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The Great Barrier Reef is doing just fine: a precautionary tale

By Bob Carter - posted Tuesday, 12 March 2002

The matter of damage to the Great Barrier Reef by human activity has been much in the news lately. Current public perception is that the reef is being destroyed by one or all of land runoff, water turbidity, wonky holes, chemical pollution, crown-of thorns starfish outbreaks, tourist pressure, sea-level change and climate change, to name a few.

Against this background, the independent assessment by the Productivity Commission that "there is no conclusive evidence yet of water quality decline within the GBR lagoon or of any resulting damage to ecosystems" is particularly important, despite the mysterious "yet".

The Commission's conclusion agrees with studies completed in the 1990s by sedimentologists at James Cook University, and with more recent comprehensive environmental investigations in the Cairns' region. This research shows that muddy water is a normal natural phenomenon in all inshore reef waters, that inshore reefs thrive in such conditions, and that abundant space is available for the deposition of sediment before it will impact the main reef tract. At current rates of production, a direct sediment impact on the reef is going to take more than 100,000 years to occur, which is a little beyond the usual electoral cycle.


The Productivity Commission added the caveat that there was circumstantial evidence of water quality decline, but seem to have failed to detail what this evidence is. In any case, there is also abundant evidence of both direct and circumstantial nature that water quality is unchanged, and that the GBR is in excellent shape, as was indeed concluded in a recent summary of the health of the world's coral reefs by noted reef expert Dr Clive Wilkinson.

In its discussion of future options, the Commission also repeatedly uses the "precautionary principle", not least because the GBR is of World Heritage status. In reality, the precautionary principle is just a long name for common sense.

Badging common sense with such a pompous name has in the past been an effective ploy used by those whose main aim was to disrupt or stop change of any type. Because, for any change, be it planned or unplanned, the human mind is capable of imagining a multitude of possible risks.

Common sense applied to any situation says that if you perceive your action is likely to cause a bad result, then you don't undertake the action. For goodness sake, we teach this to children from the day they can toddle: if there's a car coming along the road, then don't cross it.

Consider two other examples. The first is regarding a possible threat to the GBR. It is entirely possible that the GBR will be impacted some time next year (not tomorrow, for if that were to be the case, the object would already have been sighted) by a large meteorite which will destroy it. The precautionary principle says that because we can imagine this possibility, we are duty bound to take steps to protect the GBR from impact. I look forward to hearing what Premier Beattie has in mind in response to this threat.

Another example may be closer to readers' own lives and experience. I live in Townsville. After giving a talk in Brisbane last Friday at the Rural Press Club, entitled "The Great Barrier Reef is Doing Just Fine, Thank You", I had to decide whether to travel home that night. I knew, as we all know every time we travel, that there was a possibility that the plane I was plannning to return on might crash. The precautionary principle would say that I should have stayed (safe) in Brisbane. Where do you think I am writing this article from?


You see, sensibly managing threats to the environment is not about combatting every single threat that can be dreamed up in the vivid, and let it be said immensely creative, imaginations of environmentally concerned citizens. Rather, it is about judging the balance of risk on a wide scale of possible misadventures.

On such a scale, REGIONAL threats to the GBR from water turbidity, sediment runoff, urban, tourist or agrichemical pollution, crown of thorns outbreaks, wonky holes and meteorite impacts are far field possibilities akin to the risks of flying or less. On the other hand, to ignore climate and sea-level change as long-term factors to be considered as part of reef management would be the same as ignoring the car coming down the road.

Importantly, climate and sea-level change are currently mostly natural phenomena, as is water quality. It is therefore quite wrong, not to mention unfair, to selectively blame the effects of changes in any of these factors on Queensland farmers and graziers, as some have done.

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This article was first published in The Courier-Mail on 27 November 2002.

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About the Author

Professor Bob Carter is a researcher at the Marine Geophysical Laboratory at James Cook University. Copies of scientific papers and other media articles by Bob Carter can be accessed through his website.

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Related Links
Barrier Reef CRC
Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority
James Cook University School of Earth Sciences
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