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Federal Minister for the Environment and Heritage
The Hon Dr David Kemp, MP
Interview - 7:30 Report
Monday, 18 August 2003
Kerry O'Brien: An international group of scientists is calling on developed countries to take urgent action to save the planet's increasingly degraded coral reefs.
In a feature article in the highly influential publication, Science, researchers claim there are no pristine coral reefs left, and what is there remains highly vulnerable to bleaching through global climate change.
The scientists estimate that more than half the world's coral reefs could disappear within the next 30 years.
The warning puts further pressure on the Australian Government to push ahead with its proposal to substantially expand fishing restrictions on the Great Barrier Reef.
Peter McCutcheon reports.
Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, University of Queensland: Coral bleaching is now recognised as probably the primary threat to coral reefs anywhere, and that includes the Great Barrier Reef.
David Windsor, Great Barrier Reef Research Foundation: It hasn't degraded to an extent that it can't attract tourists.
But it isn't of the same quality, I don't believe, as it was 20 years ago.
Peter McCutcheon: There's now an overwhelming consensus amongst experts that the world's reefs, including Australia's Great Barrier Reef, are in peril.
An international team of 17 scientists this week published the cover article in the prestigious Science magazine, predicting that 60 per cent of coral reefs may be lost by the year 2030.
Ove Hoegh-Guldberg: When you say destruction of the Great Barrier Reef, you're really talking about change.
The reef's going to be there but it may not be the same splendid ecosystem that we have today.
Of course that's the drawcard for tourism.
Peter McCutcheon: Although over fishing and run-off have long been blamed for reef degradation, scientists are becoming increasingly alarmed about the effects of global warming.
Ove Hoegh-Guldberg: This is something that really has crept up on us.
About 10 years ago, if you'd suggested that coral reefs were severely threatened by global climate change, no-one would have taken you seriously.
Peter McCutcheon: Professor Ove Hoegh Guldberg is one of the authors of the Science article, which despite its disturbing findings does offer some hope.
Although bleached coral like this is becoming all too common, it can recover.
And that recovery can be boosted significantly, scientists argue, if the coral is in an area where fishing is banned.
Ove Hoegh-Guldberg: As we go into this climate stress, these areas are going to be more important not less.
And so in many ways it's protecting the patient during a very, very extreme period of stress that we're going to see over this century.
Peter McCutcheon: Restricting fishing on the Great Barrier Reef has been the subject of intense debate over the past few months as the Federal Government seeks to radically expand no-take areas, forming the biggest protected marine park in the world.
David Kemp, Federal Environment Minister: The reef is under very significant pressure at the present time.
It's the pressures on the reef that have really decided us that we have to make a very significant advances in the no-take areas on the reef.
Peter McCutcheon: Presently less than 5 per cent of the reef is in a green zone, off limits to fishing.
The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has released a draft plan to increase this to more than 32 per cent.
David Wachenfeld, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority: What the advice that we had was that an absolute minimum of 25 per cent to 30 per cent was required and the advice was very strong that it was a minimum, not an ideal amount, and that to really protect the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, the ideal might even be a bit higher than that.
David Bateman, Sunfish: What we're saying is the scientific evidence says -- supports 20 to 25.
We'd like to see that amount come back to 20 and then include the existing green zones that are already there in that 20 per cent.
Peter McCutcheon: David Bateman is the executive officer of Sunfish, representing thousands of concerned and even angry recreational fishermen.
Sunfish is resigned to the fact that parts of the reef will soon be off limits.
But it argues the present plan goes too far and unfairly singles out the fishing industry.
David Bateman: Now that 20 per cent also has to be closed to everybody in our opinion, otherwise there is no benefit to any other users in the reef at all.
Peter McCutcheon: Closed to tourism as well?
David Bateman: Yes, definitely closed to tourism.
Peter McCutcheon: The tourism industry on the reef is worth more than 10 times the combined commercial and recreational fishing sectors.
Tourist operators strongly support the proposed fishing restrictions.
But apart from sewage discharge, they do not usually figure prominently in the causes of reef degradation.
David Windsor: The amount of sewage discharged by 1.4 million tourists is negligible in the reef as a whole compared to some of the other discharges.
A lot of the municipalities along the coast are pumping sewage straight out into the reef catchment area.
Peter McCutcheon:The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has no plans to ban tourists from the no-take zones.
But the second draft of its plan, due to be released at the end of the year, could involve some concessions to the fishing lobby.
David Wachenfeld: I think that is a possibility.
As I say, the advice and the target that we're trying to reach is 25 per cent to 30 per cent for the whole marine park.
That has been our target right from the beginning, and it still is.
Peter McCutcheon: Whatever the final figure, the new fishing restrictions can only be part of an incredibly complex problem.
The authors of the Science article argue that wealthy countries have an obligation to take the lead in restricting reef fishing and controlling greenhouse gas emissions.
David Kemp: What we need is a really strong global arrangement and a commitment by all major emitters, including developing countries.
That's the only way we will eventually tackle the human impact on climate change.
Peter McCutcheon: However, for the scientists, even the best scenarios are grim.
But even if we take all the measures you're calling for, how confident are you that the Barrier Reef we know now will still be around in 50 years time?
Ove Hoegh-Guldberg: The Great Barrier Reef as we know it today will change.
There's very few signs that it has some special resilience.
If you look at the Indian Ocean reefs, they're already in heavy decline.
Similar for the Caribbean. Australia is no different.