Budget 2018 may not go far enough to save the Great Barrier Reef

By Associate Professor Albert Gabric, Director, Master of Environment Program, School of Environment and Science

Some indisputable facts about the Great Barrier Reef:

  • the world’s most significant coral reef ecosystem of immense biodiversity and global heritage value;
  • total economic, social and iconic value estimated in 2017 by Deloitte Access Economics at $56 billion;
  • under threat from multiple local stressors including, declining water quality, coastal zone development, and periodic invasions by the crown of thorn starfish;
  • compounding these local threats are a host of climate change related global problems, including bleaching and acidification and extreme weather events, viz. marine heat waves and cyclones.

These threats to the GBR have been the subject of several major government studies in the last 20 years, including theIndustry Commission Report (2003) and Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan (2017). The latter report stated:

  • The main source of the primary pollutants (nutrients, fine sediments and pesticides) from Great Barrier Reef catchments is diffuse source pollution from agriculture. These pollutants pose a risk to Great Barrier Reef coastal and marine ecosystems.
  • Progress towards the water quality targets has been slow and the present trajectory suggests these targets will not be met.

Some context: Queensland has the largest area of agricultural land of any Australian state and the highest proportion of land area in Australia dedicated to agriculture. Agricultural industries contribute more than $10 billion to the state’s economy each year.

Researchershave recognised for over 25 years that poor water quality due to land use change and farming in the coastal hinterland is fundamentally incompatible with a healthy coral reef ecosystem.

The language in recent reports mentions maintaining and improving the reef’s resilience, even though the general concept of ecosystem resilience is difficult to define and even more difficult to measure.

The proposed Budget allocation of $500 million, while certainly welcome, is a very small step in confronting a classic “wicked problem”, which is by definition extremely difficult or impossible to solve.

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