Great Barrier Reef Dredging Is Causing Major Damage, Study Finds


A new report has found that Australia’s Great Barrier Reef (GBR) could be “severely damaged” if the government does not completely ban the dumping of dredge waste in the World Heritage Sites’ waters.

The Great Barrier Reef, the most extensive coral reef system on the planet, with 400 species of coral and 1,500 species of fish, was declared a World Heritage area in 1981. This year it risks being reclassified as a World Heritage Site in Danger. Last June, the U.N. gave the Australian government until this year to indicate that they were improving the health of the Reef. This new report, commissioned by the conservation group WWF-International, calls on supporters to “draw the line at the industrial destruction of the Great Barrier Reef.”

Conducted by independent consulting firm Dalberg Global Development Advisors, the “Great Barrier Reef Under Threat” report states that planned expansions of ports along the Australian coast, which would be used for coal and liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports as well as for other purposes, pose additional threats to the Great Barrier Reef.

No stranger to environmental danger, the Reef has already lost half its coral over the last three decades and is fighting off a myriad of threats including warming waters, ocean acidification, pollution, and development. A recent study found that a rise in ocean temperatures of just one to two degrees Celsius could accelerate coral death and make recovery from incurred damages even harder. Known as a “tipping point” in which recovery becomes unlikely, the study found a “very high likelihood” of coral cover plummeting below 10 percent if temperatures increased just a couple degrees, with corals replaced by sponges and algae.

Even Australia’s government, which under conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s leadership has rolled back climate and clean energy goals and hindered global climate talks, sees the significance in keeping the GBR off the “in danger” list. In January, the government said it would ban the dumping of dredge spoil in the marine park. The WWF report found that the ban wouldn’t fix the problem because the 138,000-square mile marine park, which is slightly smaller than the World Heritage Site, doesn’t include many of the Reef’s islands or ports where the dumping is occurring.

For now the Australian and Queensland governments, the Australian state bordering the Reef, have put coastal port development plans on hold, including the major Abbot Point coal terminal expansion. They are considering a plan to dump dredge material from the Abbot Point expansion into a land reclamation zone that includes some wetlands — another idea unpopular with environmentalists. The expansion is planned to accommodate major investments in coal mining in Queensland’s interior Galilee Basin, a vast geological basin covering about 97,000 square miles with 27,750 million tons of coal already identified. According to the Green Institute, if mining goes ahead in the Basin, the destruction of its carbon stocks will account for more than 5 percent of the world’s carbon budget.

The WWF report found that the planned port expansions could cause up to 51 million cubic meters of seabed to be dredged from the World Heritage Site, the equivalent of 49 times the volume of New York City’s Empire State Building. According to the report, recent evidence has shown that dredging can more than double the level of coral disease in nearby reefs and that dredge spoil can create plumes of fine sediment that can drift up to 50 miles from the dumping site and interfere with the coral’s ability to survive by reducing the potential for photosynthesis.

The situation for the GBR is looking so dire that scientists are now considering a form of “assisted evolution” via genetic modification in order to increase resilience to higher temperatures. As the Guardian reports, scientists at the Australian Institute of Marine Science and the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology are crossing GBR coral with corals from the colder areas of the southern reef in an effort to speed up the adaptation process for the new, warmer environment.