Australia concerned over threat to Great Barrier Reef

The federal environment minister has released a report highlighting the increasing threats to the survival of one of the world’s largest coral reefs, and has blamed the government of Queensland state exacerbating the problem.

The report, launched by Australia’s environment minister, Robert Hill, addresses the effect of land use activities on water quality in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. Hill described it as “an historic initiative” because it recommends specific end-of-river pollution targets for all 26 river catchments adjacent to the Reef. However, the report, prepared by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, has found that, over the last 150 years, there has been a significant increase in pollution discharged to the Great Barrier Reef lagoon. Sediment loads have increased by 300-900%, phosphate discharges have increased by 300-1500%, total nitrogen has increased by 200-400% and pesticide residues, including heavy metals, are now being detected in tidal sediments.

The report confirms that these pollutants are having an adverse effect on inshore ecosystems such as corals and seagrass, and Hill said that the report highlighted the need for the government of Queensland, where the Reef is situated, to “belatedly accept its responsibility to ensure sustainable management of activities in the river catchments adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef”. “If not addressed, the decline in water quality could threaten not only the environment of the Great Barrier Reef but also the tourism and fishing industries that rely upon a healthy Reef,” Hill said. “These industries inject more than a billion dollars a year into regional economies in Queensland.”

The report recommends individual river catchment targets for 2011, which, if met, will reduce sediment by 38%, nitrogen by 39%, phosphorous by 47%, chlorophyll by up to 60%, and result in “a detectable reduction” in heavy metals and pesticides. “End-of-river catchment targets for the next ten years have been set at realistic levels, recognising this is a first step designed to halt the decline in water quality,” Hill commented. “More ambitious targets will be required in the longer term if we are to reverse the overall decline in water quality over the last 150 years. The report highlights the need for Premier Beattie [of Queensland] to take action to ensure the targets are met. It is the Queensland government that has primary responsibility for the management of land use activities in the river catchments adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef. Unfortunately, Premier Beattie’s record on natural resource management is poor. His government needs to improve its performance in managing land clearing, protecting riparian vegetation, ensuring the sustainable use of water resources and placing appropriate limits on the use of pesticides, fertilisers and other chemicals.”

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