Millions spent on Great Barrier Reef projects against expert advice | Environment

One $2.2m experiment involves giant fans to cool water down, despite government’s own advisers highlighting risks

5616 - Millions spent on Great Barrier Reef projects against expert advice | Environment






Funds are being allocated to protect the Great Barrier Reef even when expert advice finds no justification for the projects.
Photograph: Daniela Dirscherl/Getty Images/WaterFrame RM

Millions of dollars of commonwealth money is being handed to tourism-linked groups for Great Barrier Reef protection, despite official advice recommending against the projects, or repeatedly finding them to be failing.

The contracts include millions of dollars for tourism operators to cull out-of-control coral-eating crown of thorns starfish. Funds continue to be distributed, despite researchers employed to evaluate the program repeatedly finding it to have failed, and potentially having made the problem worse.

It also includes $2.2m spent on an unusual project involving giant fans installed on a small part of the reef to cool water down to prevent bleaching. Documents obtained by the Guardian reveal the government’s independent expert panel recommended against the project proceeding, finding the justification relied on claims that were “a major departure from reality” and that the fans could accidentally kill nearby coral.

Funds continued to be spent on these projects – counter to expert advice – despite an investigation by the federal auditor general in 2016, which found the environment department was not able to provide any evidence for how some projects “represented a proper use of public resource”.

‘A major departure from reality’

In December 2017, the federal minister for environment and energy, Josh Frydenberg, announced that $2.2m would be given to the Reef and Rainforest Research Centre to install giant fans on a small part of the Great Barrier Reef. The project involved mixing cooler deeper water with warmer shallow water, to reduce heat stress and avoid coral bleaching.

Since the project was part of the government’s Reef 2050 Plan, and funded through the associated Reef Trust, the proposal was sent to the Reef 2050 independent expert panel for review.

Documents obtained by the Guardian show that review explicitly recommended against the project going ahead. “The IEP does not endorse this proposal,” said a document dated 20 November 2017, which summarised the view of the panel.

The document said the the panel encouraged innovative approaches and also supported the concept of protecting specific reef sites as climate refuges. However, it noted that “all approaches should be based on sound science”.

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Among the biggest recipients of Reef Trust funds has been the crown-of-thorns starfish outbreak management program. Photograph: Kathrina Fabricius/AFP/Getty Images

The project was reviewed by reef scientist Ove Hoegh-Guldberg and sent to two external reviewers.

Hoegh-Guldberg described the external reviewers’ views, as well as his own, and concluded he was not supportive of the project.

He declined to speak to the Guardian about the documents, the release of which he said breached the panel’s required confidentiality.

The independent reviewers, as well as Hoegh-Guldberg, found the project’s modelling depended on there being a 3C temperature difference between the shallow and deep water. “Looking in the literature (and from my own measurements), this seems a major departure from reality,” Hoegh-Guldberg wrote.

The reviewers also noted that since the fans would be circulating water, they would end up pumping warm water on to deep reefs. They noted that could “increase risk of thermal stress, disease and bleaching” of deeper reefs.

The Guardian reported further criticisms of the project in April 2017, including that the deeper water could be more acidic and full of pollutants, which could do more harm than good for the shallow reefs.

After recommending against the project, the panel found that if it did proceed, it ought to be set up as a research project.

Frydenberg told the Guardian that, as a result, the project was approved only after it was converted into a research project three weeks later.

The recipient of the $2.2m for the project is the Reef and Rainforest Research Centre (RRRC), a business that conducts targeted research to help the development of tropical Queensland.

The managing director of the RRRC, Sheridan Morris, told the Guardian the nature of the experimental design had not yet been determined but would be set by a steering group.

“Due to the ease of installation and de-installation of the devices to be used, we consider this a low-risk, ‘no regrets’ project that enables a direct intervention for the health of targeted high-value tourism areas,” Morris said.

“In addition to the absolute need to decarbonise the economy, fully address climate change and other impacts, this a small trial to determine if local actions can provide some relief or resistance in recovery to key areas of the Great Barrier Reef at a local scale.”

‘Startling ignorance’

Among the biggest recipients of Reef Trust funds has been the crown-of-thorns starfish outbreak management program, established to mitigate the impacts of a major outbreak of the coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish across the Great Barrier Reef.

The program has been outsourced by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, again to the RRRC, in partnership with the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators (Ampto).

In January 2017, the government announced the RRRC and Ampto had been awarded a $5.6m contract to conduct the program. The announcement followed another $5.6m awarded to the RRRC in 2016, $7.7m in 2015 as well as almost $6m to Ampto in 2013 for the starfish program. A further $14.4m was injected in August 2017, which is yet to be awarded.

3091 - Millions spent on Great Barrier Reef projects against expert advice | Environment



A bleached section of the Great Barrier Reef. Photograph: BBC NHU

However, an investigation by the Australian National Audit Office concluded in November 2016 that the government was unable to provide any evidence that the starfish culling program, among some other Reef Trust programs, was a proper use of public funds.

Udo Engelhardt, a leading researcher and head of the research consultancy Reefcare International, was contracted by the RRRC to analyse the success of the program they ran.

His reports, submitted to the RRRC and Ampto in 2015 and 2016, demonstrated widespread and consistent failure of the program.

Engelhardt also said his reports revealed the RRRC and Ampto had “startling ignorance” of existing knowledge in the area.

Moreover, his reports site evidence the programs to cull crown-of-thorns starfish might be making the situation worse.

“It may, in fact, be contributing to the development of more chronic and persistent starfish outbreaks,” he said.

Engelhardt said the experience of a Japanese control program in the 1980s showed that even much bigger culling efforts had no positive impact on coral cover, and could contribute to more chronic outbreaks.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority said it had not received the reports, but following queries this week by the Guardian, was given the reports by the RRRC on Thursday.

Sheriden Morris from the RRRC acknowledged that the program was not effective in the first couple of years, but said changes had been made to ensure it worked.

Among the changes she identified was a fast surveillance boat that helped identify the most appropriate reefs to target for starfish culling.

David Westcott from the CSIRO leads a program investigating how to improve the starfish culling program, which is funded by the federal government, and administered by the RRRC. He said the culling program had probably had a positive impact on the reef but that it was difficult to prove. He said it had continued to operate on too broad an area, but that was the result of direction from the government, rather than the contractors.

Engelhardt said his reports from three years ago, which identified this problem, should have been given to the government, so the program could have been conducted in a more targeted manner.

“The program continues to repeat the errors of the past,” he said.

Morris said the documents were internal to the RRRC, and although they were not passed on in full to the government, they were used to inform arguments for program adaptations.

“You don’t want to give away all that you have in your pocket – we used them to support the argument for change in the program,” Morris told the Guardian.

A spokeswoman from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority said: “We welcome new information to help inform managing the Great Barrier Reef.”

She said improvements to the program since the reports were created included improved methods for targeting locations, and better culling efficiency and monitoring of the impact on coral cover.