Australia Weighs Barrier Reef Health Against Development Plans

Australia Weighs Barrier Reef Health Against Development Plans
A lady and her daughter are seen as they walk to the water edge on a coral beach on Lady Elliot Island, Australia. The island of approximately 40 hectares lies 46 nautical miles north-east of the Queensland town of Bundaberg and is the southern-most coral cay of the Great Barrier Reef. Photographer: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

Australia’s government said it’s balancing economic needs with conservation at the Great Barrier Reef after the United Nations warned the site may be endangered within a year without better protection.

Home to more than 1,500 species of fish, the reef is under threat from coastal development, ports and natural gas projects, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization said in a June 1 report. Unesco may consider in February adding the reef to those World Heritage sites in danger unless there’s “substantial progress,” the organization said.

“We want to make sure we get that environmental best practice,” Infrastructure Minister Anthony Albanese said yesterday on Sky News in Australia. “We can do that and still make sure that we get good economic outcomes.”

The 3,000-kilometer (1,875-mile) marine park flanks the coast of Queensland state, the world’s biggest source of steelmaking coal and the exit route to Asia from ports at Abbot Point and Gladstone. Unesco urged blocking of new port developments and related infrastructure that would affect the Great Barrier Reef, saying the scale of development poses “serious concerns” about the site’s long-term conservation.

Crimping development would risk weakening an industry that helped Australia avoid recession in the global financial crisis. In the nation’s biggest commodities boom since the 1850s Gold Rush, India and China bought coal and iron ore to power their growing economies.

The federal and Queensland governments are in the early stages of a strategic assessment of the reef, Environment Minister Tony Burke said in a statement. He said the government is “acutely aware” of challenges facing the site.

‘Wake-up Call’

The government should bar any new projects until it has assessed the impact of the mining boom and the influence of coastal developments on the reef, the Australian Conservation Foundation said.

“This report should be a wake-up call for the federal government,” the foundation’s chief executive officer, Don Henry, said in a statement. “To have a potential ‘in danger’ listing hanging over the reef is a national disgrace.”

Such a label would threaten A$5.1 billion ($4.9 billion) in tourism revenue, according to Larissa Waters, a senator with the Australian Greens party.

“Our reef should not be treated like a coal and gas highway,” Waters said in a statement.

Unesco listed the reef, the world’s largest collection of corals and the only living thing on earth visible from space, as a World Heritage Site in 1981. It said in its report that certain management practices have been “high quality” and have set an example to other marine parks.

‘Serious Concern’

Still, the Paris-based organization expressed “serious concern” over Curtis Island, where Arrow Energy Ltd., owned by Royal Dutch Shell Plc and PetroChina Co., plans a liquefied natural gas development. There are “unaddressed concerns” over the management of the port and LNG facilities at Gladstone Harbor, from where miners including London-based Rio Tinto Group ship coal, Unesco said.

In the past decade, about 70 percent of proposed projects on the Queensland coast that might impact the reef have won approval, Unesco said.

“The rapid increase of coastal developments, including ports infrastructure, is of significant concern,” Unesco said. “Decisive action is required.”

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