By Mark Brook
The sun’s rays penetrate the water and reach the reef, probing deep into myriad cave-like structures, revealing vivid colours and form. Cerulean seas envelop the natural mosaic of coral structures that is The Great Barrier Reef. It is the world’s largest living structure and a World Heritage site.
Not too far away, at Queensland’s Gladstone Harbour, something terrible is happening. Millions of cubic metres of seafloor are been dredged up and dumped into the ocean to make room for new shipping channels for the Gladstone Ports Corporation (GPC).
Jon Brodie, who is Water Quality Scientist and Senior Principal Research Officer at James Cook University, is one of the many community activists fighting to protect what’s left of the reef. He says coal mining developments like those currently underway at Gladstone Harbour are damaging the Great Barrier Reef.
The coal mines are situated inland from the Queensland coast and the ports were built to support the coal industry, Jon Brodie says.
He says sediments contaminated with anti-fouling paint used on ships in Gladstone’s waterside industrial precinct have been pumped into the ocean for many years. And long before coal exportation was established, Gladstone was the site of a big alumina refinery and aluminium smelter and the sediment was the contaminated with dangerous metals.
Nick Heath, Great Barrier Reef Team Leader at the World Wide Fund for Nature, says, “Water quality from dredging the seabed and dumping the residue further out in the reef is unmistakably and unambiguously a serious threat to the reef.
“Sediment is not natural in the reef. There is no doubt there is an enormous amount of mud that is terribly toxic to a coral reef environment.”
Mr Heath says at a time when the reef is under so much pressure from threats like pollution and climate change, there is also an unprecedented level of coastal development causing irreversible damage to the reef and killing its marine life.
Dr Matt Landos is a Veterinary Scientist who was commissioned by the Gladstone Fishing Research Fund to conduct a study at Gladstone Harbour. His research showed a negative impact on marine life.
“It’s highly likely there is a relationship between dredging and water contamination in The Great Barrier Reef,” Dr Landos says. “When you excavate material from the seafloor, it falls back into the water. The sediment ends up in suspension in the water, and it will go wherever the wind and current will take it, spreading its contaminants over a very large area.”
“We have data that shows there was a dredge plume of very distended sediments that went at least 34 kilometres, spread by the current,” he says.
Dr Landos says people were also affected by dredging. He says he knows of 40 individual cases where people became unwell around the time the marine life became sick and several of which were admitted to hospital.
“All of these symptoms in humans could be linked to exposure to a toxic algal bloom which was occurring in the harbour at that time. The Gladstone Ports Corporation produced a report on the algal bloom and it has never been released.”
Dr Landos says there are ways of controlling sediment caused by dredging. “Any good dredging project uses silk curtains to control re-suspension. In Gladstone, not a single silk curtain was used.”
The Gladstone Ports Corporation released a media statement in January denying any linkage between diseases in fish and human health concerns. It says the water samples collected at Gladstone Harbour were within normal ranges and were not responsible for the diseased fish; instead it blames recent floods for the recent disease found in barramundi.
It said Dr Landos’ work was ‘”in direct conflict with the growing mountain of scientific and circumstantial evidence showing no links between dredging and disease in fish”.
However, Dr Landos says “data that my project generated shows quite clearly there was a massive problem in Gladstone, across a wide range of species”.
According to Nick Heath, the quantity of coral on the reef has halved in the last 27 years. “No one wants it to die. The reef is part of our national identity. We’ve got to find other ways to develop the coast.”
Matt Landos says dredging at the ports is damaging what is an acclaimed world heritage area, a site that has been declared one of the natural wonders of the world.