ENVIRONMENT: by Patrick J. ByrneNews Weekly
Debunking myths about the Great Barrier Reef
, June 18, 2005
Claims of human-induced threats to the Great Barrier Reef have been grossly exaggerated, argues Prof. Walter Starck, one of the world's pioneering investigators of coral reefs.For over 50 years, Professor Walter Starck has done extensive research world-wide on over-fished reefs, sustainably-fished reefs and unfished reefs. His work has involved the discovery of much of what scientists now know about reef biology.
In a recent Institute of Public Affairs Backgrounder, 'Threats' to the Great Barrier Reef
(May 2005)*, Prof. Starck says:
"Over the years, we have been told that coral-eating starfish, oil pollution, over fishing, fertiliser run-off, silt, agri-chemicals, sewerage, anchor damage, people walking on the reef, ship groundings and global warming were each imminent threats to the reef.
"None of these prophecies of doom, however, have become real and the GBR continues to be a vast and essentially pristine natural region where measurable human effects remain rare or trivial."
But because the reef is underwater, remote and inaccessible to the public, scientific prophets of doom capture the media's attention.
"Almost all of the so-called experts given credence by the media are office-workers with academic credentials but very limited direct experience of reefs. Their claims often amount to hypothetical explanations for very limited observations that, more often than not, describe entirely natural conditions, or are based on computer models that predict imaginary futures," says Prof. Starck.
Since the 1960s, Crown-of-Thorn starfish has been described as a major threat to the reef. Early blame for destructive outbreaks was laid on collectors taking Triton's trumpet shell, a natural predator of the starfish.
However, this theory collapsed when it was realised that there were never enough trumpet shells to combat large outbreaks of Crown-of-Thorns.
Eventually, it was realised that large Crown-of-Thorns outbreaks were a natural phenomenon, the product of millions of eggs from each spawning female, favourable temperature, currents and other oceanic conditions.Coral regeneration
In fact, large outbreaks can be beneficial. When coral regenerates after a tropical cyclone destroys a reef, fast-growing branching and plate-like corals crowd out other slower-growing corals. An outbreak of Crown-of-Thorns thins out the fast-growing corals, which they prefer, allowing the slower-growing corals to compete.
Prof. Starck says concern for oil spills damaging the reef was "conjured up to oppose oil exploration in GBR waters." He points out: "Oil floats, coral doesn't and oil has never caused extensive damage to reefs anywhere."
The worst oil spill in history was during the Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein released 6-8 million tons of oil into the Persian Gulf, contaminating numerous local reefs. Comprehensive surveys were done, but there was no clean-up operation. Within four months most of the oil had naturally degraded, and within four years the affected reefs were "largely to fully recovered".
Oil is not very toxic to reefs and it has been repeatedly found that the "clean-up efforts are not only ineffectual but actually result in worse damage than where nothing is done." The threat of oil pollution to the GBR is remote.
Then there is the claim of over-fishing. There have been hundreds of surveys of the most fished species on the GBR, coral trout. These involved actual counts of the number of fish, not estimates or figures from mathematical models. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) won't publish these studies.
Says Prof. Starck: "These studies show that coral trout are abundant everywhere, and that there is little to no difference between the most frequently fished reefs near population centres and remote rarely visited ones, nor between reefs which are open to fishing and those closed to it.
"The figures clearly indicate that our most heavily fished species is, in fact, being only lightly harvested. They also strongly imply that no environmental benefits whatever should be expected to accrue from the recently increased restrictions on fishing ...
"Most disturbing of all, the existence of this exceptional body of knowledge and its total disregard by GBRMPA raises serious questions about the factual basis, scientific quality, and, indeed, even the integrity with which GBRMPA's management of the reef is being conducted" - i.e., the steady closure of more and more reef area to commercial and recreational fishing.
Prof. Starck says that, with 346,000 square kilometres of reef and lagoon area, the total catch from the GBR is just 17 kg per square kilometre annually. Elsewhere over other Pacific reefs, the annual harvest averages over 7,700 kg per square kilometre. Fisheries experts say that this is a sustainable level of harvesting. This means these Pacific reefs are fished at a rate that allows fish stocks to replenish.
The Queensland Department of Primary Industries has figures from globally-used measures for sustainable fish-harvesting that show, for fishing on the GBR: "On an area basis, it is less than one per cent of what reefs elsewhere commonly yield on a sustainable basis."
Prof. Starck concludes that "the statistics leave the claims of over-fishing without a shred of credibility ... Where is the evidence? ... There isn't any." The claim of unsustainability, he says, "is beyond ridiculous. It is incompetent. It amounts to claiming that the GBR is the most unproductive reef area in the world with less than one per cent of the productivity of other reefs."
Another claimed threat to the reef is land runoff containing fertiliser, silt and agri-chemicals, together with sewage from island resorts and boats.
Several years ago, the GBRMPA funded an extensive study that involved pumping various concentrations of nutrients onto a reef. Even when the nutrient levels reached many time natural levels, there were no algal blooms or damage to the reef. While plans for the experiment received a lot of publicity, the good outcome, that nutrients were not damaging the reef, received only scant notice in the national press.Nutrient levels
Recently, it has been realised that there are frequent surges of nutrients over the outer face of the reef from the deep ocean, raising nutrient levels to many times that being washed off the Queensland coastal region. "Far from being damaging to the reefs, it is now thought to enrich them," Prof. Starck says.
Despite this evidence, he says that young marine biologists are still being brainwashed into telling visitors to the reef not to urinate in the seawater for fear of raising nutrient levels, without seeming "to notice that swarming sea-bird colonies on nearby reef islets can be excreting as much urea as a thousand humans do every day with no noticeable ill effect."
Prof. Starck says that overall estimates of human-attributed nutrient to the GBR are, at most, only a few per cent, which would not be harmful to the reef. It would be beneficial to reef health.
As an example of extreme "ecological correctness", he recounted how GBRMPA officials decided to ban tourists on Green Island from feeding their food scraps to a large resident fish population that gathered for a daily feed of tourist leftovers.
Officials decided that this procedure was "unnatural". Instead, the scraps were taken back to be disposed of at the Cairns dump, once a mangrove area, that has been flattened and filled in.
The scraps contribute to breeding clouds of flies, and "in the wet season, putrefying water regularly overflows into the adjacent inlet, resulting in fish kills. An elegant solution has been replaced by an idiotic one."
What about the claim that farmers cropping and grazing, and land-clearing for houses, have caused siltation that can kill inner reefs?
Prof. Starck says that pre-European aboriginal burning of large coastal areas was a source of erosion, and natural hill-slope erosion in rain-forests is quite high because of the lack of forest ground-cover. In contrast, pasture and sugar-cane can actually reduce erosion, as can introduced weeds, as these provide better ground-cover than sparse native vegetation.
He says that inner reefs needed turbid water to protect them from sunlight. They exist "at the extremes of coral tolerance" and have always been subject to sediment buildup. "Adding a few extra millimeters of silt to the several meters-thick layer that already blankets the inshore sea floor has no discernable effect whatever."
As for farm chemicals contaminating the environment, the best indicator of contamination of the food chain is chemical residue build up in marine mammals. Prof. Starck says that a recent study of tissue samples from 53 dugong showed levels of organo-chlorines at levels similar to what were measured 20 years ago. "These were low in comparison to concentrations found in marine mammals elsewhere in the world."
As for town sewage disposal, none is emptied into GBR waters. The miniscule effluent from small pleasure vessels is harmless.
"In short," he says, "no water quality problems are detectable."
What about physical damage from tourists and tourist boats? He says that, of the 2,900 reefs in the GBR complex, only a fraction of one per cent are visited regularly, and only a tiny fraction of reef area is actually used. Tourist boats don't drop anchor on reefs but in the sandy lagoons.Media circus
In contrast, tropical cyclones cross the reef every year demolishing thousands of hectares of reef in their wake, without any media circus.
Will global warming threaten the reef? Prof. Starck says that, while many biologists issue doomsday warnings, geologists see in the earth's geological record that warming trends are not unprecedented or unusual. Any warming now may simply be the current phase of a millennial-scale cycle, such as was seen in the Medieval warm period and the Roman warm period a thousand years earlier.
Recent coral bleachings, attributed to global warning by biologists, are not unprecedented. He suggests that if global warming does become significant, the most likely effect will be "to expand the area of ocean suitable to them [coral reefs] while at the same time causing weaker El Niño patterns with fewer associated bleaching events."
Prof. Starck is particularly critical of GBRMPA for proclaiming success and dreaming up an endless litany of threats to justify its ever-expanding budget, which is now around $35 million annually.
He says, "GBRMPA has become a sheltered workshop for bureaucrats who enjoy almost complete absence of realistic oversight, assessment or accountability."
While there are a handful of academics and administrators who do have the credentials and experience to know that claims of threats to the reef are "almost entirely fabricated and alarmist", they are not prepared to speak out because they will be denigrated and ostracised.Pressure to conform
The peer-review process used for allocating research grants and for assessing studies submitted for publication, imposes strong pressures on scientists to conform to prevailing views.
The prevailing views have led to the winding down of the Queensland reef fishing industry, and the substitution of an easily sustainable fishing industry with imported seafood from already over-exploited marine resources, particularly in developing countries.
Finally, Professor Starck says that at the heart of the problem is the misuse of science, its degeneration "into a peculiar quasi-religious blend of new-age nature worship, science, left-wing political activism, and anti-profit economics ...
"Science, by becoming advocacy, has made itself and its practitioners part of the problem. As a result, it has greatly weakened its power to provide real solutions for real problems."* Prof. Walter Starck's paper, 'Threats' to the Great Barrier Reef (May 2005), is available as a PDF from the Institute of Public Affairs at: www.ipa.org.au/publications/publisting_detail.asp?pubid=414