Great Barrier Reef threatened: so where is the evidence?

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Online Opinion 28th April, 2005

Over the past four decades, not a year has passed without news reports of dire threats to the Great Barrier Reef. Some have been new threats, others old ones, refurbished or just reiterated. Typically the source is presented as an "expert". None of these prophesies of doom have materialised and the GBR has remained a vast and essentially pristine natural region. Of the nearly 3,000 reefs in the GBR complex, only a few dozen are regularly visited, and even these have relatively sparse usage with detectable human effects being rare or trivial.

Not a single one of the thousands of species of reef creatures has been exterminated since European settlement. Not one is endangered. The commercial and recreational fishing harvest is less than 1 per cent of the rate sustained by a broad range of reefs elsewhere. No harmful level of toxins, nutrients or other chemical pollutants has been detected on the reef. Although claims are made of increased sedimentation due to human activity, the evidence for this is indirect and uncertain. In any case such evidence is restricted to near-shore waters and even then there is no indication of increased turbidity between the uninhabited Cape York region and the more populated regions to the south.

The big problem for truth and reality in this regard is that the reef is inaccessible, it is underwater and it is vast. Anyone can claim anything and who's to know differently?

With so many alleged experts asserting there are problems, why should anyone believe me if I disagree? The fact is they should not, nor should they believe any other so-called experts either. Proper science is not based on authority but solely on reason and evidence. Its history is littered with examples of consensus being overturned by new ideas that better explain the evidence. When alleged experts fail to address evidence, engage in contests over credentials, or impugn credibility on the basis of affiliation, this is not scientific debate but simply politics masquerading as science.

Another problem is bias. Researchers, administrators, environmentalists, the media and politicians all have a vested interest in threats to the reef. The GBR is a beloved national icon and threats to it are assured attention grabbers. For researchers threats mean funding; for administrators, increased authority and budgets; to environmentalists, the appeal is possible donations; for the media it is dramatic headlines; politicians envisage popularity with voters; and to everyone, it focuses public attention with an aura of urgent import. "Saving" the reef has become a veritable eco-industry.

The best available evidence strongly indicates that the claimed threats simply do not exist. Consider the following key points.

Over the past four decades tens of millions of dollars have been spent researching the coral-eating Crown-of-Thorns starfish but no credible human causation has ever been found. Meanwhile the CoT continues to come and go and reefs recover. CoT population outbreaks have also been reported from many other places all over the tropical Indian and Pacific Oceans, and likewise, no correlation with human activity has been indicated. Many marine creatures (including the CoT starfish) produce hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of eggs per individual spawning female. Small variations in larval survival and distribution can result in large fluctuations of population. In such creatures, such fluctuations are common and perfectly natural.

There has never been a major oil spill in the GBR region. The worst-ever oil spill occurred in the Persian Gulf during the 1991 Gulf War. Despite initial claims of an unprecedented environmental catastrophe and no clean-up effort, the damage was short lasting and the effect on reefs minimal.

Fishery statistics for the GBR amount to an annual harvest of a miniscule 17 kg/km². Elsewhere, over a wide range of Pacific reefs, the annual harvest averages some 7700 kg/km2 and these reefs are generally considered by fisheries biologists to be sustainably harvested.

Coral trout are the most heavily fished GBR reef species and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has funded extensive surveys of their populations for over two decades. These surveys show trout are abundant everywhere and there is little to no difference between the most frequently fished reefs near population centres and remote, rarely visited, ones, nor between reefs open to fishing and those closed to it. They clearly indicate that even the most heavily fished species are in fact being only lightly harvested. Remarkably, this exceptionally valuable body of information has never been published but exists only as unpublished reports in the GBR Authority library.

Another extensive, decade-long study on the effect of line-fishing independently concluded that under all future projections considered, coral trout populations would remain "robust". And, no evidence was found that fishing had any detrimental effect on biodiversity or the ecological integrity of the broader reef community.

The repeated claims of threats and disasters to the GBR are simply untrue. They stem from ignorance, misinformation and those who benefit from promoting the idea of problems. The purported problems are all hypotheticals. They are things that might be, or that are postulated as a possibility for some indeterminate future. In reality they either cannot actually be demonstrated or are trivial and temporary. The best way to see for oneself is to take an extended flight or boat cruise over the reef. At any time in any region of the reef only occasional boats are to be seen. The reality is that on most of the reef most of the time no human activity or influence can be seen or detected. For all practical purposes, 90 per cent of the GBR is already a protected zone.

Provided the GBR is "saved," why should we care about whether or not the reasons given are fraudulent? Isn't it better to err on the side of caution in protecting a unique and beautiful natural heritage? Well, perhaps, if there was any real threat, and if the effect of our actions was indeed only beneficial. But, in reality, neither is the case. There may appear to be no financial or environmental cost to precautionary restrictions, but in fact there are very real though non-obvious costs. Ecology, like economics, is by nature holistic, and not all effects are immediate or obvious. A balanced, sustainable use of resources makes possible a healthy human ecology. Unnecessary restrictions on particular resources only puts more pressure on others. The recently imposed increase in restrictions on fishing and taxpayer subsidised downsizing of what was only a very small harvest to begin with, is a clear example.

When such a valuable local economic activity as fishing is restricted, the supermarkets of the area turn instead to selling mostly imported seafood. First, therefore, there is a negative effect on the employment of those formerly working in the fishing industry, and on the local economy from which income must be removed to pay for the imports. Second, the environmental impact does not disappear but is merely transferred elsewhere. Generally, where substitute seafood is imported, the impact is added to the already overexploited marine resources elsewhere, often in underdeveloped countries. It also has to be paid for by local economic activity which, whatever it may be, has its own environmental impacts. It is remarkable that politicians can introduce restrictive legislation without first demonstrating they have fully comprehended and analysed the likely consequences.

Beyond the misuse of a valuable resource, the false claims of threats to the GBR also entail a broader and even more important problem, the misuse of science itself. Modern environmentalism has become much more than simply a concern for a healthy environment. It has developed into a peculiar quasi-religious blend of new-age nature worship, science, left-wing political activism and anti-profit economics.

For a comprehensive review of the see the newly published backgrounder 'Threats' to the Great Barrier Reef, by Walter Starck