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Northern Australia

Cape York’s reef faces unprecedented threats under Regional Plan

Agricultural development in the Normanby basin at Lakeland, Cape York Peninsula, 2014.

Agricultural development in the Normanby basin at Lakeland, Cape York Peninsula, 2014.

The Cape York Regional Plan puts the region’s fringing reefs at greater risk, writes Andrew Picone.

With the recent release of the Cape York Regional Plan comes an unprecedented threat to the most healthy and intact section of the Great Barrier Reef. Mining and agricultural expansion combined with the deregulation of water will lock in the decline of the region’s terrestrial and marine ecosystems, all too often considered in isolation.

Earlier this year UNESCO clearly identified the dangers and environmental strains facing the reef to an international audience, yet our State and Federal governments continue to attempt to present a public case that all is under control. Despite this, buried in last year’s Strategic Assessment is the acknowledgment that the threatening processes faced by the reef in its southern areas will escalate on Cape York Peninsula. Yet this seems to have been overlooked in the Strategic Assessment recently released by the Australian Government.

Compounding these threats is the fact that our reef health monitoring and reporting system, encompassed in the Australian Government’s Reef Report Card for 2012 and 2013, fails to capture the true health and condition of the reef.

The Normanby River’s 24,353km2 basin is of critical importance to the Cape’s reef ecosystems. Beginning its journey in the rainforest-clad mountains south of Cooktown, the Normanby basin also takes in the rangelands of the Laura sub-catchment before flowing out into Princess Charlotte Bay, one of the most significant turtle and dugong habitats in the Great Barrier Reef. The Normanby basin does not even rate a mention in the 2014 Outlook Report, also released recently.

In what is arguably the last outpost of serious agricultural development in Far North Queensland, the Lakeland district is experiencing a dramatic spike in investment and development. Based on the success of existing plantations including banana, combined with the deregulation of water resources, the area under crops and plantations is now rapidly expanding.

In a comprehensive study by Griffith University they conclude that we are grossly underestimating the amount of sediment load flowing into the Great Barrier Reef from some sources in the Normanby River (e.g. gully, river bank and coastal erosion) while overestimating other sources (e.g. sheet erosion from hill slopes).

What they found, in simple terms, is that where previous models had estimated much of the erosion was occurring was simply not the case.

The main culprit for the sediment load flowing from the Normanby River into the Great Barrier Reef is gully erosion. Approximately 1.15 million tonnes of sediment enter the Normanby system each year according to research, and is largely unaddressed by any management initiatives accounted for in the report card.

The initial field results of the Normanby River research became available online last year with two detailed peer-reviewed papers published recently. The take home message from that research is that our system of modelling reef health is based partly on flawed data from the outset and little opportunity for field validation and reality checking.

The modelling framework underpinning the report card also influences funding allocations and project design.  So if the model that is used for allocating resources and priorities is flawed, it’s unlikely that real water quality gains for the reef will be realised. Yet unsubstantiated assumptions about improvements in reef health based on project dollars spent or kilometres of fence lines built are currently published as fact.

In the 2013 Reef Water Quality Protection Plan, Cape York is identified as a low priority for management. While we look elsewhere, fix the wrong problems, and grossly underestimate the existing problem we seem destined to repeat the mistakes of the past.

The link between the land and sea is a no-brainer. But on Cape York we have had countless policy announcements and legislative processes that have ignored the relationship between catchments and the Great Barrier Reef. The latest of these is the Cape York Regional Plan.

Far from addressing the land management issues identified in their 2012 Cape York policy commitments. It is business as usual across much of the landscape with little likelihood of meaningful outcomes.

While declaring the Cape open for business, as Deputy Premier Jeff Seeney likes to put it, we’d be fools to destroy our natural capital that is the Great Barrier Reef.

This was originally pitched to several Queensland and national news outlets as an ACF op-ed. Published on SBS on September 15 2014.

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This entry was posted on September 14, 2014 by in Uncategorized.
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