$500 million for the Great Barrier Reef is welcome, but we need a sea change in tactics too



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The new funding is focused on measures that are already in the foreground.
Robert Linsdell/Flickr, CC BY

Jon Brodie, James Cook University

The federal government’s announcement of more than A$500 million in funding for the Great Barrier Reef is good news. It appears to show a significant commitment to the reef’s preservation – something that has been lacking in recent years.

The new A$444 million package, which comes in the wake of the A$60 million previously announced in January, includes:

  • A$201 million to improve water quality by cutting fertiliser use and adopting new technologies and practices

  • A$100 million for research on coral resilience and adaptation

  • A$58 million to continue fighting crown-of-thorns starfish

  • A$45 million for community engagement, particularly among Traditional Owners

  • A$40 million to enhance monitoring and management on the GBR.

A spokesperson for federal environment minister Josh Frydenberg said the funding would be available immediately to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, and that there was no predetermined time frame for the spending.

But one concern with the package is that it seems to give greatest weight to the strategies that are already being tried – and which have so far fallen a long way short of success.

Water quality

The government has not yet announced the timelines for rollout of the program. But if we assume that the A$201 million is funding for the next two years, this matches the current rate of water quality management funding – A$100 million a year, which has been in place since 2008.

Yet it is already clear that this existing funding is not reducing pollution loads on the GBR by the required extent. The federal and Queensland governments’ own annual report cards for 2015 and 2016 reveal limited success in improving water quality. It is also known from joint Australian and Queensland government analyses that the required funding to meet water quality targets is of the order of A$1 billion per year over the next 10 years.

In the region’s main industries, such as sugarcane cultivation and beef grazing, most land is still managed using methods that are well below best practice for water quality, such as fertiliser rates of application in sugarcane cultivation. According to the 2017 Scientific Consensus Statement on the GBR’s water quality, very limited progress has been made so far.

Progress towards targets and assigned scores in the 2015 Great Barrier Reef Report Card.
2017 Scientific Consensus Statement, Author provided

The respective load reduction targets set for 2018 and 2025 are highly unlikely to be met at current funding levels. For example, shown below are the current projections for levels of dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN).

Progress on reducing total GBR wide dissolved inorganic nitrogen loads and trajectories towards targets.
CREDIT, Author provided

This likely failure to meet any of the targets was noted by UNESCO in 2015 and again in 2017 as a major concern, amid deliberations on whether to put the GBR on the World Heritage in Danger list. The UNESCO report criticised Australia’s lack of progress towards achieving its 2050 water quality targets and failure to pass land clearing legislation.

As the 2017 Scientific Consensus Statement also pointed out, improvements to land management oversight are “urgently needed”. Continued government spending on the same programs, at the same levels, and with no federal legislation to mandate improvements, is unlikely to bring water pollution to acceptable levels or offer significant protection to the GBR.

In contrast to the federal government, the Queensland government is taking what are likely to be more effective measures to manage water quality. These include regulations such as the revised Vegetation Management Act, which is likely to be passed by the parliament in the next few weeks; and the updated Reef Protection Act, currently out for review. Queensland is also directing funds towards pollution hotspots under the Major Integrated Projects framework.




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Crown-of-thorns starfish

The government’s new package has pledged A$58 million for further culling of this coral-eating animal. Yet the current culling program has faced serious criticism over its effectiveness.

Udo Engelhardt, director of consultancy Reefcare International, and a pioneer in the control of crown-of-thorns starfish, has claimed that his analysis of the culling carried out in 2013-15 in reef areas off Cairns and to the south of Cairns, reveals a “widespread and consistent failure” to protect coral cover.

Nor does there seem to have been a major independent review of the program since these findings came to light. Without one, it seems a shaky bet to assume that we will expect any more success simply by continuing to fund it.

Overcoming crown-of-thorns starfish might take some more creative thinking.
Paul Asman/Jill Lenoble/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Reef restoration

Similar question marks hover over the A$100 million being provided to harness the best science to help restore and protect the reef, and to study the most resilient corals. Like other aspects of the package, the government has not yet promised a timeline on which to roll out the funds.

While reef restoration may be significant for the long-term (decades to centuries) status of the GBR, it is hard to believe that these studies will help within the coming few decades. And even long-term success will hinge either on our ability to stabilise the climate, or on science’s ability to keep pace with the rate of future change.

In the meantime, reef restoration seems at best to be a band-aid that could preserve select tourism sites, but is inconceivable on the scale of the entire GBR.




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Herein lies the most significant criticism of the new funding package. It avoids any mention of reducing Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, or of working closely with the international community to help deliver significant global reductions. Yet climate change is routinely described as the biggest threat to the reef.

The ConversationThe new announcement dodges that issue, while providing a moderate amount of funding for the continuation of largely unsuccessful programs. Given that the new funding is to be managed by the Great Barrier Reef Foundation – which is a charity rather than a statutory management body – we can only hope that the foundation finds new and innovative ways to improve greatly on the current efforts.

Jon Brodie, Professorial Fellow, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Australia’s reptiles may be spreading rat poison through the food chain



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Gould’s goanna is commonly eaten in Indigenous communities, but can contain high levels of rat poison.
Robert A. Davis, Author provided

Michael Lohr, Edith Cowan University and Robert Davis, Edith Cowan University

Introduced rats and mice have probably troubled most of us at some time in our lives. These pesky invasive rodents are found around the world. We usually target them with toxic baits to stop them spreading disease and causing environmental or commercial damage.

In some instances rat baits are useful. They can protect crops, reduce the spread of disease, keep the contents of your pantry from disappearing, or even protect endangered wildlife on islands where rats have invaded.

These baits are freely available to homeowners and are used liberally by pest controllers. However, they have potentially deadly consequences for native predatory animals that eat poisoned rats and mice.

Our new research shows that this secondary poisoning may be worsened in Australia by reptiles, which are extremely effective at spreading these poisons up the food chain – a process that may even have consequences for human health.




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While little is known about how well reptiles tolerate rodent baits, several studies have suggested that at least some reptiles are extremely resistant. In a toxicity study using one lizard species, all of the test subjects survived an incredibly high dose of the strongest poison on the market – over 4,000 times the poison per body weight needed to kill most rats.

This is probably good news for the lizards, but eating poison-supercharged reptiles may be a serious concern for their predators – and for us.

Humans eat lizards too

During a rat eradication program in the Montebello Islands, one goanna species was seen eating poisoned rats – without apparent ill effect – to the point that the green dye used in the bait was visible in their droppings. Unfortunately, this species of goanna is an important traditional food in Indigenous communities throughout Australia. To make matters worse, these poisons usually build up in commonly eaten parts of the goannas, like fat and liver tissue.

The risks associated with sublethal human exposure to rodent baits are not well known. However, recent studies in some wildlife species show that even mild chronic exposure to the longer-lasting poisons can lead to dangerous changes in the immune system.

With so many unknowns in a potentially dangerous situation, more research is urgently needed. We need to know how often and how severely the reptiles that humans eat are exposed to poison. Otherwise, some Indigenous people may have to choose between losing traditional hunting practices and risking exposure to rat poison.

Poison in the food web

In our research, we reviewed all published examples of wildlife deaths from exposure to rat bait. We found that rat poison has killed members of at least 32 native wildlife species in Australia. There are probably many more; only a few studies have looked at this problem in Australia, compared with other parts of the world.

We found that a small species of owl called the Southern Boobook is exposed to rat poison frequently, and sometimes lethally, in developed areas of Western Australia. Scavengers and prolific predators of rodents are likely to be even worse off – and these predators include a variety of threatened or endangered species such as Masked Owls, Tasmanian Devils and various species of quolls.

Most deaths will occur far from the original bait, as the poison travels through other species in the food web to reach its final destination. Without a better understanding of how baits affect Australian predators, we are unlikely to appreciate the scale of this invisible threat.




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At present, powerful rat poisons are available at most supermarkets and hardware stores. The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority is now reviewing how these are regulated because of concerns about human health and impacts on wildlife populations.

Other countries like the United States and Canada have already restricted the stronger poisons to licensed pest controllers. They have banned outdoor use and require lockable bait boxes to keep children and pets away from baits.

The ConversationThese steps might not be enough to overcome Australia’s unique risks, but allowing the current situation to continue is guaranteed to result in more poisonings of wildlife – and possibly unseen and unstudied effects on humans too.

Michael Lohr, PhD Student – Wildlife Ecology, Edith Cowan University and Robert Davis, Senior Lecturer in Vertebrate Biology, Edith Cowan University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.