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Mining gets behind reef monitoring tool

Tuesday 30 June 2015 | Published in Regional


BRISBANE – The Queensland government will use new real-time water quality monitoring to take action against industrial and agricultural polluters of the Great Barrier Reef, the state environment minister said.

Steven Miles also defended the role of the state’s largest coalminer, BHP Billiton Mitsubishi Alliance (BMA), as a cornerstone investor in the “eReef” tool – despite carbon-driven climate change being the reef’s greatest long-term threat.

The online tracking, which models the effect of sediment and chemicals in reef waters via satellite, will be showcased to world heritage committee members in Germany next week before Unesco’s final ruling on whether to list the reef as “in danger”.

Asked whether BMA’s involvement in the project was “ironic”, Miles said the miner’s contribution showed their “commitment to managing whatever impacts their business might be having on the reef”.

“I’ve said repeatedly that the big long-term threat to the reef is ocean warming and acidification, both caused by carbon pollution,” he said.

“Much of what we’re doing here is about resilience, making sure the reef is in the best possible shape to deal with those coming threats.

“I think what you’re seeing in terms of BHP’s involvement is their intention to be a long-term positive contributor to Queensland and to support our efforts to protect the reef and I certainly welcome that.”

Miles said the chance to address climate change would be at the UN conference in Paris in November and called on the federal government to implement “targets that will see Australia do what it needs to do to limit global warming to 2°C”.

Scientists hope the tracking tool will help transform stewardship of the reef, with the public able to measure progress in checking flows of sediments, nutrients and pesticides into reef waters via local rivers.

Miles said eReef would also be a useful tool for the government in forcing local industry to stop or limit pollution.

“What this will do is strengthen our case in going to particular industries and sectors and saying, look it’s no longer a suspicion that what you’re doing is having an impact, we know it is and here we can show you,” he said.

It also partly addressed recent concerns flagged by the state auditor general about the need to “invest more in the science that tells us what impact we’re having”.

“So we can say, you don’t need to take our word for it, you can jump on eReef and can compare two similar storms, compare the sediment impact to see whether it’s making a difference,” Miles said.

“It’s not all the solution by any measure and the bigger and harder thing we need to do is to have more monitoring, so we’re measuring more and modeling less.”

Miles also believed eReef would make a “powerful” impact on Unesco delegates before the final ruling on the reef.

“It’ll certainly be one of the tools we’ll have with us to show the member countries just the scale and level of our investment in monitoring the reef and monitoring our impact over time,” he said.

“One of the things that’s hard to explain to people around the world is just how big and complex this system is.

“They’re much more used to dealing with world heritage sites that are much, much smaller.

“So being able to show the scale and how we’re gradually getting our data down to more granular levels, we can much more accurately see where the changes we’re making are working.”

Scientists hope satellite advancements will soon enable viewers to go from square kilometres to square metres at high resolution. Their aim is to achieve realtime monitoring, as opposed to daily monitoring, by 2017.

Crown of thorns starfish outbreaks, and the health of coral and seagrasses will also be monitored.

Dr Andy Steven, the CSIRO research director on coastal development and management, said eReef gave “an unprecedented ability to provide current conditions and even forecast conditions so that we can start to respond and anticipate”.

BMA joined the federal government, CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology and the Science and Industry Endowment Fund in putting $11 million into the foundation running the project after an initial $3 million investment from the Queensland government.