A monsoon Christmas
Life in oceans, rivers and seas
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Life in oceans, rivers and seas
Over the last two days the Daintree has received around 250mm of rain. The low to the west of us and over the Gulf of Carpentaria may turn into a cyclone in the next couple of days and this will hopefully mean rain for those parts of north western Queensland so long in drought.
We have known the Daintree for what seems a very long time. Here, the average annual rainfall is something over two metres, rainfall is concentrated in the wet, but it rains on and off for about 125 days a year. Patterns of rain have been disrupted across the whole region by global warming. Among the many dangers for the very ancient Daintree is the weather.
Species are still being discovered in the Cape York region of Queensland. The wet tropical forests in this part of the world are an ancient and a diverse refuge for numerous plant and animal species stretching back to Gondwana.
The Queensland Government describes:
“Sheltering in tiny refuges during the drier ice ages were several species of plants, including a primitive She-oak Gymnostoma australianum. This pine-like tree is the only remaining species in the Gymnostoma group of plants in Australia and is now restricted to very isolated pockets north of the Daintree River. The genus was once widespread throughout Gondwana”.
Much of the rainforest of the wet tropics in North Queensland has been felled over a period of a hundred years or so, particularly on the coastal plain and on the Atherton Tableland.
In the 1980s the Daintree came under very significant pressure, particularly so from the Queensland Government, with plans for real estate subdivisions (which still exist), logging, mining, damming of rivers, more sugar cane plantations and tourist facilities. And not only on the cleared and accessible edge of the forest but deep into its hidden places. Logging roads were bulldozed through the forest on the Mt Windsor Tablelands.
Despite dangers to the Great Barrier Reef from soil erosion, a coastal road was bulldozed through the rainforest from Cape Tribulation (where the 1950s – 1960s built road terminated) to Bloomfield, creating a link to Cooktown. The road was completed in 1984, its purpose to open up the region and to cement the destruction of the remaining rainforest. The original section of the road was accompanied by large scale logging activities and destruction of the precious forest.
Pressure mounted on the Queensland Government from Australia and around the world and in 1987 Queensland was forced to stop logging activities in the wet tropical region.
In December 1988 the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
Today, not all of the lowland forest is protected by the heritage listing and subdivisions remain vulnerable to further clearing. Courtesy of the 1980s and the Queensland Government in 2015 there were around 180 subdivisions in the lowland rainforest and these remain a major threat to the region’s biodiversity.
We know from long and hard experience that not much changes in Australia and particularly so in Queensland, which has one of the highest land clearing rates of any country or region on earth. In 2015 large-scale land clearing for cattle production began in the region to the north of the Daintree.
Flying over the Great Barrier Reef and along the coast in the wet season it is not difficult to see the large plumes of red soil filling the rivers and stretching far into the Great Barrier Reef National Park, these grotesque stains on the Planet Earth, a result of land clearing on river catchments and poor land management.
The rare and endangered species from the Daintree and surrounding forests include Bennett's Tree-kangaroo, the Daintree River Ringtail Possum, Lumholtz's Tree-kangaroo, the Musky Rat-kangaroo, the Spotted- tailed Quoll and of course the increasingly endangered, and among a large number of bird species, the Southern Cassowary.
From the Queensland Government’s grotesquely named Department of National Parks, Sport and Racing website at the time:
“Deep in the lowland rainforest near Cape Tribulation is the unique Idiospermum australiense. An isolated stand of this ancient tree was re-discovered in 1972 and has since been found in only a few other areas in the Wet Tropics Heritage Area. It is a true relict and the only member of the Idiospermaceae family (the word Idiospermumisa reference to its strange fruit, which has four or even five cotyledons—the primary leaves of seedlings—where most plants have only one or two)”.
At the time, strangely, as no doubt with other species, Idiospermum australiense, appears to be missing from the Queensland list of endangered species as is the very rare Mossman Gorge Tree-snail and so on.
Further to the south and this time in Cairns, our first visit to the City in 1975 was a joy because in the area now called the Esplanade there were mangroves, the inner city bay was an internationally renowned location for waterbirds and a drawcard for international visitors and the muddy bay was full of both local and long distance migrant bird species.
As part of ‘improvements’ the mangroves were destroyed. Just prior to Christmas we visit the site again. This time there are 12 Pelicans and half a dozen seagulls sitting on what looks to be a man made and small sandy beach, and that was it – a staggering difference from 40 years ago.
Today if the birds do come to the bay they have to compete with jet skis, helicopters and dogs and so on.
From a Birdlife North Queensland brochure:
“Cairns Regional Council has recognised the importance of the shorebirds in signage and posters. Hopefully, we can ensure this unique and valuable foreshore environment is preserved for future generations of birds and people”.
Flying-foxes have played an important part in out lives, it was many years ago that Andrea and I cycled across Tongatapu to visit our first flying-fox colony.
In 2015, despite being listed by Australia's Commonwealth Government as vulnerable because of significant habitat destruction, the species is certainly in significant decline, both the Queensland Government's and Cairns Regional Government's war on flying-foxes continues and is not the behaviour we should expect from any government in the 21st century. It is certainly ignorant as well as being extremely cruel.
In attempts to denigrate the species at that time, one of the state's politicians has been claiming a link between Flying-foxes in Australia and possible outbreaks of the Ebola virus.
A growing list of Queensland's native species are now being described as noxious pests. These attitudes are very hard to understand and reflect poorly on the state. The Spectacled Flying-fox was not listed as vulnerable in the Queensland species listings at the time, which of course it should have been. The situation for the Spectacled Flying-fox in 2023 is dire.
I can recall a trip to Queensland’s Gold Coast in around 1995. Thinking I might take a tour from the hotel where the conference we were running was being held, to go and look at Springbrook National Park. The driver and ‘tour guide’ announced with glee as we set off, that the Gold Coast had removed its Mango swamps.
So what is the situation with the mangroves and salt marshes of Northern Queensland in 2015? Here are a few pointers. Removal of mangroves has occurred in a number of places including the Gladstone and Boyne region around 1,500 hectares of mangroves and 1,350 hectares of salt marsh; Fitzroy Estuary around 850 hectares; in the Mackay region around 10 per cent of mangroves and more than 40 per cent of salt marshes have been cleared and in the Cairns region 700 hectares of mangroves and salt marshes at Trinity Inlet and a further 10 hectares at Mossman. Mangroves were also cleared for failed developments at Cardwell.
Remember this clearing is occurring on the coastal lands that are directly inside the Great Barrier Reef system. Mangroves are immensely important habitats and breeding grounds for a vast array of marine life and a major barrier to erosion activities, although mangroves are now at greater risk from climate change and the increased frequency of cyclones.
The most endangered bird species within the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area is the Dawson Yellow Chat. The population of the entire subspecies is tiny and is only found in salt marsh and swampy grassland on Curtis Island (Mackay / Capricorn Management Area), and a few sites on the adjacent mainland near Gladstone.
North Queensland is plagued with introduced species such as the Cane toad, which have had an immense impact on the tropical ecosystems and native species.
By 2015, very bad things were happening to Queensland’s ecosystems, badly stressed by climate change and other destructive factors. That was precisely what was happening on the Great Barrier Reef.
The coral eating Crown-of-thorns starfish Acanthaster planci, a native species in the Indo-Pacific, which in properly functioning ecosystems plays a role on reefs by helping to maintain the diversity of coral species.
What actually happens is that at times of stress, the populations of Crown-of-thorns starfish across the Great Barrier Reef system increases and further damages the already vulnerable reef.
Rising temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, a significant wet season flushing soils and fertilisers onto the reef and large scale dredging activities and an increase in industrial shipping means the reef is indeed under a very great level of stress. All conditions that allow the Crown-of-thorns starfish to flourish.
Turtles are in big trouble too.
Despite the rhetoric from both the Queensland and Australian Commonwealth Governments surrounding the UNESCO World Heritage Committee's threat to list the Great Barrier Reef as in danger, if something is not done to ensure the ongoing health of the reef, an innovative programme to help disadvantaged young people, as well as training them to dive and help reduce the numbers of starfish, is running out of funding.
Australia’s national broadcaster, the ABC, reports that:
“The program receives support from the Queensland Government and Ports North, with the majority of funding for the control program coming from the Federal Government. But Mr Moon said funding constraints meant it only had the capacity to remove Crown-of-thorns starfish from the main tourist sites off Cairns and Port Douglas in far north Queensland".
On 23 December 2015 and shortly after returning from the COP21 climate talks in Paris, Australia’s Environment Minister approved plans for a giant coal mine, Australia’s largest mining project to the north-west of Clermont, and to the south of where we are currently working. The new coal mine complex will consist of six-open cut mines and as many as five underground coal mines covering an extensive area and requires further land clearing, the surface disturbance area of the mine is around 28,000 hectares, the total area of mine activity at the site will be around 45,000 hectares (450 square kilometres) in the already substantially cleared Brigalow woodlands.
The plan at the time was that at peak production the mines will produce around 60 million tonnes of coal each year and 3.5 billion tonnes in its proposed lifetime. The annual carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of the coal produced at peak will be around double the carbon dioxide emissions of Austria and triple those of Sweden. All the statistics in relation to the new mine are startling, including the use of water.
The series of coalmines require major infrastructure developments including a 160 kilometre extension to the Goonyella rail network connecting to the coal terminals at the Port of Hay Point (Dudgeon Point expansion) and the Port of Abbot Point. The coal will be transported from the mines some 500 kilometres to the coal ports. Extensions to the Port of Abbot Point will require dredging and (after long arguments) dumping on land some 1.1 million cubic metres of dredging spoil from waters surrounding the port.
When the mines are at peak projections estimates are that shipping transits through the Great Barrier Reef may increase six-fold from the current level, with around 8,400 in and out transits to Abbot Point per annum alone, much of this traffic deep draught coal ships.
An old trick from Australian politicians, one we know so well from the Murujuga and the commercial trade in wildlife, is to make announcements that they know are not really in the public interest just prior to Christmas day when everyone is busy, in the hope their actions go unnoticed.
Land clearing continues at pace, between 2018 and 2019, 680,000 hectares (6,800 square kilometers) of Queensland’s native forest and bushland were bulldozed, mainly for beef production.
Our message is a very simple one, Queensland is worth looking after for future generations. We understand economics very well and there are plenty of ways to make money without destroying the place you live in.
In Queensland, tens of thousands of people make their living from the health of the Great Barrier Reef. What will they do when the reef has been destroyed (and despite endless denials that is precisely where it is heading)?
None of the Australian politicians, past or present, facilitating the behaviours I describe here, will ever be held accountable for their actions.
It is time that they were.