Government bans dumping from new dredging projects into Great Barrier Reef

Environment minister Greg Hunt finalises ban ahead of a UN decision over whether the reef will be listed ‘in danger’

The federal government has finalised a ban on the dumping of sediment from new dredging projects into the waters of the Great Barrier Reef, as a decision looms on whether the ecosystem will be listed as “in danger” by the UN.

Greg Hunt, the federal environment minister, said he has approved an amendment to the Great Barrier Reef marine park regulations to ban capital dredge spoil being dumped there.

The ban will apply to all past, present and future applications for dumping of new seabed excavations undertaken in order to expand ports and shipping lanes in the 344,400 sq km marine park.

However, it will not apply to maintenance dredging of existing projects nor will it apply to the reef’s whole world heritage area, which is only slightly larger than the marine park but has been the site of most recent dumping. Hunt pointed out the Queensland government has pledged to ban dumping in the world heritage area, thus plugging this gap.

“Together, this means no capital dredge disposal can occur in any part of the world heritage area,” Hunt said.

“Protecting the reef’s immense biological, cultural and heritage values is a top priority for the Coalition government and we continue to build on our suite of protective measures.”

Hunt approved a plan to dump five million tonnes of seabed sediment from the expansion of the Abbot Point port into the marine park in late 2013, only for an alternative land-based plan to be drawn up following an outcry.

The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) added its voice to those concerned about the sea-based disposal of sediment, which scientists warned could smother corals.

Unesco’s world heritage committee will meet in Bonn, Germany next month to decide whether to list the reef as “in danger”. The ecosystem has lost half its coral over the past 30 years and is under pressure from climate change, chemical pollution and a plague of coral-eating starfish.

The Australian government has made strenuous diplomatic efforts to head off the “in danger” listing, which could negatively affect the $6bn-a-year tourism industry that relies upon the reef.

Government ministers or diplomats have visited 19 of the 21 countries that provide members to the world heritage committee in recent months to explain the measures Australia is taking to protect the reef, which is the world’s largest living entity.

On Friday the government announced it was introducing new restrictions on shipping in 565,000 sq km of the Coral Sea, to help ease concerns about increased ship movements near the reef.

An extra $100m has been pledged to help reduce chemicals flowing from farmland to the reef, as part of a $2bn package the government has touted as being spent on the reef’s health over the coming decade.

However, environmental groups say the funding is nowhere near enough and the $2bn figure is misleading.

“In fact nearly $500m, or a quarter of that $2bn, is being spent on maritime safety,” said Nick Heath, spokesman for the WWF. “It’s being spent on items like promoting maritime safety and providing a search and rescue service.

“Legitimate spending – but it is not money going directly to bringing back coral, sea grass, turtles and fish.”


Oliver Milman

The GuardianTramp

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