WWF Says 'Jump!', Governments Ask 'How High?'
WWF Says 'Jump!', Governments Ask 'How High?'
A case study suggests that governments need to better scrutinize allegations of environmental harm and those who make them
by Jennifer Marohasy and Gary Johns
'[We] base our work on sound science.'
WWF Vision Statement 2002
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has mounted a campaign that has led to both the Commonwealth and Queensland Governments recently recommending urgent and significant changes to land management practices in catchments that drain onto the Great Barrier Reef. These recommendations are purported to have a basis in science. In particular, it is alleged that there is evidence for localized deterioration of nearshore reefs from agricultural runoff. The scientific literature, however, provides no such evidence. So, what, and who, made these two governments jump to the wrong conclusions?
We review the process that resulted in governments' recommending significant land-use changes that are likely to have a substantial economic cost. We conclude that government is increasingly abrogating its responsibility to make decisions in the best long-term interests of its citizens, and is instead reacting to pressure groups without first scrutinizing their motivations or the evidence to support their allegations.
WWF has targeted rural industries in Queensland over the past two years. This campaign is believed to have been funded out of the United States of America through donations generated in response to media interest in the 1998 coral-bleaching episode that affected reefs across the world. The bleaching was attributed by WWF to global warming. It was later acknowledged, however, that the bleaching was a short-term phenomenon and therefore likely to be related to an El-Niño episode, not global warming. The World Wildlife Fund capitalized on the media coverage and secured significant funds to pay for a campaign to 'Save the Great Barrier Reef'. In 1999, it established headquarters in Brisbane and a simple media strategy was developed whereby the Great Barrier Reef would be portrayed as a victim of industry, in particular the grazing and sugarcane industries.
The Queensland and Commonwealth Governments reacted to the initial WWF campaign allegations, not by evaluating them, but by wanting to be seen to save an environmental icon. In particular, the Queensland Government maintained an emphasis on evaluating land-based sources of pollution, despite evidence that none was apparent, because of an election commitment to the conservation movement. But what are they saving the reef from? Governments need to evaluate reports produced by environmental organizations more critically, in order to safeguard the integrity of public policy decision-making. In addition to ensuring that environmental decisions are based on sound science, governments must reassert their primacy as representatives of the public interest by demanding that those they invite to participate in government forums have legitimate standing, by way of expertise, representation and direct involvement.
Creating a Need for Government Action
In June 2001, WWF published a Great Barrier Reef Pollution Report Card (WWF, 2001a). The principal conclusion of the 40-page document was that, 'the Great Barrier Reef is being threatened by land-based pollution. Inshore reefs and seagrass meadows, habitat for the threatened dugong and green turtle, are suffering from what we do on the land'. Imogen Zethoven, WWF Australia's Great Barrier Reef campaign manager said that 750 inshore reefs were at risk from land-based pollution, chiefly agricultural runoff. 'Those reefs that are located within 10 km of the coast are at a higher risk of pollution impact. The reefs of greatest concern are located between Port Douglas and Hinchinbrook, and between Bowen and Mackay---an area which includes the major tourism centres of Cairns and the Whitsundays.' (Press release, wwf.org.au, 23 January 2002).
The report indicated that the cattle-grazing industry contributed significantly to the sediment load, while the sugarcane growing industry was principally responsible for pollution from pesticides, herbicides and nutrients. While the report made many allegations of an impact from agriculture on the Reef, it did not substantiate any of the claims. Claims of scientific consensus were made without citing a single published reference (pages 7, 13). The report cited studies that identified potential methods of recognizing human-induced impacts (for example, Van Woesik et al., 1999). It cited experiments that established a possible impact from chemicals or nutrients (for example, Haynes et al., 2000b; Smith et al., 1981). It suggested that the studies provided actual documented evidence of a human-induced impact on the Reef. In fact, the studies did not identify any such impact. The extent of agriculture in a catchment was used as a measure of the condition of catchments and of adjacent inshore reefs without reference to a single environmental indicator, for example, water quality (pages 20, 22, 24).
In summary, the WWF report played on the current global preoccupation with what Lomborg (2001), in The Skeptical Environmentalist, labels the 'Litany': that the environment is in poor shape, resources are running out, the air and water are becoming more polluted, and industries must be heavily regulated. The Litany is a pessimistic mindset that eschews science for doomsday scenarios; it pays lip service to the concept of ecologically sustainable development, but in fact pays no regard to the sustainability of industry.
WWF has not always been so gullible or eager to promote the Litany (click here for more information on: WWF). It claims to have a clear scientific direction and to base its grants (US$1.1 billion since 1985) 'on the best scientific knowledge available.' Indeed, one of the most important figures in WWF''s early history was the British biologist, Sir Julian Huxley, the first Director General of UNESCO, and a founder of the scientific research-based conservation institution, the IUCN (The World Conservation Union). Nevertheless, even at its inception in 1961, WWF gathered not only scientists, but also advertising and public relations experts. It, no doubt, has always sought to balance the need for accurate science with the necessity to raise funds for its projects. The difficulty is that fundraising needs 'good' stories, and science does not always provide good stories. WWF, along with other leading environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs), has been susceptible to overstating doomsday scenarios, often at the expense of its practical conservation work, of which it is justifiably proud. The fact that it boasts five million supporters worldwide means that it has considerable political influence. But it has also become conscious of its own place, its own survival among leading NGOs. It has been swept along by the need to keep the message fresh and appealing, to keep the story interesting, and the dollars flowing. The WWF Great Barrier Reef Pollution Report Card is an example of a practical conservation organization, with a scientific strength, abandoning it to the siren call of prominence.
The lack of scientific evidence in the WWF Reef Report was enhanced by the uncritical response of the media. Features in local, state and national newspapers quoted extensively from the Report with headlines including 'Cane land pollution hitting reef hard' (Daily Mercury, Mackay, 6 June 2001) and text lamenting the slow death of the Great Barrier Reef, as a consequence of 'sediments and nutrients pouring out of our rivers ... and the pesticides from cane lands' (The Courier-Mail, 9 June 2001). Townsville 4QR radio news (6 June 2001) reported, 'The World Wide Fund for Nature says dugong populations near Townsville are suffering because of huge amounts of sediment and chemical run-off into their habitat ... mainly because of cane farming' and Cairns WIN TV State Television News (5 June 2001) reported, 'The World Wide Fund for Nature report says cane farmers are the culprit for the failing health of the Great Barrier Reef'.
The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) issued a media statement (GBRMPA, Media Release Townsville, 6 June 2001) the same day the WWF report was released, with the Authority's Chair commenting that, 'the report will raise awareness of the issues affecting water quality in the Marine Park'. The Queensland Premier used the report as an opportunity to criticize the Commonwealth government for its lack of bipartisan support in protecting the Great Barrier Reef (Cairns Post, 8 June 2001). Interestingly, a locally based conservation group with an established reef-monitoring programme, the Cairns and Far North Environment Centre (CAFNEC), disputed the WWF allegations. Geoff Weir, the conservation group's reef-monitoring coordinator, was quoted by the Cairns Post (20 June 2001) stating, 'People are saying the reef is not as good as it used to be but so far that's been based on anecdotal evidence'.
The launch of the WWF document was planned to coincide with a meeting of the Great Barrier Reef Ministerial Council on 8 June 2001. In the Canberra Times (7 June 2001) journalist Phil Dickie suggested that 'The shift in attitude since the last meeting six months ago could not be greater. Gone is the pervading sense of complacency that the reef is in good hands and that disasters afflicting reefs around the world could not happen to Australia's Great Barrier Reef'. At the meeting, the Council established a scientific working group with the charter to review the available data and existing national water quality guidelines and to prioritize catchments according to the ecological risk they presented to the Reef (GBRMPA, 2001).
Three months later, the Commonwealth Environment Minister released the Great Barrier Reef Water Quality Action Plan (GBRMPA, 2001). This document, produced by an unnamed author(s) focuses on agriculture and concludes that 'A range of pollutants are evident in measurable quantities in river outflows and these are causing the continued decline of inshore ecosystems of the Reef '. Like the WWF report, however, the allegations of Reef impact from agriculture are not substantiated. In particular, the document alleges declining water quality but again does not substantiate this claim. Indeed, there are no data presented to indicate whether water quality is currently improving or deteriorating in either the catchments or the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. Furthermore, no reference is made to the recognized national ANZECC water quality standards (ANZECC, 2001).
Nevertheless, the action plan proposed end-of-catchment targets developed by 'pre-eminent scientists working in water quality ... to reverse water quality decline and eventually allow for the recovery of the inshore reefal ecosystems' (GBRMPA, 2001). The document recommended that these targets be implemented by the Queensland Government through 'the development of integrated catchment management plans that set out the actions required to meet the water quality targets'.
In the report, each catchment is placed into a risk group based on the calculated increase in sediment and nutrient export from the year 1850 to the present. The data and methodology from which the targets have been developed, however, are not published and not available for public scrutiny. This is apparently because the report had to be compiled very quickly in advance of the federal election (G. Mason, GBRMPA, pers. comm., December 2001). Incredibly, the reference list in the report is prefaced with the comment that, 'references listed in this report are not necessarily cited in the scope of the document, but have been mentioned to provide a framework and information source for the current water quality targets'.
The Queensland Government has not accepted the GBRMPA report. The Queensland Government responded to pressure from the WWF campaign by establishing a Reef Protection Taskforce with terms of reference that included, 'advise the Queensland government on processes for establishing appropriate water quality goals and targets to protect the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area' through the development of a Reef Protection Plan. The focus of the Reef Protection Plan was to 'reduce the impacts on the Great Barrier Reef of land based sources of nutrients, sediment and pollution.' (Reef Protection Taskforce, Draft Report, October 2001, Version 3). The WWF campaign progress report of December 2001 (WWF, 2001b) claimed the establishment of the Taskforce and WWF representation on the Taskforce as key WWF 'anti-pollution achievements'.
Membership of the Taskforce was purportedly determined to ensure representation for critical stakeholders groups, with a Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) scientist as the nominal scientific adviser. The process of establishing membership, however, was not normal or transparent. The Taskforce was to focus on agriculture, yet Queensland's peak rural industry body, the Queensland Farmers Federation (QFF), was not consulted and was excluded from membership on the Taskforce (Terry Wall, Department of Premier and Cabinet, pers. comm., 12 August 2001). On behalf of member organizations, QFF registered a protest with the Queensland Government, queried the apparent informal nature of the process of determining membership, and queried the excessive representation from the fishing and marine conservation lobby on the Taskforce (Brianna Casey, QFF, pers. comm., 20 August 2001).
An overriding theme of the Executive Summary of the Report, prepared by the Taskforce in November 2001, was that in order to achieve the goals of reducing impacts on the reef from land-based sources of pollution, industries would need to make substantial changes to the way they manage land. Further, this was likely to have a substantial economic cost that should not be borne by industry alone but shared by 'Queensland's communities, regions and business sectors' (Queensland Government, Reef Protection Taskforce Draft Report, November 2001, Version 7).
Public criticism of the Queensland cane-growing industry intensified during the latter half of 2001. Senior State and Commonwealth Government ministerial advisers stated their reluctance to support sugar industry initiatives on the basis that the sugar industry was damaging the Great Barrier Reef. WWF were invited to give talks to Year 8 students at Queensland high schools during which Queensland agriculture was blamed for 'damage to the entire Great Barrier Reef ecosystem in a number of ways from affecting water clarity and dugong survival to the possible triggering of Crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks' (WWF, 2001c). In a letter from the Commonwealth Environment Minister to the General Manager of Queensland Cane Growers Organization Ltd, the sugarcane-growing industry was accused of contaminating the Great Barrier Reef with nutrients, sediment, herbicides and pesticides (Senator Robert Hill, 20 November 2001).
Evidence of Impacts from Agricultural Pollution on the Great Barrier Reef
The WWF report (2001a) and the subsequent Great Barrier Reef Catchment Water Quality Action Plan (GBRMPA, 2001) focused on the quantities of nutrients and sediment being discharged from Queensland catchments that flow into the Great Barrier Reef lagoon. The reports make two allegations, that:
1. Discharge from agriculture has increased over the last 150 years and,
2. Discharge must now be damaging to the reef.
It is unclear what methodologies and data have been used to support the first allegation. No consistent methodology appears to have been used in the WWF report. The data and methodology apparently used to calculate targets for the GBRMPA action plan (GBRMPA, 2001) remain unpublished and unavailable for public scrutiny. The second allegation, that there is damage to the reef, should be verifiable.
Representatives on the Reef Protection Taskforce asked that the current level of scientific understanding on impacts of terrestrial run-off on the Great Barrier Reef be provided to the Taskforce. The science representative on the Taskforce coordinated the development of a science statement in consultation with experts at the CRC Reef Research Centre, the Department of Natural Resources and Mines, and James Cook University (Roth et al., 2001b).
The first 3-page science statement was developed for the Reef Protection Taskforce to provide a 'consolidated view of our current understanding of the impacts of terrestrial run-off on the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area' (Roth et al., 2001a). Further, 'the statement seeks to allay concerns that there are conflicting views in the scientific community'. This document presented to the Taskforce on the 12 November discussed threats to the reef, but provided no reference of actual damage to the reef.
Several Taskforce members noted this fact, with the following comments being made by Taskforce members at the meeting on 12 November:
'So the widespread impact (of terrestrial run-off on the GBRWHA) is not substantiated.'
'Let's put the anecdotal data together as a science paper.'
'But the scientists have tried very hard to prove there is an impact.'
'Let's not get hung up on the science.'
'Let's go forward on the basis of the precautionary principle.'
'Let's bring science along with a balanced view from other things.'
'This document (the science statement) has been written for this Taskforce and should not go to Cabinet.'
At the insistence of several Taskforce members, including the WWF representative, the science adviser agreed to redraft the science statement (Roth et al., 2001a). Dr Marohasy protested that the document should be either the work of scientists or the work of the Taskforce. Nevertheless, Dr Roth, the CSIRO representative, scientific adviser on the Taskforce, and senior author of the science statement, said that he would consult with his scientific colleagues with a view to redrafting the document. The next day a revised science statement was issued (Roth et al., 2001b), with the comment in the e-mail to the Chairman of the Taskforce that 'We wish to clearly point out that whilst there is no evidence of widespread deterioration, there is documented evidence of localized deterioration on individual nearshore reefs'. The revised document states, 'whilst there is currently little evidence for widespread deterioration of nearshore systems (localized impacts have been documented) (brackets in original document).'
This was the first statement that Dr Marohasy had ever read from reputable scientists clearly alleging an impact from land-based runoff on the Great Barrier Reef. Dr Marohasy immediately asked the science adviser for the references to the localized impacts. Three days later the Science Adviser on the Reef Protection Taskforce and Dr David Williams (Deputy Chief Executive Officer of the CRC Reef Research Centre), provided Dr Marohasy with references to five published scientific papers and one unpublished report as the best examples of localized deterioration on nearshore reefs (Dr Christian Roth, CSIRO, and Dr David Williams, CRC Reef Research Centre, pers. comm., 16 November 2001). These documents are listed in Table 1. Interestingly, only two of these papers (Haynes et al., 2000 and van Woesik et al., 1999) are also cited in the WWF report.
Professor Bob Carter (Marine Geophysical Laboratory, James Cook University), who has more than 20 years of research experience on Great Barrier Reef Sediments, has informed us that he is unaware of any published, refereed articles, which demonstrate damage to the Great Barrier Reef from increased sediment runoff or turbidity. Further, Professor Carter agrees with our assessment of the papers provided by Dr Williams, which is that the papers do not provide evidence that coastal plain agriculture is damaging the Reef. (Prof. Carter, pers. comm., February 2002). George Rayment, Principal Scientist, Queensland Department of Natural Resources and Mines, and a co-author of the science statements, has indicated that at least three of the papers (Duke et al., 2001; Haynes et al., 2000 and Wachenfeld, 1995) provide no evidence that agriculture is having an impact on the Reef (Rayment, pers. comm., February 2002). Dr Piers Larcombe of the Marine Geophysical Laboratory, James Cook University, has advised that of the three papers he has read, none provides any evidence of land-based run-off impacting on the reef. An undated handwritten note from Dr David Williams received by Dr Marohasy in January 2002 confirms the assessment of Wachenfeld (1995). Dr Williams writes, 'I do not believe that this paper (Wachenfeld, 1995) supports local impacts of runoff.' This paper, however, had headed the list of references in Dr William's e-mail to Dr Marohasy on 16 November 2001 (Williams, pers. comm., 16 November 2001).
Two of the papers (Haynes et al., 2000; Udy et al., 1999) focus on seagrass and suggest a potential impact from agriculture (see Table 1). Udy et al. (1999) suggest that nutrients in runoff from agriculture may result in a super-abundance of seagrass, while Haynes et al. (2000) suggest that the presence of herbicides in runoff may reduce seagrass abundance (Table 1). Neither paper presents direct evidence of an impact from agriculture on seagrass abundance.
The paper by Haynes et al. (2000) is also cited in the WWF report (WWF, 2001a) as evidence of pesticide and herbicide contamination of the Great Barrier Reef from agriculture and, in particular, cane-growing. In the study, sediments and seagrass from 16 intertidal and 25 subtidal sites were analysed for pesticide and herbicide residue. At most sites, no chemical residue could be detected in both the intertidal and subtidal sediments. Low levels of the herbicide diuron were found at the mouths of some rivers in the Wet Tropics and were detected in seagrass from the vicinity of Cairns, Cardwell, Townsville and Brisbane. Sugarcane is not grown near the sites that yielded the highest concentrations of diuron in the seagrasses. These areas have marinas, and diuron is an active ingredient in 30 registered formulations used on boat hulls and for anti-fouling slime control purposes (Rayment, 2000). Haynes et al. (2000) provide no evidence that would enable the reader to distinguish the likely source of the diuron, yet conclude that, 'contamination is associated with intensive agricultural land use (primarily sugarcane production).'
Duke et al., (2001), in an unpublished report commissioned by the Queensland Department of Fisheries, hypothesized that diuron from cane lands was the cause of the mangrove dieback that occurred at the mouth of the Pioneer River in 1999, and this report was listed by Roth and Williams (pers. comm., 16 November 2001) as evidence for localized deterioration of individual nearshore reefs (Table 1). The release of the Duke report in 2001 was accompanied by a great deal of media interest (Mackay Mercury, 29 June 2001). Dr Marohasy assessed damage to the mangroves in the Pioneer catchment at this time. The dieback was concentrated at the mouth of the river in the middle of the city of Mackay. Sugarcane is grown several kilometers upstream and the mangroves on, and adjacent to, the cane farms were very healthy. Mangroves tend to colonize tidal drains on cane farms and consequently the cane-growing industry has a government-endorsed code of practice for the management of marine plants, including mangroves in on-farm drains (Tapsell et al., 1999). At this time, Dr Marohasy asked Dr Norm Duke whether he had inspected the mangroves on the cane farms; he indicated he had not and was surprised when Dr Marohasy indicated that they were healthy.
Table 1. Purported evidence for localized deterioration on individual
nearshore reefs from land-based sources of pollution.
|Duke et al., 2001||Mangrove dieback in the Mackay region||No evidence provided to support the hypothesis that diuron was the mostly likely cause of the dieback|
|Haynes et al., 2000||Diuron detected in seagrass tissue at 4 of 16 sites and in intertidal sediment at 3 of 16 sites||Entire live plants were sampled, no evidence provided for an impact on the seagrass from the diuron|
|Udy et al., 1999||Increase in area of seagrass at Green Island since the 1950s as a result of increased nutrient availability||No evidence provided to support hypothesis that increase in seagrass due to agricultural runoff|
|van Woesik & Done 1997||Wide reefs can be assumed to have maintained favourable environmental conditions for reef growth through the past 5500 years while narrow or poorly developed reefs have experienced unfavourable conditions||Paper provides a method for identifying human-induced impacts, but did not identify any such impacts|
|van Woesik et al., 1999||Reef communities appear to lack an ability to accrete carbonates at 2 of 7 sites in the Whitsundays||Paper makes assertions about impacts from agriculture but does not provide evidence or scientific argument to substantiate the assertions|
|Wachenfeld 1995||At 4 of 14 locations markedly less hard coral on the reef flats, at least 1 of these locations has been badly impacted by recent cyclones||Paper concludes, "photographs ... throw doubt on the proposition that the GBR is subject to broad scale decline."|
It is unclear why Dr Duke hypothesized that diuron was the cause of the dieback. Only four of 21 potential sites were tested for diuron. Traces of diuron were found in the sediment at all four sites. This included the control site at which there was no mangrove dieback. In other words, diuron was found at one site where there was no mangrove dieback as well as at three sites where there was mangrove dieback. No evidence was presented to indicate that the levels of diuron at any of the sites were herbicidal. The type and quantity of heavy metals found at those sites analysed for heavy metals is consistent with discharge from a sewerage outlet, and these sites are immediately downstream of the Mackay city sewerage outlet (George Rayment, Queensland Department of Natural Resources and Mines, pers. comm., 2001).
Interestingly, a year earlier, in a Sunfish Newsletter (Whitehead, 2000), Dr Duke was quoted as having prepared an initial report with the following observations as to possible causes for the dieback:
1. Encroachment on tidal lands and associated freshwater wetlands by reclamation works associated with urban and industrial expansion and construction of access corridors for road and rail traffic using levee embankments with apparently limited drainage,
2. A nearby relatively large sewerage treatment facility, and
3. A large rubbish disposal facility nearby.
The Duke report was released several weeks after the WWF report (2001a). The WWF report (WWF, 2001a) refers to new colonies of mangroves in the Hinchinbrook and Johnstone regions as indicators of declining water quality!
The two papers by van Woesik (van Woesik & Done, 1997; van Woesik et al., 1999) were cited by Roth and Williams (pers. comm., 16 November 2001) as evidence of localized damage to nearshore reefs (Table 1). The WWF report card (WWF 2001a, page 13) cites van Woesik et al. (1999) as directly linking increased nitrate pollution to a reduction in the abundance and composition of corals in the Whitsundays.
The 1997 paper by van Woesik & Done (Table 1) establishes baseline information from which the authors argue how a determination might be made as to whether conditions at a particular site have been favourable to coral reef growth. The paper does not provide evidence, and does not purport to provide evidence, for any deterioration in coral reef communities on the Great Barrier Reef.
Van Woesik and Done (1997) is a significant contribution to improving our understanding of coral-reef formation and established a methodology that was applied in the second paper to a survey of 7 localities in the Whitsunday islands (van Woesik et al., 1999, Table 1). At two of the localities the reef-building capacity of the coral communities was considered inconsistent with the site's inferred geological history (van Woesik et al., 1999), despite the fact that no geological data was actually taken from the reefs concerned. The authors suggested that some types of corals do not occur at these sites because of their proximity to the mouths of the Proserpine and O'Connell rivers and the associated harsh environmental conditions that have allegedly been intensified by human activities. This paper explicitly asserts that anthropogenic impacts have occurred, but assertion is not evidence. No scientific argument that, for example, links cause and effect, is provided and the likelihood of natural cycles noted in the first paper (van Woesik & Done, 1997) are apparently ignored.
Wachenfeld (1995, Table 1) compares historical photos of reef-flats exposed at low tide concluding that, 'the large number of locations that do not appear to have changed since the historical photographs were taken throws doubt on the proposition that the Great Barrier Reef is subject to broad scale decline'. This paper was subsequently withdrawn by David Williams as an example of localized impact (Williams pers. comm., January 2002) and is not cited in the WWF report (WWF, 2001a).
In summary, collectively, the papers do provide evidence that mangrove dieback has occurred at least once in one region, that seagrass beds have expanded in at least one region, and that there have been changes in the ability of some reef communities to grow coral. Allegations of an impact from agriculture are made in several of the papers. There is, however, no evidence presented in any of the papers to indicate that: the death of the mangroves; the increase in seagrass abundance; or the changes in coral cover are not all part of the normal process of living and dying in the biologically diverse and dynamic ecosystems of the Great Barrier Reef. Two of the papers provide evidence for traces of man-made chemicals in marine sediments along the Queensland coast. There is, however, no evidence to suggest that these low levels are having an impact and the source of the chemical has not been determined.
Further to the above issues, the WWF report (WWF, 2001a, page 15) states that high concentrations of a dioxin are found in dugongs from the Great Barrier Reef and that the dioxin 'is not found in such high concentrations in dugongs living in areas remote from agricultural activity'. A detailed study of the occurrence of this dioxin in Queensland, including an investigation of a link between the occurrence of this dioxin and sugarcane production, has established that this chemical apparently occurs naturally in Queensland and other parts of the world. Further, it 'cannot be attributed to any of the environments, land-users or industry types investigated' including agriculture (Prange et al., 2001).
The cane-growing industry has adopted a transparent approach to risk-management in the area of chemical use, with publicly available, comprehensive audits of pesticide use on a product and catchment basis (Hamilton & Haydon, 1996). Rayment (2001) has suggested that because other pesticide users who share catchments and active ingredients in common with the sugar industry have not quantified their patterns and quantities of use, it is common for the sugar industry to be the perceived source because there is detailed published information available.
A third 'science statement' (Williams et al., 2001) was developed independently of the Reef Taskforce and distributed to various organizations within and outside of government by the CRC Reef Research Centre. According to journalist Phil Dickie (The Courier Mail, 5 February 2002) this statement was developed for State and Federal Governments to stress, 'a continued urgency to work towards a reduction in the runoff of sediments, nutrients, herbicides and other pollutants' into reef waters. This statement, however, like the very first science statement, suggests that there is no evidence for actual damage to the Reef from land-based sources of pollution.
We do not dispute that Queensland agriculture has an impact on catchments in which it is undertaken, and we acknowledge that, over the last 150 years, changed land use may have resulted in increased runoff of sediment and associated nutrient and contaminant delivery to nearshore regions of the GBRHWA, as stated in the science statements (Roth et al., 2001a, b; Williams et al., 2001) and the WWF report (WWF, 2001a). There is evidence for a detrimental impact from human land-based activities, including agriculture, on freshwater aquatic systems in some regions. We acknowledge the connections between different physical environments and that improved land management practices are likely to reduce the pressure on downstream environments, including the Great Barrier Reef. We conclude, however, that there is no evidence of damage to the Great Barrier Reef from agricultural pollution. Nevertheless, many Queensland agricultural industries, including cane growers, have sought to reduce their potential impact on downstream environments through the widespread adoption of minimum tillage systems and the adoption of other best management practices (Casey, 2001). Consequently, pressures from agriculture, and cane-growing in particular, are likely to be reducing, not increasing (Azzopardi et al., 2002).
Current State of the Great Barrier Reef
Contrary to popular belief, published scientific studies (Larcombe & Woolfe, 1999; Larcombe, 2001) note that evidence on the Great Barrier Reef shelf of either increased sediment input or increased turbidity is absent, but both of which are held by many to have accompanied post-European settlement and to have been detrimental to the Great Barrier Reef. Further, there has been no measurable change in the nutrient status of the waters of the Great Barrier Reef (Furnas et al., 1995; Wachenfeld et al., 1998). Finally, contrary to popular belief, some types of coral reef, and many inshore benthic communities, thrive under conditions of relatively high sediment influx, or high turbidity (Done, 1982; Woolfe & Larcombe, 1998). The best published studies indicate that sediment input from land-based sources, even under flood conditions, is far less than that held in suspension by natural swell waves on more than 200 days per year in the naturally muddy inner shelf of the central Great Barrier Reef (Larcombe, 2001). This region between Cairns and Bowen is naturally muddy because of sediment deposition that has occurred over many thousands of years (Larcombe, 2001).
Most of these 'good news stories' have been published in peer-reviewed scientific publications, but they do not accord with the current paradigm and are thus largely ignored by environmental activists, celebrity scientists and governments.
The most comprehensive summary of the major environmental attributes of the Great Barrier Reef, their state and pressures, is summarized in 'Summary of environmental attributes of the Great Barrier Reef' contained in the State of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area (Wachenfeld et al., 1998). This table suggests that there are 'no obvious adverse trends' in: water quality, mangroves and seagrasses. In contrast, there is 'decline' or 'substantial impacts' upon: birds, marine turtles, dugongs and inter-reefal and lagoonal benthos. Significant pressures on specific attributes are identified as: human disturbance from visitation (birds), bycatch in trawl and shark nets (turtles), hunting both locally and overseas (turtles), predation of eggs and young by feral animals (turtles), boat strike (dugongs), indigenous hunting (dugongs), trawling (benthos), potentially increased sediments and nutrients in run-off (inter-reefal and lagoonal benthos---nearshore communities only).
This information was provided to the Reef Protection Taskforce with a request that all potential impacts including fishing, tourism, urban sewerage, stormwater, aquaculture, agriculture, shipping and natural phenomenon (cyclones, inherent climatic variability, wave-driven resuspension of sediments, etc.) be considered and these potential impacts prioritized (Letter from Dr Marohasy to Chair of Reef Protection Taskforce, 2 October 2001). The Taskforce, however, determined that the emphasis on land-based sources of pollution should be maintained, primarily on the basis that this was the original election commitment from the Queensland Government to the conservation movement.
The abstract from the most recent, peer-reviewed assessment of the Status of Coral Reefs of Australasia: Australia and Papua New Guinea, (Maniwavie, Sweatman, Marshall & Munday, 2000) states:
Australia's coral reefs are well described and monitored, and are generally in good condition. These reefs have exceptionally high biodiversity, favoured by the massive size and diversity of habitats. This biodiversity is, in general, well studied. They are well protected from the relatively low level of human pressures resulting from a small population that is not dependent on reefs for subsistence. An extensive system of marine protected areas is being implemented, the best known of these is the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (which is also a World Heritage Area). This is the largest marine protected area in the world and serves as a model for the establishment of many other similar multi-user areas. The monitoring programmes on the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) are also probably the largest and most extensive in the world and are used as models for other projects. These are amongst the best-studied coral reefs in the world with very high capacity in all areas of coral reef science, management and education. Large numbers of Crown-of-thorns starfish have damaged some regions of the GBR in the past, although recovery is good in most areas. A damaging outbreak is again threatening. Coral bleaching seriously affected a small part of the inner GBR in 1998 with relatively low levels of mortality generally confined to shallower areas (in depths <6 m), whereas there was extensive coral mortality on the offshore reefs on the NW Shelf off Western Australia at the same time.
The WWF report links Crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks with river catchment modifications and agricultural runoff. Despite an extensive published scientific literature which indicates that Crown-of-thorn starfish outbreaks are natural phenomena with an 8,000-year history of outbreak, population crash and reef recovery (Walbran et al., 1989; Henderson & Walbran, 1992; Larcombe, 2001), the WWF report chooses to cite a single unpublished report to support the litany. In particular, the WWF report alleged that because of increased sediment and nutrient runoff, outbreaks are becoming more regular and damaging to the Great Barrier Reef (pages 15 and 16). This is yet another example where the 'good news' in peer-reviewed scientific publications does not accord with the current paradigm and is thus ignored by environmental activists.
Politics and Science
It is understood that the WWF reef campaign has helped generate over 7,000 new supporters in Australia alone during 2001. The increase in WWF membership has come at the price of undermining community confidence in Queensland agriculture, in particular, sugarcane-growing and beef-grazing. The beef-grazing industry has been worth $2.5 billion annually in direct earnings to the Australian economy over the last two years. The sugar industry is worth $1.6 billion annually in direct income to the Australian economy and the total output value of the industry and associated services would be approximately $2.9 billion. Both industries are major contributors to Queensland's economy and underpin the economic stability of many rural and regional communities.
The Reef Campaign has also come at the price of undermining scientific integrity. According to Professor Carter of James Cook University:
one of the relatively new problems that faces us is that governments are increasingly basing their actions on advice provided by unnamed consultants, or on unrefereed reports from government agencies, some of which are not even released into the public domain. This is a recipe for disaster. Good science operates on a consensus basis, using material that has been subjected to rigorous peer review and published in journals of international standing. It is therefore at their own peril that democratic governments attempt to 'control' the scientific process for political ends.
It is unfortunate that scientists are increasingly dependent for their work upon short-term funding, which is now generally allocated on a project basis. Many (and perhaps all) government-funded projects have a political dimension. Accordingly, the 'politically correct' will tend to be funded over the 'politically incorrect'. Incredibly 'good news' stories about the reef are currently 'politically incorrect'.
Castles (2001) analyses the extent to which the science community's commitment to the truth has become corrupted by a commitment to the Litany. Castle's (2001) quote from a Professor of Science at Stanford is relevant:
... like most people (we scientists) would like to see the world a better place, ... To do this we need to get some broad based support, to capture the public's imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This 'double ethical bind' we find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.
In the case of the debate over land-based sources of pollution potentially affecting the Great Barrier Reef, some scientists seem to put self-interest before honesty.
It is a dereliction of duty for governments to devise standards for water quality and runoff regimes without direct studies of impact. That some scientists would play along with them suggests that politics and science are no strangers. The issues could have been resolved if government had been prepared to scrutinize the evidence in the published scientific literature. Governments, however, appear increasingly reluctant, or lack the capacity, to assess information independently. Instead, they hand the referee's whistle to self-interested aggrandisers like WWF.
WWF may have played a useful role in saving the Panda from Mao's China, and the Siberian Tiger from the Soviets. But the Great Barrier Reef is arguably the best-protected coral reef in the world. The reason WWF suggests otherwise has more to do with raising its profile than protecting the Reef. The irony is that many reefs in the near north around Indonesia are under threat. As for the Australian campaign, WWF adds no value whatsoever to the science, awareness, or protection of the Reef. Two governments and a string of agencies already regulate activities within its vicinity.
WWF is a globalized multinational organization that wants to ensure its own survival, its own revenue sources. WWF is entirely dependent on maintaining a public profile and generating funding through offering up environmental disaster scenarios and dramatic statements about the catastrophic impacts of humans on the natural environment. In other words, it is a political entity. To the extent that it seeks to save the environment, it does not represent the environment, it represents people. These supporters have a view as to how the organization should operate; they have beliefs about the purpose of conservation that may be at odds with the rest of the community. Environmental NGOs represent activists, they do not represent the electorate, so it is imperative that governments are clear just whom NGOs, in this case WWF, purport to represent.
At present, WWF publishes in its Annual Reports a reasonable amount of information about its operations. These reports are available to the public. Half of WWF funding, however, comes either from AUSAID or from overseas, and this source of major funding, including funding from foreign governments, and from overseas fundraising, is not mentioned by name in the Annual Reports. We suggest that a more comprehensive body of data on NGOs that seek to influence public policy should be made available to the public and be scrutinized by governments. To this end, governments should establish a protocol against which groups that seeks significant access to government can establish their standing. The protocol would be an invitation to provide sufficient information upon which a government can make an informed judgement about whom it is dealing with. When a government grants standing to an organization, the data on which that standing was granted should be made available to the public. Such a process will enhance the transparency of government, and diminish the prospects of interest groups who simply use the cloak of superior motives of 'doing good', which may not be in the public interest (Johns, 2001).
In the fields of resource management and environmental protection, policies will only stand the test of time if they are based on an accurate assessment of the evidence. As important as the science is, it is also important for the community to know with whom their representatives in government are dealing (Johns, 2001). This means not only ensuring the validity of arguments put to government, but the credentials of those putting the arguments. In most areas of government endeavour, especially those with a strong interest-group component, and even where the science is complete, choices have to be made that may impact on any constituency. In the case of WWF and the Reef Campaign, the Queensland and Commonwealth Governments have a responsibility to develop public policies that will stand the test of time and that are in the best long-term interests of their citizens. This will only be achieved when governments are prepared independently to scrutinize the science literature and the standing of non-government organizations that seek to influence policy.
Diana Dawson BSc MSc, Environment and Resources Officer, Queensland Cane Growers Organization Ltd., has undertaken a parallel but broader review of the science literature pertaining to agricultural runoff and the Reef and has reached similar conclusions. Her encouragement and advice is appreciated.
About the Authors
Dr Jennifer Marohasy is Environment Manager with Queensland Cane Growers Organization Ltd.
Dr Gary Johns is a Senior Fellow with the Institute of Public Affairs Ltd.
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