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Are cows killing the reef?

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in Australia contains coral reefs and marine habitats along a 2,300 kilometre stretch of the Queensland coast. Its coral reef ecosystem is the world’s largest, and the park itself is larger than the United Kingdom, Switzerland and Holland combined. [1]

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However, the park is much more than coral reefs, which comprise around seven per cent of the Marine Park and the World Heritage Area. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has said, “The Great Barrier Reef is home to a stunning array of animals, from microscopic plankton to whales weighing more than 100 tonnes. . . . The different types of animals . . .  help make [the Reef] one of the richest and most complex natural systems on earth. While there is a lot known about some of the animals that make the Reef home, vast amounts of information and species are yet to be discovered.” [2]

Some idea of the park’s scale can be gauged by this image, bearing in mind (in relation to the inset image) that Australia is almost as wide as the contiguous United States:

SDC2004120620Sept200420General20Reference

Under Threat

Despite its iconic status, the reef is under extreme threat.

Guardian journalist Graham Readfearn has referred to the following factors [3]:

  • Dredging for coal and gas ports
  • Related to the first point, dumping of dredged material.
  • Also related to the first point, increased shipping frequency.
  • Run off from agricultural developments
  • Increased ocean acidity
  • Rises in sea temperatures from fossil fuel burning

A key recent development in respect of dredging and dumping was the decision of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), in January, 2014, to approve the dumping of sediment from dredging in relation to the massive Abbot Point port project.

Readfearn has stated:

“Now the government’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) has decided to allow up to three million cubic metres of ocean bottom to be dredged and then dumped within the borders of the marine park and also the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area.”

“The decision is another necessary block removed in order to liberate millions of tonnes of coal from Queensland’s Galilee Basin, where miners hope to then rail it to shore and load it onto containers at an expanded coal terminal at Abbot Point. The dredging is to make way for the ships as they weave their way through the Great Barrier Reef – a wondrous icon of the blue planet that doubles as the world’s most iconic coal shipping lane.”

Climate Change: IPCC Fifth Assessment Report

In its March 2014 Fifth Assessment report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) addressed the issues of risk, adaptation and vulnerability. They reported that coral reef systems were already experiencing “irreversible regime shifts”, and were at very high risk with additional warming of 2 degrees Celsius. [4]

There are three key concerns arising from climate change. Firstly, rising ocean temperatures cause bleaching of corals. Secondly, increased acidity arising from CO2 being absorbed by sea water weakens, and inhibits formation of, calcium carbonate (limestone) skeletons of hard corals and other organisms that contribute to reef building. Finally, the increased intensity of tropical cyclones adversely affects coral reefs. [5]

Dredging, dumping and climate change are significant aspects of what appears to be unrelenting pressure on the Great Barrier Reef. However, what if they not the key problems?

Could cattle grazing be the biggest problem?

In a submission to the Victorian State Government in July, 2008, I highlighted some of the impacts of Australian beef production on the reef.  I quoted the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, which has stated (with my underlines): [6]

  • “80 percent of the land adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area supports agricultural production, primarily beef cattle grazing and intensive cropping agriculture.”
  • “Beef cattle grazing is the largest single land use with approximately 4,500,000 cattle grazing in the Great Barrier Reef Catchment (Department of Primary Industries & Fisheries 1993). Grazing land management has resulted in extensive clearance of vegetation and with over-stocking, particularly during drought conditions has caused widespread soil erosion and the export of eroded material, with its associated nutrients, into the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.” 
  • “Fertilisers and pesticides are taken up by the crop but a significant portion applied to the land ends up in coastal waters. Poor agricultural practice results in soil erosion and the discharge of sediments, nutrients and pesticides into rivers, estuaries and eventually the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.”

The authority has reported that the highest stock numbers are in the Fitzroy and Burdekin catchments. They have said (with my underlines) [7]:

  • “Beef grazing on these large, dry catchments adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park has resulted in extensive tree clearance and over-grazing, especially during drought conditions. This has resulted in widespread soil erosion (The Condition of River Catchments in Queensland 1993).”
  • “The majority of the Great Barrier Reef catchment is used for rangeland beef grazing. This development has involved wide-scale clearance of woodland vegetation, particularly Brigalow, for conversion to pasture (Gilbert in press).”
  • “The principal consequence for the Great Barrier Reef from the introduction of beef grazing on catchment lands stems from increased soil erosion (Ciesiolka 1987).”
  • “Soil erosion increases arise from woodland removal; overgrazing, (especially in drought conditions, where vegetation cover falls below 60%); and streambank erosion when cattle have direct access to streams (Finlayson and Brigza 1993).”

The Authority has also stated, “Grazing of cattle for beef production is the largest single land use on the catchment with cropping, mainly of sugarcane, and urban/residential development considerably less in areal extent.” [8]

Some thoughts from the World Preservation Foundation:

The World Preservation Foundation serves “as an access-point for information to assist media and concerned parties to engage” the topic of climate change, including deforestation, disease, drought and global hunger.

In July, 2013, it produced an article arguing that the cattle industry is the key threat to the Great Barrier Reef’s coral. Here are some extracts [9]:

“ . . . the reef used to be amazing, but the report card [from the Queensland Government's Reef Water Quality Protection Plan Secretariat] [10] released in July 2013 has now downgraded the health of the Great Barrier Reef to “poor”. 72% of the reef’s hard coral has died since the 1960′s, leading UNESCO to question [11] government protection and consider revoking its World Heritage status.”

“We know that as the oceans grow more acidic this weakens calcium formation of shells and coral. Also, much has been said on the outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish – these voracious creatures eat live coral, leaving behind white, dead coral, that soon turns green as algae make it their new home. But the real reasons for the degradation of this amazing reef (including the reason for outbreaks of starfish numbers) have now been well studied, [12] and found not to be climate change, but pollution, mainly from the Burdekin and Fitzroy rivers, the largest rivers flowing onto the reef.

What’s killing the reef is (in order of importance) (my underlines):

  • Fine silt (the major coral killer), over 75% of which comes from grazing lands
  • Nitrogen pollution, mostly particulate, from sediment erosion of grazing lands
  • Phosphorous pollution, mostly particulate, from sediment erosion of grazing lands

“Nitrogen and phosphorous nutrient increases are the major cause of crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks. Minor sources of pollution were dissolved nitrogen and phosphorous from sugarcane production, as well as herbicides and pesticides, also from farming.”

“So there we have it – what’s killing the Great Barrier Reef is cattle.”

The Foundation pointed out that although plans have been drawn up to improve pollution levels, compliance is voluntary, and only 17% of beef graziers complied with them. [13]

An interactive presentation released by The Guardian in March, 2014 neglected to mention cattle grazing. It referred to farming, including run-off of sediment and chemicals, but only in relation to sugarcane.[14]

In addition to the run-off caused by animal agriculture, the sector’s significant contribution to greenhouse gas emissions is also affecting the reef through its climate change impacts.

Some political perspectives

With the dramatic impact of the beef cattle industry on a natural icon that generates massive tourism revenues, it would seem reasonable for a local federal Member of Parliament to raise some concerns. George Christensen (Nationals) is the member for Dawson, which includes the towns of Bowen and McKay, along with the Whitsunday Islands. [15]

However, Mr Christensen is a staunch supporter of the beef cattle industry, as demonstrated by the fact that he established a “Free Meat Week” campaign [16] in an effort to counter “Meat Free Week” [17], from 24th to 30th March, 2014.

The website states: “Free Meat Week (March 24 to 30) calls on everyone to host a barbecue for their mates to celebrate our Aussie farmers and graziers. Our mates in the bush are doing it tough – after having the live cattle export market shut down overnight some of them are now battling the biggest drought in a century. Rubbing salt into their wounds is a national campaign called Meat-Free Week, which is trying to recruit people to vegetarianism. When our farmers and graziers are doing it so tough, that’s just un-Australian. Free Meat Week is a counter-campaign to promote a great Australian industry and to support our great Australian farmers and graziers. “

Christensen’s electorate includes various industries, such as: small crops; prawn and fish farms; sugar growing and refining; beef cattle; coal mining related industries; abattoirs; and tourism. [18] However, tourism may be left behind if Christensen maintains his current approach.

It’s possible that he is unaware of the industry’s impact on the reef, but his actions conjure memories of former Queensland Premier (1968-1987), Joh Bjelke-Petersen. The former Premier was linked to environmental degradation resulting from beef cattle and other agricultural industries. According to the Wilderness Society, “In the 1950s a young Joh Bjelke-Petersen came up with the idea of using an enormous chain strung between two tractors to drag down great swathes of bushland.” [19] Broadscale land clearing occurred on a massive scale in Queensland for many years, most significantly for the beef cattle industry, until the Labor Government banned such clearing with effect from the end of 2006.

However, the current Liberal National Party government led by Premier Campbell Newman has introduced new legislation to again allow significant levels of land clearing. Land that was protected under Labor’s legislation can now be cleared if deemed to be of “high agricultural value”. [20]

Bjelke-Petersen was also referred to in the Guardian’s interactive presentation mentioned earlier:

“A loose coalition of amateur conservationists had managed to scupper an initial plan to mine an area of the reef for fertiliser but appeared powerless to stop Bjelke-Petersen, who lashed them as ‘nitwits’, ‘cranks’ and ‘Commies’.  Bjelke-Petersen had himself invested in oil companies he had licensed. One of his ministers even claimed any oil spill would actually provide nutritious food for marine life, rather than kill it off. Unsurprisingly, the move to list the reef as a world heritage site was vigorously opposed by Bjelke-Petersen.”

Conclusion:

There are many factors contributing to the demise of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park’s magnificent corals. It is possible that any of those factors, in their own right, could destroy them. All must be addressed, including our continued utilisation of animal agriculture, particularly beef production. It is our choice, and the time to act is now!

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Paul Mahony is an environmental and animal rights campaigner who is trying to remove what he considers to be blinkers and blindspots in the community, resulting from social, cultural and commercial conditioning. You can find Paul on Twitter, Slideshare, Sribd and his own blogging site, Terrastendo.

This article first appeared on the author's Terrastendo website on 3rd April, 2014

Images:

Fish at Great Barrier Reef © Tanya Puntti | Dreamstime.com

Map: Australian Government, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, http://www.reefed.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/18783/SDC2004120620Sept200420General20Reference.pdf

References:

[1] Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, “Facts about the Great Barrier Reef”, http://www.gbrmpa.gov.au/about-the-reef/facts-about-the-great-barrier-reef

[2] Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, “Animals” http://www.gbrmpa.gov.au/about-the-reef/animals

[3] Readfearn, G, “Death by sludge, coal and climate change for Great Barrier Reef?”, The Guardian, 31 January, 2014 http://www.theguardian.com/environment/planet-oz/2014/jan/31/great-barrier-reef-australia-dredging-abbot-point-coal-export

[4] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) “Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, Summary for Policymakers”, http://ipcc-wg2.gov/AR5/images/uploads/IPCC_WG2AR5_SPM_Approved.pdf

[5] Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, “Climate change impacts on coral reefs”, http://www.gbrmpa.gov.au/outlook-for-the-reef/climate-change/what-does-this-mean-for-habitats/coral-reefs

[6] Australian Government Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, http://www.gbrmpa.gov.au/corp_site/key_issues/water_quality/agriculture (accessed 3 July 2008 but no longer available and cited in Mahony, P. “Is There Anything That I Can Do? Yes, Modify Your Diet!”, 9 July 2008, http://www.slideshare.net/paulmahony101/a-climateofopportunitysubmissionpaulmahony9july08)

[7] Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, “Environmental Status: Water Quality” http://kurrawa.gbrmpa.gov.au/corp_site/info_services/publications/sotr/water_quality/pressures.html (accessed 3 March 2012)

[8] J. Brodie, C. Christie, M. Devlin, D. Haynes, S. Morris, M. Ramsay, J. Waterhouse and H. Yorkston, “Catchment management and the Great Barrier Reef”, pp. 203 & 205, Water Science and Technology Vol 43 No 9 pp 203–211 © IWA Publishing 200, http://www.iwaponline.com/wst/04309/wst043090203.htm (accessed 30 March 2014)

[9] World Preservation Foundation, “Cattle – not climate change – killing the Great Barrier Reef”, 28th July, 2013, http://www.worldpreservationfoundation.org/blog/news/cattle-not-climate-change-killing-the-great-barrier-reef/#.UzvvA6Ikykw

[10] Reef Water Quality Protection Plan Secretariat, Queensland Government, 2013, “Great Barrier Reef Report Card 2011: Reef Water Quality Protection Plan”, http://www.reefplan.qld.gov.au/measuring-success/report-cards/assets/report-card-2011.pdf

[11] UNESCO World Heritage Committee, Thirty-seventh session, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 16-27 June 2013, http://whc.unesco.org/archive/2013/whc13-37com-7B-en.pdf

[12] Australian Government and Queensland Government,  2013 Scientific Consensus Statement, “Reef Water Quality Protection Plan, Chapter 4, Sources of sediment, nutrients, pesticides and other pollutants in the Great Barrier Reef catchment”, http://www.reefplan.qld.gov.au/about/scientific-consensus-statement/sources-of-pollutants.aspx

[13] Hunt, Colin, “Great Barrier Reef report in: time to make polluters pay”, The Conversation, 16th July, 2013, https://theconversation.com/great-barrier-reef-report-in-time-to-make-polluters-pay-16073

[14] Oliver Milman, Christian Bennett and Mike Bowers, “The Great Barrier Reef: An Obituary”, The Guardian, 27th March, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/environment/ng-interactive/2014/mar/great-barrier-reef-obituary

[15] Parliament of Australia, Senators and Members, Mr George Christensen, MP, Member for Dawson, Queensland, http://www.aph.gov.au/Senators_and_Members/Parliamentarian?MPID=230485

[16] Free Meat Week, http://www.freemeatweek.com.au/

[17] Meat Free Week, https://meatfreeweek.org/

[18] Australian Electoral Commission, Profile of the electoral division of Dawson (Qld), http://aec.gov.au/profiles/qld/dawson.htm

[19] The Wilderness Society, “Land Clearing in Queensland”,  https://www.wilderness.org.au/land-clearing-queensland

[20] Roberts, G, “Campbell Newman’s LNP bulldozing pre-election promise”, The Australian, 1 June, 2013, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/campbell-newmans-lnp-bulldozing-pre-election-promise/story-fn59niix-1226654740183; http://sunshinecoastbirds.blogspot.com.au/2013/06/campbell-newman-takes-axe-to-queensland.html

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