passed – we don’t want to see it fail.
Greg, some local tour operators claim the reports of widespread coral bleaching are a beat up. Would you agree?
Look, I think the best possible advice is the advice of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, which is that in the southern three quarters, it starts from very minor, in the most southerly areas, and in this area it’s described as ‘minor to moderate’ – that’s the official declaration of GBRMPA – and then as you go north of Lizard Island, it becomes more severe.
And where are we at with finding funding for Yellow Crazy Ant control in the Wet Tropics?
Well, we’ve already put very significant amounts in. And I am working with Warren Entsch on a package for additional funding. We would like to see the State step up, but I am extremely confident that we will be able to find a federal package – on top of the funds, on top of the eight Green Army teams – and that we would ask the State to step up to match the federal funds which we are currently working on
I am very hopeful, before June.
Just a question about company tax, do you think it’s more beneficial to the economy than personal tax cuts?
Look, I think wherever possible, we strive for all the tax cuts we can. I certainly won’t pre-empt the Treasurer in any deliberations in the lead up to the budget.