Australia to Dump Dredged Sand in Great Barrier Reef Waters, Adding to Site's Mounting Woes

Dredging could jeopardize reef's World Heritage status, greens say.

A diver enjoys the underwater scenery of the Great Barrier Reef.

This week's decision to dump dredged sand and silt in Great Barrier Reef waters has prompted warnings that the troubled ecological treasure is one step closer to a spot on World Heritage's "list of shame."

"We're going backwards on the reef—that's the sad truth," says WWF-Australia Reef Campaign Director Richard Leck.

Last year the World Heritage Committee (WHC) of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) warned that without urgent management improvements, the Great Barrier Reef could land on its List of World Heritage in Danger by June 2014—a potential embarrassment and economic hit for Australia. The reef is important to the nation's economy in part because it is an important tourist destination.

This week WWF-Australia and the Australian Marine Conservation Society issued a government progress report and scorecard, blasting the recent decision to allow dredging and claiming that authorities have failed to complete or even make much progress on any of the WHC's detailed recommendations.

"What we get from the Australian and Queensland governments is lots of talk but very little action," Leck says. "The reality on the ground is that major destructive industrial projects that involve outdated practices like dumping dredge spoil [debris] in reef waters continue to be approved."

He notes that dredging can kick up sediment that can potentially drift and bury coral, choking them.

The environmentalists also faulted authorities for failing to tackle pollution and for shifting environmental approval authority from the federal to the Queensland state government. The conservationists allege that the latter is weakening state statutes "in ways that actively impede protection of the reef."

Port Protection

A statement from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority said the agency and federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt green-lighted the seafloor dredging plan to expand a coal port at Abbot Point. The officials also authorized the dumping of up to 100 million cubic feet (3 million cubic meters) of dredged material—known as "spoil"—in reef waters.

That dumping is required to follow what the agencies call "dozens of strict environmental conditions," such as testing sediments for contaminants, monitoring water quality, and offsetting impacts to commercial fishers.

The approval is also part of the marine park authority's plan to limit port development along the Great Barrier Reef coast to existing facilities, said authority chair Russell Reichelt in the statement.

"As a deepwater port that has been in operation for nearly 30 years, Abbot Point is better placed than other ports along the Great Barrier Reef coastline to undertake expansion as the capital and maintenance dredging required will be significantly less than what would be required in other areas," said Reichelt.

The approved disposal site doesn't hold coral or seagrass beds, the officials stressed. It has a seafloor of sand, silt, and clay about 15.5 miles (25 kilometers) offshore from the port, they said.

Reef in Peril?

The Great Barrier Reef is a collection of more than 2,800 separate reef sections, stretching for some 1,250 miles (2,000 kilometers) off northeast Australia's Queensland coast and housing a staggering diversity of marine life. But environmentalists and UN observers say the region has faced challenges in recent years. (Related: "Great Barrier Reef: World Heritage in Danger?")

A 2012 government-funded Australian Institute of Marine Science report published in the journal PNAS concluded that the reef had lost half of its coral cover over the past 27 years. That period roughly coincides with its listing as a World Heritage Site.

Localized threats to the reef include runoff pollution and a bloom of crown-of-thorns starfish that is choking out other species, WWF's Leck says. Added to those problems are ongoing pressures from dredging and increased shipping, he adds.

"The World Heritage Committee will take a dim view of this [dredging] decision, which is in direct contravention of one of its recommendations," Leck says. He suggests that the WHC may decide to list the reef as "World Heritage in Danger" at the group's June meeting in Doha, Qatar. (Related: "5 New World Heritage Sites.")