August 22, 2018
The Great Barrier Reef ‘turf war’
News Source: ABC News
Author(s): Amy Donaldson; Peter Greste
Rob McArthur’s family has lived on a cattle farm south of Mackay in Queensland, just inland from the coast, since 1925. He and his wife Ainsley feel like part of the landscape.
Mustering cattle on their property, Mystery Park, is a daily ritual for them and their six children.
“We’re raising the fifth generation, the six young budding apprentice graziers out there in the paddock,” Ms McArthur said.
“There’s nothing better than having the dirt under your fingernails, so to speak. It’s part of who we are.”
That dirt is at the centre of a fierce debate about the Great Barrier Reef.
One hundred and fifty years of agriculture along the Queensland coast has caused excess materials to run into the rivers, and towards the 35 catchments that feed directly into the Great Barrier Reef.
All rivers push sediment and nutrients out to the reef naturally, but according to government modelling, 49 per cent of the sediment that makes its way to the reef is from grazing.
It’s fine sediment and makes the water cloudy, restricting the amount of light available to corals.
A creek on the McArthurs’ property is about 7km from the ocean.
Ms McArthur says soil is their best asset, and it’s not in their interest for it to end up in the reef.
“It’s all about soil here,” she said. “It’s about growing good grass to raise cattle. And the better the soil, the better the grass.”
Maintaining grass cover is paramount in their land management, Mr McArthur said.
“By doing that, we’re not just protecting ourselves, we’re actually protecting something that the greater population is certainly concerned about.”
Many Queensland graziers are feeling frustrated by amendments to the state′s Vegetation Management Act which were passed in May.
While graziers are still allowed a degree of control over their land in order to manage weeds, feed stock and establish infrastructure, tight restrictions on tree clearing have been added.
Sheriden Morris from the Reef and Rainforest Research Centre is an agronomist with 30 years’ experience dealing with industry.
She believes the fact the grazing industry is almost entirely against the new laws is a sign the Government went about it the wrong way.
“Experience has shown us over the last 30 years that without general agreement by industries involved, most of our measures fail to reach the intended target,” she said.
“Graziers have a trust deficit.
“It is a difficult balancing act for governments when introducing regulations to achieve the need to manage land clearing while still enabling agricultural industry development sustainably.”
The McArthurs believe the laws are overreach, and that having more trees doesn’t necessarily mean having less run-off.
“Groundcover, which is predominantly grass cover, is certainly our biggest and best weapon for maintaining soil,” Mr McArthur said.
They say they have no intention of cutting down the big old trees that have been there for centuries.
But they do need the autonomy to be able to thin the trees out as they regrow.
“You can have a good stand of trees with very little grass underneath, so when you get a downpour, there’s nothing there to stop the topsoil and the sediment from going out,” Mr McArthur said.
“If you’ve got grass there, the grass slows the water up and you’re reaping benefits by taking the moisture on, but also from maintaining your topsoil and sediment on your land.”
Mr McArthur believes graziers are taking the fall for a Government that is staring down tough water quality targets.
“We certainly want the reef to remain there for generations,” he said.
“But the bottom line is, we probably all want the same outcome, we want to protect the reef, we want to keep our environment as healthy and as clean as we can, we just don’t need to be backed into a corner and told what we can and we can’t do by someone who’s got no real idea of what is happening.”
"There’s almost always a turf warfare going on in the reef,” said Eddie Game, lead scientist in Australia for The Nature Conservancy, the world’s biggest conservation group.
“Corals need space and light to survive, and where you get a lot of sediment, it smothers the corals and stops some of the light getting to it.
“A lot of it comes from the result of land clearing, where we’ve removed trees, where we don’t have cover on the ground, where we allow erosion of stream banks or heavy rains that create gullies and continue to remove soil.”
The pressure on government to take action on run-off is coming from the ambitious water quality targets in the comprehensive Reef 2050 plan.
The high targets in large part persuaded UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee against listing the Great Barrier Reef as “in danger” when it met in July 2015.
Next year UNESCO will be given a “state of conservation” report and will reconsider its decision in 2020.
When it was devised in 2015, Reef 2050 called for a 50 per cent reduction in sediment run-off by 2025, and an 80 per cent reduction in nutrients.
Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, a world-leading reef expert, says even though climate change is the biggest threat to the reef, action is needed on sediments and nutrients because they determine the rate at which the reef will recover from big bleaching events.
“It’s a bit like a hospital patient, right?” he said.
“When someone’s in hospital with a terminal disease and you’re trying to turn that around, you want to take all those other pressures off them.
“This is just like the Great Barrier Reef. For it to survive the climate change that we are going to throw at it, we need it to be in as best shape as possible, the most resilient to change.”
Industry numbers say 72 per cent of cane farm land and 47 per cent of grazing land in the reef catchment area are under best management practice programs.
Without better results, the threat of government intervention looms.
“There may come a time where industry is reducing their impact as much as possible, but water quality still isn’t what is required, then stronger measures will need to be explored, such as buying up properties that just should never have been used for agriculture in the first place,” Ms Morris said.
“Some of these properties are poor yielding with soils that are super leaky for nutrients and should have remained as wetlands.”
The Great Barrier Reef Foundation has just been handed a $443 million grant, the largest proportion of which — $201 million — is required to be spent on improving water quality.
Like graziers, cane farmers also felt the government was pointing the finger at them over nutrients running off their farms and into the reef.
The Reef 2050 report says 78 per cent of man-made nutrients in the water come from fertiliser used on cane farms across the region. Those nutrients feed outbreaks of harmful algae and the crown of thorns starfish.
But a huge shift is underway in the cane industry, driven by Project 25, a joint initiative involving the farmers themselves.
“There was a massive trust deficit with cane farmers because the farmers did not believe the water quality modelling at the mouth of the rivers, and thought they were being unfairly blamed for the poor water quality entering the reef,” Ms Morris said.
“Now, with Project 25, they are being involved in the monitoring process.”
The project involves using sensors to monitor water quality in real time at multiple points in The Russell-Mulgrave Catchment. The farmers can see the results directly and have a better understanding of their direct relationship with water quality.
One of those farmers is cane grower, Paul Gregory.
“Modelling is theory and monitoring is practice. And when you can show somebody a practical demonstration of outcomes from actions, it’s a more powerful message than: ‘this is what the computers say’,” Mr Gregory says.
Mr Gregory has been farming on his property at Gordonvale, just outside Cairns, for more than 40 years. He’s a second generation cane grower and says he has been a “reef guardian” since he was a boy.
He loves the Great Barrier Reef and says you’d be hard pressed to find a farmer who didn’t.
“I love this part of the country,” he said.
“I love the fact that I’m a custodian here for a while and I’m trying to do the best I can with what was left to me by my father.
“I would say 100 per cent of cane farmers have an affinity with the Great Barrier Reef because they’re from here, and the Great Barrier Reef is part of the geography of the region which they so closely identify with.”
As a result, Mr Gregory has been forced to redesign his farm completely, planting his cane in wider rows, and using new technologies like GPS navigation to better target his fertiliser use.
“We’ve become much more efficient in our use of fertiliser now. We directly inject the fertiliser under the trash blanket into the soil where the plant can use it, and in the instance of this farm I’m down about 35 per cent of the fertiliser I used to use.”
He’s transitioning his whole property over to best management practice, but they’re big changes and Mr Gregory says they take time.
“You can’t snap your fingers and there will be a change overnight. It’s going to take a while for the farm to transition to best practice and even after that there may be a time before that gets reflected in the monitoring of the water samples in the creeks to reflect the improvement in water quality,” he said.
The cane industry took years to rebuild its relationship with government. Mr Gregory believes the shift occurred when cane farmers started being treated as part of the solution, rather than just the problem.
“I believe there’s a totally changed environment we’re working in and it comes from both sides,” he said.
“Growers are now changing practice and it’s voluntary, and there are programs in place from federal and state government that actually help them to do that. It wasn’t in place before.
“That relationship is intrinsic to the future of this industry. And intrinsic to the future of the Great Barrier Reef.”
But Mr Gregory fears it could go backwards if the water quality targets aren′t achieved.
“I’m really concerned that there will be a breakdown in the communication between industry and regulators to the point where everybody throws their hands in the air, walks away, the regulators step in and impose regulations on us that make us financially unviable, we lose an industry that’s an integral part of our history and our future,” he said.
“I guess my biggest fear is that we get regulated out of existence and the reef still dies,” Mr Gregory said.