Steve Irwin, Australia’s famous crocodile hunter, who died in 2006 after being pierced in the chest by a stingray, still holds a high profile Down Under. In Queensland, where Irwin grew up, billboards advertising the Australian National Zoo are plastered with his image. Recently Irwin’s father, Bob, opted to put his public profile on display, too, in an effort to use his influence to speak out against development along the Great Barrier Reef.
Earlier this year, the Australian Marine Conservation Society and World Wildlife Foundation Australia launched a multi-million dollar campaign, bankrolled by Australian philanthropist David Thomas, featuring the elder Irwin. It asks Australians to help protect the Great Barrier Reef from rapid industrialization, including the construction of new ports, dredging, dumping and increased shipping. The campaign is meant to highlight the growing concern among Australians and the broader international community about the scale and speed of development along the Reef’s coastline.
Also earlier this year, not coincidentally, the United Nation’s environmental arm warned that the world’s largest coral reef could be listed as a World Heritage Site in Danger if Australia doesn’t act fast to protect it. In June, the UN gave the Australian government a 12-month deadline to show that they were improving the health of the Reef.
The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest World Heritage Area. It contains the most extensive coral reef system on the planet, with 400 species of coral, 1,500 species of fish and 4,000 types of mollusc. Practically the entire ecosystem was inscribed as World Heritage in 1981, covering an area of 134,363 square miles. As Irwin states in the campaign’s slogan, “It’s your Reef, and you’re going to have to fight for it.”
Queensland’s Environmental Minister Andrew Powell, a member of the conservative Liberal Party, and Irwin have butted heads over the issue, and Powell recently said of Irwin, “It appears that those groups (environmental groups), and Mr. Irwin are trying to sell a pack of lies to the Queensland community.”
Powell thinks the government is striking the right balance between environmental protection and sustainable development along the coast. Powell argues that coastal development isn’t the main threat to the Reef — he says that according to the science, the biggest impacts are increasing climate change, leading to extreme weather events such as cyclones that “batter the living daylights out of the Reef,” and sediment runoff from agricultural catchment. He said he’s excited about the long-term results that are achievable through best practices for farmers that both reduce agricultural runoff into the Reef catchment and increase economic efficiency. “If a farmer knows the optimum rate to apply fertilizer, not only is it good for environmental outcomes but it also saves fertilizer which is jolly expensive,” Powell said.
On the other side of the debate, Greenpeace and other environmental groups have been consistently critical of the Australian government’s response to the proposed coastal development and the threat it poses to the Great Barrier Reef. According to the Fight for the Reef campaign, the millions of tons of dredging and thousands of coal ships per year could turn the Reef into an industrial zone and shipping superhighway. Currently there are around 2,000 coal ships per year passing through the Reef, but there could be as many as 10,000 per year by 2020.
Regarding the situation, Powell said, “The Australian media and increasingly the international media will have you believe that it’s port development that’s the major scare when it comes to the Reef and that’s not true.”
Australian environmental groups, however, believe the threats posed by increased development and climate change can’t be separated. Since the development includes large coal and natural gas export terminals — which could significantly contribute to climate change — the groups see fighting this development as a key component of their broader effort to combat climate change.
As Irwin states in an interview, the damaging effects of climate change are compounded by the “ignorance, greed, stupidity and irresponsibility” that is putting the reef at risk.
While the fight over coastal development along the Reef has ignited a heated debate, both sides agree that climate change has taken a serious toll on the landmark. According to a 2012 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by researchers from the Australian Institute of Marine Science, the Great Barrier Reef has lost half its coral cover in the last 27 years. The study found that the loss was due to storm damage (48 percent), crown-of-thorns starfish (42 percent), and bleaching (10 percent).
Crown-of-thorns starfish are coral eating and native to the Reef, but when their numbers grow too large they can pose serious threats to the health of the Reef. Sediment from grazing and sugarcane farming has nutrients in it, such as phosphorus and nitrogen, that can spur infestations of crown-of-thorns starfish. Just this week, Australia pledged another US$4.6 million to fight crown-of-thorns devastation, on top of the $2.5 million it had already committed. The government said that 100,000 of the creatures have been wiped out so far.
Another new study examining the effects of climate change on the Great Barrier Reef shows corals could start dissolving into the ocean within 100 years if nothing is done to protect them. This is in large part because coral reefs can only survive within a very strict temperature bracket; the slightest bit of temperature change can disrupt the delicate balance of the coral reef ecosystem.
Australia’s Environment Minister Mark Butler, a member of the liberal Labor party, told the press:
“Due to climate change, the incidence of extreme weather events have had an incredibly detrimental effect on the reef. Also, since 1979 we’ve seen devastating coral bleaching occur across the reef nine times due to climate change and our warming sea waters, when there was no previous recorded occurrence.”
He also said tourism and related reef activities inject Aus$6.2 billion into the economy every year, employing 120,000 people.
Irwin reinforces this notion in his campaign, reminding people that the Reef is one of the seven wonders of the world and saying, “No one is going to want come half way around the world to see mega industrial ports.”
Butler is under pressure to make a decision about a new three million-cubic-meter dredging project at Abbott Point along the Reef’s coast after having delayed the decision one month until August 9th.
In a recent government hearing, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority scientist Dr. Adam Smith said, “the impacts of any dredging spoil disposal both directly and indirectly will be much bigger with other aspects such as water quality, biodiversity and impact on other users to be considered” — implying that the dredging from port developments along the Reef could do as much damage to the ecosystem as sediment runoff.
According to AMCS, Irwin was off catching crocodiles for the next month and couldn’t be contacted. But in a Youtube video directly addressing the campaign he says, “What gives us the right to use the ocean as a rubbish dump, because that’s what we’re doing. All it’s going to take is one accident, and I don’t want to be the guy that says, ‘I told you so.’”
If the elder Irwin ever tires of the spotlight, Steve Irwin’s daughter, Bindi, 14, is poised to take the reigns. After surviving a fake Internet death in June, Bindi is back to the activist and actress lifestyle, which includes working with the Australia Zoo, launching a clothing line, appearing on talk shows, releasing children’s books, and starring in Free Willy: Escape from Pirate’s Cove.