Mining & Shipping Impact Just What the Great Barrier Reef Doesn’t Need
Record numbers of turtles and dugongs have
been washing up dead and starving along the Queensland shoreline, prompting
warnings of an ecological disaster in the Great Barrier Reef. While extreme
weather and climate impacts are factors, it is facing a growing threat of
environmental damage from several multi-billion dollar mining projects
occurring on its doorstep. Unesco’s World Heritage Committee has expressed
‘extreme concern’ at the construction of a massive processing facility at
Curtis Island, near Gladstone, which will become one of the world’s biggest
hubs for natural gas exports.
Extreme weather, mining and port projects
blamed for record deaths of turtles and dugongs
Jonathan Pearlman, For The Straits Times 12
SYDNEY: Record numbers of turtles and dugongs
have been washing up dead and starving along the Queensland shoreline,
prompting warnings of an ecological disaster in the Great Barrier Reef.
The turtles and dugongs – or sea cows – along
the reef are believed to be starving to death after a series of extreme weather
events destroyed their main food source, seagrass. Some think nearby mining
projects and a port expansion may also have destroyed some seagrass.
The Queensland government said 96 dead
dugongs have been found so far this year. Hundreds of turtles have also been
found, though official figures have not been released. Environmental sources
told The Straits Times that up to 1,500 dugongs and 6,000 turtles are expected
to die in the coming months.
The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority
said the loss of turtles and dugongs will be the worst on record. Most of the
carcasses have been found around Townsville and Gladstone, but experts said
this is ‘the tip of the iceberg’ and many more turtles and dugongs will have
died at sea.
‘What we have seen is just a snapshot of
what’s really going on,’ Dr Ellen Ariel, a turtle expert at James Cook
University, told The Straits Times.
‘We are aware of turtles that float up on
beaches where people find them, but there will be others that die and sink to
the bottom or are taken by predators. There are some pretty fat sharks out
Levels of seagrass along the coast are at
their lowest on record after the state was hit by a series of floods, heavy
rain and Cyclone Yasi in February. Seagrass tends to be highly delicate and can
take as long as 10 years to grow back.
The Queensland government, however, said the
dugongs are not under threat.
‘Our dugong population has been traditionally
very resilient and there’s no reason to believe they will not bounce back,’
said the state’s Environment Minister Vicky Darling.
The reef’s dugongs are listed as a vulnerable
species, meaning they risk becoming endangered under current environmental
conditions. The strange- looking herbivore, related to the Florida manatee, is
believed to be the source of the mermaid myth. The Great Barrier Reef has
provided a stable habitat for the dugong, which helped the region to gain its
listing as a World Heritage area in 1981.
Australia has the highest number of dugongs
in the world, with most in Western Australia and the Torres Strait. While the
50,000-odd dugongs in these waters are unlikely to be badly affected by
Queensland’s recent extreme weather, the 5,500 dugongs in the southern,
tourist-visited parts of the reef are now under threat.
Professor Helene Marsh, from James Cook
University, said many dugongs have died or will die in the coming months and
others will flock to safer waters, mainly to the north.
Asked whether the dugongs could be lost
entirely from the main section of the reef, Prof Marsh said she did not know,
but believed they will probably survive.
‘What is unprecedented is the extent of the
damage from the cyclone and the floods,’ she said. ‘Next year, there won’t be
any conceptions because the animals will be too skinny… In that region, I am
quite worried about the dugong’s future.’
The Great Barrier Reef is also facing a
growing threat of environmental damage from several multi-billion dollar mining
projects occurring on its doorstep.
Unesco’s World Heritage Committee has
expressed ‘extreme concern’ at the construction of a massive processing
facility at Curtis Island, near Gladstone, which will become one of the world’s
biggest hubs for natural gas exports.
Shipping traffic through the reef is set to
double in the next decade from current levels of 3,500 a year.
Environmental groups believe the recent
dredging work on Gladstone harbour to expand its port may have further
destroyed seagrass and led to more deaths of marine life.
Around the town of Gladstone, four dugongs,
three dolphins and more than 40 turtles have been found dead in recent months.
The Queensland government has launched an
inquiry into the Gladstone animal deaths but insisted that the development
adhered to stringent environmental requirements.
A Gladstone resident, Mr Clive Last, who
works on a privately-owned island near the town, came across a dead dugong on
Witt Island two weeks ago. He took five photographs and contacted Queensland
Parks and Wildlife.
He said he has lived in the area for 50 years
and believed the marine deaths cannot be explained merely by the recent poor
‘We never had this quantity of deaths before
the dredging,’ he said. ‘Something strange is going on.’