Report finds reef-harming farm pollution “largely ungoverned”

AN independent report commissioned by the Federal Government has highlighted that one of the key causes of the decline of the Great Barrier Reef – agricultural pollution – is “largely ungoverned”.

WWF-Australia spokesperson Sean Hoobin said: “While voluntary industry schemes and government incentives are supporting willing farmers to reduce pollution, these programs rarely reach the producers with the worst pollution practices.

“Industry, government and the wider community need to draw a line in the sand on what is acceptable agricultural practice and regulate minimum standards,” he said.

The report stated: “It is widely acknowledged that agricultural land use in catchments that drain into the Great Barrier Reef is largely ungoverned by the suite of legislative and regulatory arrangements in place.”

“The Queensland Government has regulations to control agricultural pollution, but there is little evidence they are enforcing them to cut pollution, preferring to concentrate solely on voluntary best practice management programs (BMP),” Mr Hoobin said.

But the independent review said: “There is a tendency for BMP programs to ‘work with the willing’, attracting those who are already interested in change and improving their practices, with un-interested … growers remaining uninvolved.

“Without an urgent reason for action, one measure on its own is unlikely to achieve the level of change required…regulations for non-participants coupled with incentives, best management practice, and industry leadership will be more effective.

Mr Hoobin said: “We need to use all the tools in the tool box. Voluntary programs and government incentives are essential and they’re helping many farmers to reduce pollution.

“But as the government’s own report points out this approach does not work with all growers. Regulated minimum standards need to be enforced for those producers who continue to use high polluting practices,” he said.

Mr Hoobin also wanted to dispel any notion that agricultural pollution was under control. While the 2013 Reef Report Card estimated that nutrient pollution had been reduced by 10% this was well short of the governments’ own target of 50% cuts by 2013 (now pushed back to 2018 and highly unlikely to be achieved by then).

In any event, a scientific literature review prepared for WWF-Australia found the 50% target was too low. To achieve the aim that water from catchments has no detrimental impact on the Reef, fertiliser pollution needed to be reduced by 70 to 80% in the Wet Tropics and Burdekin regions.

Fertiliser run-off from farms is linked to an increase in outbreaks of coral-eating Crown of Thorns Starfish (COTS) because the nutrients increase plankton – the food of baby COTS. Fertiliser nutrients also stress coral making it more susceptible to bleaching during heat waves.

Mr Hoobin said Reef pollution could worsen with both the Queensland and Australian Governments unveiling plans to expand agricultural industries in reef catchment areas, and proposals to dump dredge spoil in Reef waters still on the table.

“We must boost productivity on existing farms before developing new areas with the associated water extraction, tree clearing and polluted run-off. Any new agri-businesses must be properly planned and managed – the price of increased agricultural development should not be the destruction of the Reef,” Mr Hoobin said.

Source: WWF-Australia
Image Source: © WWF-Canon / James Morgan

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Ryan Fritz

Ryan Fritz started The Advocate in 2014 to provide not-for-profits and charities with another media platform to tell their worthwhile hard news stories and opinion pieces effortlessly. In 2020, Ryan formed a team of volunteer journalists to help spread even more high-quality stories from the third sector. He also has over 10 years of experience as a media and communications professional for not-for-profits and charities.

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