Category: environment

The great broken promise of the Great Barrier Reef

Tourist cities are built on a promise. When you step off the plane into the soupy air of Cairns in Far North Queensland, you cross the tarmac into a long corridor leading to the exit lounge, filled wall-to-wall with images of World Heritage-listed tropical rainforest and, especially, of the state’s crowning glory: The Great Barrier Reef.

They are stills of the postcards and documentaries of our childhoods. A blooming underwater botanic garden, except that the corals are animals, living in hopelessly co-dependent relationships with each other. And everything living there depends on them too: the giant eels lurking in crevices; the anemone fish, now forever known in our imaginations as Nemo.

But what if the promise was broken?

In 2016 and 2017, the northern and central sections of the 2300km-long reef were devastated by coral bleaching caused by heat stress. Nearly a third (30 percent) of the coral died in the 2016 event alone. A confronting new report released by the Climate Council last Thursday claimed that by 2034, the reef could be hit by similar bleaching events every two years.

Around 75 percent of that mortality occurred in the waters from Port Douglas to Torres Strait. Owing to its remoteness, this was previously the most pristine section of the marine park, the least affected by other threats to its health: mainly soil run-off from agricultural communities further south. The additional nutrients in the water smother the inshore reefs and promotes infestations of predatory crown-of-thorns starfish.

During the heatwave, the corals simply cooked. It’s what leads the Climate Council’s acting CEO Martin Rice to describe the federal government’s recent awarding of $444 million to little-known NGO the Great Barrier Reef Foundation – with the immediate aims of improving water quality and culling starfish – as the equivalent of putting “a bandaid on a severed limb”.

“Unless you address the root cause of bleaching and the biggest threat to the reef itself, climate change, then these programs on water quality and so forth are going to have very little impact,” Rice says. “The future of coral reefs around the world depends on how quickly and deeply we can reduce our greenhouse gas emissions in the coming years.”

According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, more than half a billion people around the world depend on coral reefs for food, income (via fisheries and tourism) and coastal protection from cyclones and storm surges. Other estimates place the number at closer to a billion.

The NOAA has also warned that without urgent action, the earth’s coral reefs may be obliterated by 2050.

Until it warms in my wetsuit, the water is unexpectedly cold. I’m on the outer reef offshore from Port Douglas, on the edge of the worst-hit section of the marine park. This is where some of the best of David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II series was filmed in 2015 – before the bleaching – and in it the great broadcaster declared the natural wonder as being in grave danger.

Along with a group of enthusiastic tourists, I follow the guide from the boat across the corals. Near the surface are plate-like structures, which readily absorb sunlight. Lower down are boulders textured like giant brains. The boulders have clearly fared better than the plates, but it’s been close to 30 years since I last visited the reef and I’m not entirely sure what to look for.

Our guide dives to point out a staghorn coated with a thin film of algae, and draws her finger across her throat. Then she points to another and raises her thumb. Some of the staghorns are brilliant blue or purple: a sign of stress. Others have crumbled to the seafloor and are settling upon the sand.

But the picture is not entirely gloomy. She finds us an anemone and sure enough, Nemo appears within its fronds. I can almost hear the sucking in of oxygen from half a dozen snorkels, a collective inhalation of delight. A green turtle flaps past. “Hamish”, a metre-long hump-headed Maori wrasse clearly used to visitors, hangs off the boat.

We tour three locations, all within a couple of nautical miles. In between, another guide gives us a talk which acknowledges the challenges facing the reef. Not all tourist operators do this. She explains the symbiotic relationship between coral and zooxanthellae, single-celled organisms that live within the coral and photosynthesise to produce its nourishment.

Under heat stress, though, this co-dependent relationship turns literally toxic. The corals expel the algae, which have transformed from a food source to a poison, leaving the white calcium carbonate skeleton exposed. Unless the water cools sufficiently quickly for the corals to take the algae back, they starve.

The guide struggles to find a balance between the scale of the struggle taking place below the surface and positivity. She tells us the reef is doing OK, that’s it’s not dead, and that healthy corals are seed-banks, which will spawn and travel to regenerate those that have declined.

But she also tells us about soil run-off, and starfish, and increased cyclones, as well as bleaching. It is, she says, a death of a thousand cuts, but that we shouldn’t fret, and that there’s plenty we can do, including reducing our plastic waste — water bottles, straws, coffee cups, and single-use bags.

Which is all true, but none of these things reduce the cause of bleaching: the rising temperature in the atmosphere and the oceans.

Someone asks her about Adani’s proposed Carmichael coal mine in the Galilee Basin further south. She says it’s hard to answer, but that overall, it’s not a good thing, and that we should be investing in renewables. That many things are reducing the reef’s resilience, and the mine is just another of those thousand cuts.

As we’re coming back to shore, I speak to Doron, who asked about the mine. He’s 50 and here with his family from Melbourne. “I think I had negative expectations, because everyone’s talking about coral bleaching, and I thought I was going to see a lot of dead coral,” he says. “But it exceeded my expectations. It’s probably some of the most beautiful coral I’ve ever seen.”

He describes their day out as “extremely satisfying, so rewarding. I saw sea turtles out there; I saw a shark. How much more exciting can it get?”

Nicole, a middle-aged woman from Florida is also here with her family. She’s previously snorkelled at home and in the Bahamas. Compared to that, she says, the Great Barrier Reef is “just spectacular. It’s in so much better condition that I thought it was going to be, based on all the press, but the variety and amount of coral and different species of fish, I was really pleased.”

Brooke and Dean are a young couple from Texas. They say the reef has been the highlight of their Australian visit. They’d been told to see it while they could.

“My dad was like, ‘The reef is dying! You’ll have to go, see it while you’re out there!’” Brooke says.

“It’s been a pretty extraordinary day,” Dean says. “It was pretty, what we saw … I got to swim with a turtle, and that’s going to stand above, for me.”

“And I got to see Nemo, finally,” Brooke says.

For them, the promise has been kept.

John Rumney, managing director of non-profit organisation Great Barrier Reef Legacy, shakes his head in frustration. “If you go out there and talk with the tourists that come off the boats, they will say, ‘That’s the best thing I’ve ever done!’” he says. “They just don’t know what they’re missing.”

Rumney has been working on and studying the reef for 40 years, operating Eye-To-Eye Marine Encounters with his wife Linda. He’s acutely aware of the necessity to mobilise the tourist industry in support of its own livelihood. “If we say the reef is dead, tourism is dead, then there’s no money for saving anything,” he says.

Let’s be clear, then. The Great Barrier Reef is not dead. But the figures are dire: in 2012 the Australian Institute of Marine Science estimated it had lost 50 percent of its coral cover in the previous 27 years, with 48 percent of the loss attributed to storm damage, 42 percent to predation by crown-of-thorns outbreaks, and 10 percent to bleaching.

That was before the bleaching events of 2016 and 2017, which may have killed off as much as half of what remained. But the figures, as sobering as they are, don’t paint the full kaleidoscopic picture of what you see up close when you’re in the water.

It’s easy to think of the reef, which stretches from the top of Torres Strait to roughly Bundaberg in south central Queensland, as a contiguous mass of coral. It’s not. Rather, it consists of nearly 3,000 individual reefs and hundreds more islands, atolls and cays, ranging from close inshore to mid-shelf, out to the edge of the Coral Sea.

Dr Dean Miller, director of science and media for Great Barrier Reef Legacy, says it’s home to up to around 450 species of corals, 1,500 species of fish, and 4,000 species of mollusc. It also hosts a variety of reptiles, including sea turtles and snakes, and provides breeding and nursery grounds for migrating minke and humpback whales during the winter and spring.

“It’s an extremely complex environment, and we don’t even understand how all those complexities work, so trying to unravel how we can save the reef is quite difficult, because we’re only just learning now the mechanisms of bleaching itself,” Miller says. “We need to maintain that diversity if we are going to save the Great Barrier Reef as we know it.”

Rumney describes the impact of the gradual decline of the reef on those who have spent their lives on it: “We’d have crown-of-thorns [outbreaks], we’d have a cyclone, and it would recover … And then we had the first big bleaching event in 1998, and that was a bit of an alarm bell – wake up! – but we still only had minimal mortality, 5 percent.

“But the 2016 [bleaching] was shocking. You came out here and those reefs that you’d loved and been visiting for all those years were just white … It was incredibly emotional to see something that you’d spent thousands and thousands of hours immersed in changed so radically.

“By 2017, many of us who had been out here for decades … Basically we went through a depression. I don’t know that there’s any comparable thing that people can experience on land, unless it’s a bushfire.

“What’s really important to remember is that there’s still pockets of healthy reef, and if we manage our emissions, then the reef will survive. If we keep putting CO2 into the [atmosphere] and the water temperature keeps rising, then what escaped last time may not escape next time.”

The next day I’m back out on the water with the same tourist operator and one of the same guides, visiting the exact same location. Hamish the wrasse is waiting for us again. This time, though, I’m with Rumney and Miller, as well as the Climate Council’s Martin Rice and professor Lesley Hughes, an ecologist from Macquarie University.

With them, I see things I didn’t notice the first time around. Some of the plate corals have broken off and begun to collapse. There are also things I don’t see: for example, I can’t find a single anemone. Or Nemo.

Broken down to its millions of constituent parts, suddenly the fragility of this enormous living structure is exposed. “Their skeletons stay there for a while, but they gradually become brittle over time, just like people growing older,” Hughes says. “They get much more susceptible to storms and wave action or people hitting them with flippers, and eventually they crumble and fall over.”

Hughes (no relation to the James Cook University professor Terry Hughes, arguably the most prominent scientist to document the bleaching phenomenon) says that this is her third visit to this particular reef in three years, and that “there’s a lot less fish here than I’ve seen in the past”.

“The coral not only provides food for lots of things, it provides a really complex habitat, and within that habitat there are a lot of different niches, and all of those other things – be they sea urchins or sea cucumbers or starfish – you just can’t see any of them,” she says.

The Climate Council’s report says that coral mortality has reduced the availability of habitat for fish. At Lizard Island, further north off Cooktown, there has been a 40 percent decline in juveniles.

She speaks of the ramifications. “That has flow-on effects on tourism obviously, but also on people around the world that gain their protein from reef fish, especially in developing countries, which is a huge part of their diet. So not only is it a tragic loss of environmental amenity, it’s also a loss of human amenity.

We move on to another healthier site, less than 15 minutes away. When we get in the water, it’s like a miracle has been revealed to us. The plate corals are stacked high like enormous piles of dishes. There are hundreds more fish of every discernible hue, munching on the coral. The staghorn forests are healthier, neither white nor fluorescent but filled with the simple greenish-brown of the zooxanthellae inside them. A turtle, seemingly bored by our curiosity, rests idly on the seafloor beneath our reach. It can hold its breath down there for hours.

I ask Miller how there can be such a dramatic difference between two reefs so close together. He points to the crashing waves of the ocean behind us, just beyond the reef’s fringe. “We’ve got a big gap into the Coral Sea, right there,” he says. “I’m guessing as the water floods on an incoming tide, and pushes in here, it cools things down.

“Whereas it misses that other site, so it just sits there and stagnates and cooks. You get some sites that are spared through the biogeography and the physics of the water. So you’ll have some reefs, even parts of reefs, that are in quite good condition and other parts that get absolutely nailed.”

John Edmondson, owner of Wavelength Reef Cruises – the longest-running reef tourism operation in Port Douglas – says the reef’s patchy nature can confuse visitors: “With a cyclone, you can move your mooring maybe 100 metres and the reef in one area has been flattened by waves … Further around the corner it’s just fine.”

He says the tourism industry liaises constantly with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the statutory body tasked with protecting the reef and advising the government about its health, to ensure visitors still have the best chance of experiencing the wonder promised by the postcards and tourist brochures.

But there is intense competition, and only so many sites where operators can moor their boats. “It’s more difficult with bleaching, because the effects might be much more widely spread,” he says. “It’s not yet got to the stage where we we’ve had to sort out people relocating moorings en masse, but that would be really difficult.

“Basically, if you went out to the reef five years ago it would generally be good and you’d find some bad patches. Now it’s generally not very good, but you can find some really good patches. If you had all the different operators wanting to pick a few good areas, it would obviously be really complicated how to manage them.”

The Great Barrier Reef directly employs 64,000 people, contributing $6 billion annually to the Australian economy.

“If you have a site that you have heavy bleaching on and that is your only tourism product, then you’re going to have to move or you’re not going to have a very good product,” Miller says. “If tourism operators are to adapt with the conditions, they’re going to have to get ready for altering what they do.”

The tourism industry is only just beginning to flex its considerable economic muscle over the imminent threat to its livelihood. Up to now, it’s been reluctant. The grim and sometimes inaccurate picture painted by the media has created mistrust. “If you’ve got millions of dollars invested in boats and buses and you need to keep taking people to the reef, then you’re going to be quite hesitant about speaking up,” Miller says.

“And because it is so patchy on a local scale, you can have one operator that has a really badly impacted site and another that doesn’t. So can you talk about a region generically? As tourism operators it’s important that we speak as one voice, and I don’t think there’s anyone out there that doesn’t now agree that we do have a problem on our hands.”

John Rumney puts it in starker terms.

“Imagine you have your favourite forest, just colour it 50 percent dead,” he says. “Or say you go out in your garden and all of a sudden everything’s turned white and 50 percent of it dies – you go, oh, something’s wrong, I’d better call somebody to fix this, I’d better learn something about this.

“We’re on the verge of an ecological system failure. What does that mean for our food security? It’s a major social issue. People are going to be starving, there are going to be refugees.

“That’s why we need the science, but we need the community embracing the science and going, that’s my Barrier Reef, let’s save it, and in so doing we’ll save the reefs of the world. Like, this is the canary in the coal mine.

“We need to wake up, or we’re going to have the collapse of the food chain for a billion people. It symbolises the collapse of our ecosystems, which I hope people wake up and realise. Conservation is longer a luxury, it’s part of our health budget.”

First published in BuzzFeed, 9 July 2018. The Climate Council paid for flights and some costs.

How did the Great Barrier Reef Foundation “win lotto”?

It was a classic piece of public relations. A week before the budget, the federal government announced it was committing half a billion dollars to the ailing Great Barrier Reef, with the immediate aims of enhancing water quality, culling outbreaks of invasive crown-of-thorns starfish and boosting scientific research funds that might aid the reef’s “resilience”.

There was no mention of climate change. That should not be surprising. The Turnbull government remains at war with itself over climate and energy policy, with many of its own members openly derisive of climate science and questioning Australia’s commitment to the Paris Agreement to keep rises in global average temperatures to below 2 degrees Celsius.

That cohort predictably includes former prime minister Tony Abbott and his backers.

Publicly, the government is still supportive of Adani’s Carmichael coal mine, and remains roiled over the future of AGL’s Liddell power station, with pro-coal MPs urging Malcolm Turnbull to change competition laws to force the company to sell the station.

Turnbull and his environment minister, Josh Frydenberg, are walking a tightrope: trying not to poke the bear on the party’s right flank by reassuring regional Queensland of its continuing support of coal, while confronting the dire state of the reef and the many more jobs, and seats, which may be in peril on the basis of current trends.

In the last few days, we’ve found out where the government’s money to aid the reef is being directed. It’s not going to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the statutory body that’s entrusted with the reef’s custodianship and advises the government on its care and protection.

Nor is it going to the Australian Institute of Marine Science, or the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies. Instead, it’s going to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, a body with six full-time staff and five part-time staff, which generated a turnover of less than $8 million last year.

The body is focused on business cooperation. By its own description, the foundation “started with a small group of businessmen chatting at the airport while waiting for their flight, wanting to do something to help the Great Barrier Reef”. When asked, the government was not immediately able to say who these businessmen were.

The move to direct more than $443 million to this small foundation was so left-field it caught even its beneficiaries off guard. The foundation had not applied for the funds. “It’s like we’ve won lotto,” chief executive Anna Marsden told Fairfax’s Peter Hannam. “We’re getting calls from a lot of friends.”

Marsden said the organisation was seeking advice on how to cope with the sudden influx of funds.

In the past few days of Senate estimates hearings, more serious questions have been raised. There was no competitive tender process, and thus no opportunity for the government’s own scientific agencies to apply for the funds.

As Labor senator Kristina Keneally summed up: “I am trying to understand how [the] greatest single contribution from the government to the Great Barrier Reef in Australian history went to one foundation without a tender process, without advertising, without a competitive process and, it would seem, without an invitation from the government to the foundation to apply.”

To that end, Labor has lodged a Freedom of Information request. Others have pointed to the foundation’s links to corporate Australia, including fossil fuel behemoths BHP, Shell and Peabody Energy, as well as key banking figures.

“God help the Barrier Reef,” was the blunt response of the Professor Terry Hughes, director of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, who has been indefatigable in his scorn for untested scientific solutions such as sun-shields, underwater fans and anything that fails to address the core issues of global warming and immediate decarbonising of the economy.

Similarly, acting chief executive of the Climate Council, Dr Martin Rice, described the focus on water quality and culling starfish as “a golden Band-Aid solution, because it’s not really getting to the root cause of the problem with the bleaching, and that’s climate change.

“When you look at emissions, we’ve had three years of emissions rising in Australia, and any true test of effective climate policy comes down to whether our emissions are going up or down. So there is no credible energy or climate policy in Australia … [Our] emission reduction targets of 28 percent are woefully inadequate; they’re not aligned with the science,” he said.

“If the world was to go with Australia’s Paris commitments we would be on target for a three-to-four degree [increase in temperature] and that’s devastating. We’re not going to see our iconic Great Barrier Reef survive that. And that’s not just an environmental issue; it’s an economic one.”

But not everyone is in agreement about the foundation’s ability to deliver. Its website lists the CSIRO, the Smithsonian Institute and many of Australia’s sandstone universities as research collaborators, and its International Scientific Advisory Committee also includes GBRMPA chair Russell Reichelt.

Also on the committee is Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, a professor of marine science and director of the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland. As far back as 1999, Hoegh-Guldberg predicted that the Barrier Reef would lose most of its coral cover by 2040, a claim that caused considerable controversy at the time.

“The shock to me of having predicted in 1999 that the reef was in trouble was to actually live it over the last three years, and it’s not only the reef that we should be worried about,” he says. “It’s the impact that we’re now seeing across ecosystems which we depend on. There’s real questions about food security.”

Ten days before the government’s announcement, the scale of the threat to the Great Barrier Reef – and the calamity it has already experienced – was brutally spelled out in a new paper published by Nature, which The Atlantic described as “a kind of autopsy report for the debacle”.

Terry Hughes was the lead author of a team of 16 international researchers. The paper reported that over the course of the summers of 2016 and 2017, the reef experienced bleaching so severe that one in two of the corals had died. Usually, this happens slowly. When subjected to heat stress, coral species expel the algae which both provides them with their colour and with nourishment. If the algae doesn’t return quickly to recolonise the corals, they starve.

In the waters around and north of Port Douglas, previously the most pristine section of the park, the water was so hot that the corals died almost instantly. “They cooked,” Hughes said.

“You could say it has collapsed. You could say it has degraded. I wouldn’t say that’s wrong,” Hughes told The Atlantic. “A more neutral way of putting it is that it has transformed into a completely new system that looks differently, and behaves differently, and functions differently, than how it was three years ago.”

Hoegh-Guldberg doesn’t disagree with any of that, but he says that such a dire situation calls for outside-the-square thinking. “The downturn in the reef’s health has been rather dramatic, so we’ve got to start to do things differently,” he says. “I think it’s a welcome addition to what we need to do to solve this problem.”

Hoegh-Guldberg has an edge of desperation in his voice when he speaks to me. I put this directly to him. “That’s a very fair reading,” he agrees.

Hoegh-Guldberg is one of Australia’s most respected marine biologists. He is quick to point out that he sits on the Great Barrier Reef Foundation’s advisory committee. But while political questions remain over the funding, and why it was directed to this small body, he argues the urgency of the situation means the reef’s defenders must work with what they have.

“I think it’s wake-up time. This is not some sort of green-washing exercise by industry. I would not be associated with this if it was. People who are not involved may be sniping, and scientists are very good at that, so I think we just have to have a level mind here. This is an unusual time that is needing a very unusual solution.

“What we have to realise is, there’s no way we’re going to solve this problem by not involving industry. We’ve got to turn this ship around by going into the helm and working with all players, and if we have the right governance then I don’t think that the things people are fearful of will eventuate.”

Hoegh-Guldberg is also positive about scientific approaches to anything that could help get the reef through while the climate might be stabilised. “I think there’s some really serious interest in whether or not you can introduce gently, over decades, heat-tolerant corals, and the jury’s out on whether that’s going to work and we need to know whether that can be done.

“The normal way science would go would be, ideas would be bubbling to the surface, then PhDs would be done. Then scientists would eventually write papers and it would be maybe five to 10 years before you had ideas in place to design technical solutions and so on. We don’t have that time.”

Reichelt also looked for a positive angle on the funding. He issued a press release saying it was a “game changer”. Alongside the $443.3 million going to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, his authority is getting the balance of $42.7 million over the next six years for its joint field management program.

“This is a hugely positive outcome for the Great Barrier Reef and comes at a critical time after back-to-back mass coral bleaching triggered by the increasing pressure of global warming,” Reichelt said.

“We’re delighted to continue working with the Great Barrier Reef Foundation as they explore the possibilities this funding provides, including opportunities to seek co-funding from investors to add to this investment.”

Significant questions remain about the Turnbull government’s motivations and its processes. The funding allocation remains deeply curious. Again we see the federal government outsourcing what would normally be the work of a government agency to a private body. It is likely the Great Barrier Reef Foundation will be spending its newfound money before we know why it was chosen to receive it. But for at least some of scientists involved, that may be a good thing.

Birds find me in my happy place

On Saturday morning I boarded a fishing boat on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast and, along with 15 or so others, chugged more than 40 nautical miles out to sea, where the Australian continental shelf drops off into deep water. But we weren’t out there for the fish: everyone was carrying binoculars and camera gear. We were looking for pelagic seabirds – shearwaters and petrels that spend most of their lives on the wing.

Conditions had been perfect all week, with south-easterly breezes to help push the birds closer inshore. “We’ll see a Cook’s Petrel today,” I predicted, feeling cocky. Not that I had good reason to be: only one Cook’s Petrel has ever been officially recorded in Queensland waters. It’s a small, graceful grey and white seabird with a black eye patch that breeds in New Zealand. The boat stopped and a trail of foul-smelling berley was throw into the water.

Twenty minutes later, to everyone’s delight, a Cook’s Petrel came bounding in over the waves, investigating our berley trail without pausing as camera shutters whirred with excitement. Within a minute, the bird was gone. It turned out to be one of the few highlights of an otherwise surprisingly quiet day, but I live for moments like this. For a few hours, as the waves rolled beneath us, I was in my happy place.

Along with music, birds have been the magnificent, consuming obsession of my life. It started when I was eight. Memories get hazy here, and possibly unreliable, but the first flash was a chance sighting of an Azure Kingfisher on the Ovens River, in north-eastern Victoria, a few metres from where my father actually was fishing. I revisited that place with him a couple of months ago, where he’d been dropping a line in since he himself was a boy.

The kingfisher was what hooked me. I stared at it, dumbstruck. It was a very small bird, brilliant blue and orange, and it was perched motionless on a dead branch protruding above the waterline from a red gum that had collapsed into the river. Abruptly it plunged headfirst into the water, emerging with a yabby, which it whacked against the branch before swallowing it whole. And then, in another flash, it was gone.

For me, watching birds – or birding, to use the more active verb – was and still is an escape and a refuge. Earlier this year, a University of Exeter study found that it was associated with lower levels of anxiety and depression, conditions with which I am unfortunately all too familiar. Research fellow Dr Daniel Cox said that having birds around the home had a role in preventative health care, making cities healthier, happier places to live.

This is where Guardian Australia and Birdlife Australia’s Bird of the Year poll comes in. One of the best things about birding, as hobbies go, is that you can do it anywhere: it doesn’t matter what species you’re looking at, whether it’s something as unglamorous and largely unloved as a bin chicken (ibis) or as obviously charismatic as a lorikeet. A life of birds is never boring.

Take for example this brief video taken at my local cafe of an Australian magpie and pied butcherbird, two of our finest songbirds, in a glorious duet. It’s the sort of thing that can change the entire tenor (pun unintended) of my day. I haven’t actually voted in the poll yet, mainly because as a lifelong birder I find it hard to choose, but musical leanings make it hard to go past the butcherbird especially.

Behind the frivolity of the poll is a serious message: even our most familiar and beloved birds, like the Laughing Kookaburra, are in decline. Part of the #teambinchicken push is motivated by sympathy: this scraggy, smelly bird was a natural denizen of the swamps of our Murray–Darling system, generally only reaching the coast in drought years. As the swamps were drained and the land irrigated, the ibis came to visit our cities and eventually decided to stay.

So birds have much to tell us about the country and our changing environment. The early arrival of summer migrants are clues to climate change, as is the expansion southwards of tropical species. Sometimes, this added level of environmental awareness has been heartbreaking to watch: over the last 35 years, I’ve watched once abundant species like the Regent Honeyeater slide towards the cliff of extinction.

But mostly, a life of birds has meant adventure and opportunity. It’s taken me to every corner of Australia, chasing down everything I could from the Kimberley to Cape York. Searching for brilliantly coloured pittas in the rainforests of Borneo. And most memorably, two voyages south on Australia’s Antarctic flagship the RSV Aurora Australis, counting seabirds for what was then one of the longest-running wildlife surveys anywhere in the world.

And yes, I’m a twitcher. I once flew to Perth, then drove flat out to Whim Creek, a mining camp in the Pilbara, to see Australia’s second ever Red-legged Crake, a small waterbird, only to find it had been eaten by a cat. That’s birding – things don’t always materialise on cue like that Cook’s Petrel. But it’s not about the numbers. Whether it’s on my block or out to sea, I prefer to think that I don’t find the birds, they find me: in that happy place.

First published in The Guardian, 30 November 2017

Mixed environmental messages in Queensland

On Friday, 3 November, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk dropped what sounded like a bombshell. Palaszczuk, at the tail of the first week of a desperate re-election campaign, said she would veto a $1 billion loan to Adani from the federal government’s Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (NAIF) after it emerged that her partner, Shaun Drabsch, had assisted the Indian conglomerate’s application for the loan in his role as a director for PwC.

Palaszczuk said she was acting to remove any perception of conflict of interest over the loan, intended to fund the construction of a rail line from Adani’s proposed Carmichael coal mine to its terminal at Abbot Point, north of Bowen. The response was immediate. The next day’s Courier-Mail went with a screaming headline: “Mine shaft”. Queensland’s only statewide newspaper claimed thousands of jobs were at risk.

It’s a well-worn trope. The newspaper has long followed the Adani line that as many as 10,000 jobs would be created by the mine, despite the group’s expert witness, Jerome Fahrer, admitting in court in 2015 that the number was fewer than 1500. Buried at the bottom of the copy was an admission: under the caretaker convention, Palaszczuk needed the support of opposition leader Tim Nicholls to veto the loan. Needless to say, she wasn’t about to get it.

In the interim, there’s nothing to prevent the NAIF from issuing the loan, enabling Palaszczuk to say her government gave it no active assistance. When Liberal National Party leader Nicholls described the premier’s threat as a “stunt”, he wasn’t wrong. Since her government’s unexpected ascension to power, Palaszczuk’s minority government has been walking a tightrope between its urban base and regional Queensland over the mine.

On the same day as Palaszczuk’s unexpected announcement, news broke that should have sent a real chill through the muggy climes of north Queensland. The United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) forecast the possibility of a third consecutive bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef this summer. Its modelling predicted the southern section of the reef, which had hitherto escaped relatively unscathed, was at greatest risk.

The NOAA was careful to note that its forecast was early, and therefore at the limit of its technical capacity. Nonetheless, the potential gravity of the situation can’t be underestimated. Last summer, the worst-hit section of the marine park was in the tourist-clogged area between Cairns and Townsville. It resulted in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority engaging in talks with the tourism industry to help it redirect visitors to relatively unaffected areas.

The Barrier Reef is the elephant in the room of the state election. It was certainly a bigger issue in 2015, when the then Labor opposition pledged that no taxpayer funds would be used to fund Adani’s mine. “The reef was much more prominent in discussions at the last Queensland election, but it’s in a much more dire situation now, so the need for action’s even greater,” says the World Wild Fund for Nature’s Sean Hoobin.

The Labor government has released two substantial policies to shore up its credentials on the management of the Barrier Reef. The first was the reintroduction of land clearing legislation, which failed to receive the support of crossbenchers in 2016 after an estimated 400,000 hectares had been felled in the preceding 12 months. Forty-five per cent of the increase in clearing had been in Barrier Reef catchment areas.

The second, released on the eve of the election being called, had the government belatedly following through on its 2015 commitment to ban the loading of coal ships at sea in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. The government also has a target of 50 percent renewable power generation by 2030. Earlier this year, it held a carbon farming summit, with the intention of providing a road map for the growth of the nascent carbon offset industry.

But the government has struggled to gain any clear air to spruik its environmental credentials in the shadow of the Carmichael project, with the premier’s campaign itself being shadowed by anti-Adani protesters. Support for the mine within the government’s ranks is soft, and Adani’s brand is positively toxic in urban electorates of Brisbane, but with Labor ruling out any possible deal with One Nation, it is desperate not to alienate regional support.

The LNP, for its part, has given its unqualified backing for not only the Carmichael mine but the construction of another coal mine in far north Queensland. At the same time, shadow environment minister Dr Christian Rowan said an LNP government would maintain all currently allocated state funding for reef protection, and that when last in government it had invested $35 million a year to help farmers reduce sediment runoff into reef catchments.

But the focus on water quality ignores the other elephant in the room. The northern section of the park, which was so ravaged by bleaching in the summer of 2015-16 that up to 67 percent of the coral died, was previously regarded as the most pristine and undisturbed section of the reef – that is, the least affected by soil runoff, the proliferation of crown-of-thorns starfish and other factors affecting the reef’s overall health.

The cause of the catastrophe was simple: the coral was cooked by above-average water temperatures due to a combination of climate change and an accompanying El Niño. The bleaching was repeated the following year, even after El Niño’s abatement. The combined impact left a full 1500 kilometres of the reef badly affected.

“There’s a kind of cognitive dissonance that we have now where political leaders are signing on to the [Adani] mine while at the same time talking about wanting to deal with climate change and save the Barrier Reef,” says Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, deputy director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies. “You can’t have both.

“You think about the idea that this ecosystem that has been with us for thousands of years and is so much loved, and we’re contemplating its disappearance … We are in extremely worrying times, because these things are coming faster, much faster than we thought. My predictions in 1998 were that we’d see this sort of thing happening in 2030, 2040. It’s happening now.”

For this election, the LNP has also pledged a further $300,000 to support the “Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef” initiative, which according to a policy statement aimed to “raise awareness and funds to protect the Great Barrier Reef now and for future generations”.

Pushed for detail, Rowan said: “Protecting the reef is too important to leave to one organisation or local group. The LNP’s Great Barrier Reef Alliance will work closely with the federal government, [an] independent expert panel and Reef 2050 advisory committee and other key stakeholders to deliver real, independently measurable outcomes.” He also said, “We need to get the balance right on clean energy targets, as highlighted in the Finkel review.”

That’s despite the federal government declining to adopt the clean energy target recommended by Finkel. And the opposition, like the government, is doing some mixed messaging of its own: while Rowan says the LNP will follow the recommendations of the Great Barrier Reef Water Science Taskforce, on October 1 Andrew Cripps, the spokesman for natural resources and mines and northern development, ranted against those recommendations in a piece for Queensland Country Life.

In the meantime, neither party seems to regard investing in new coal-fired power generation as in any way incompatible with the future of the Barrier Reef – or is willing to admit it. As for One Nation, Pauline Hanson and then-senator Malcolm Roberts famously made a trip to the decidedly unbleached Great Keppel Island off Yeppoon in November 2016, held aloft a piece of coral, and declared that everything was fine. Roberts is now running for the state seat of Ipswich.

Earlier this year, a Deloitte Access Economics review valued the reef at $56 billion. An earlier Jacobs review – co-written by a partnership between the Queensland Farmers’ Federation, the Queensland Tourism Industry Council, the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators – concluded that if the reef was treated as a piece of infrastructure of similar value, it would receive up to $830 million a year in funding.

All of this, to say nothing of the estimated 65,000 people whose livelihoods depend on the Great Barrier Reef, suggests its ongoing health is far from just an environmental or moral challenge. But in this election campaign, with everything filtered through the muddy waters of Adani and a resurgent One Nation, it’s a challenge that neither of the major parties is game to face.

First published in The Saturday Paper, 11 November 2017

Postscript to this story: With the narrow re-election of the state Labor government, Premier Annasticia Palaszczuk has followed through on her promise to veto the NAIF loan to Adani. One Nation won only one seat in the poll, with Malcolm Roberts, after being disqualified by the Senate by the High Court, failing to win the seat of Ipswich. The LNP’s Andrew Cripps also lost his seat of Hinchinbrook.

The Australian Bird Guide takes flight

IT STARTED nearly a decade ago. John Manger, a British expatriate and who had spent 20 years at Oxford University Press, had joined the publishing division in the CSIRO, becoming director in late 2005. He was also an avowed bird nerd who’d worked on many large ornithological titles. There were five Australian field guides already on the market but for Manger, that wasn’t enough. He decided to do something about it.

Manger contacted Jeff Davies, one of Australia’s pre-eminent bird illustrators – and it’s probably fair to say that at that point, the birding community held its breath. Davies was a notorious perfectionist, not known for doing anything by halves.

Next Monday, the community will finally exhale, with the publication of The Australian Bird Guide. “From the moment I started, people who knew what I’m like started saying, when are you going to finish?” Davies says in his studio in Heidelberg. “It actually annoyed me a little bit, but I’d always reply with a smile, and my answer was always, as long as it takes.”

Illustrator Jeff Davies. Pic: Simon Schluter for The Age

Not that Davies was working alone. Authors Danny Rogers and Peter Menkhorst were brought in, then Rohan Clarke; Davies recommended Peter Marsack and Kim Franklin as co-illustrators. It was a team fit for a gargantuan task: nearly 550 pages and 4700 illustrations of over 900 species recorded in Australia and its territories. They set themselves five years for the task. It ballooned to eight.

In the old days, birds were illustrated by referring to museum skins. Those days are long gone. Before any contracts were signed, Davies says, “there was a year where I just sat here with no income, collecting photographs, starting to design the book in my head”. He says he’s collected around half a million images. “That’s the reference collection. It’s a whole renaissance in birding and our understanding of birds.”

Clarke, who was brought on board for his photographic collection as much as his writing skills and status as one of the country’s top twitchers, agrees digital photography was the game-changer. “Being able to sit down with 20 images of the key plumage or position or posture [of a single species] just meant we were in an unparalleled position, really.”

And that, more than anything, justifies The Australian Bird Guide’s existence: the literature needed updating to reflect the explosion of knowledge that came with the explosion of imagery. All previous Australian field guides had their own strengths and weaknesses, and most serious birders will nominate a favourite, but this one is very much a reflection of the digital revolution that inspired it.

The obvious question that arises is why go to the trouble of commissioning illustrations at all. But photography still has limitations. Illustrations aid identification in that they can capture subtle differences between nearly identical species in ways that even multiple photographs can not.

And identification is the whole point, says Danny Rogers. “We thought we could do much better than other guides on the fundamentals of identifying birds. There’s lots now known about difficult birds – shorebirds, seabirds, and so on – that’s just not in the other guides; lots of interesting plumages were illustrated for the first time.”

Plenty of grey hairs were sprouted and lost in the process, though, as the book began to give new meaning to the term “long awaited”. Davies is unapologetic. “Anyone who gets into art is a perfectionist,” Davies says. “Every painting they’re doing, they’re being a perfectionist about that painting. It’s the obsessive nature of it, and it’s not a derogatory term; that’s just what’s required.

“I think I pushed everyone out of their comfort zone. I feel for them, because I know everyone has other people to answer to, and it probably made a lot of people’s lives pretty difficult. But my side of the job was to deliver the best book that I could deliver, and I was never going to skimp on it, ever.” He completed the last two years of work back on no income, while raising a daughter at home with his wife Barbara.

Life came and went around the authors as they worked. “When I started this, I was working as a post-doc at Deakin Uni, and now I’ve got two kids that I didn’t have and I’m now a senior lecturer in ecology at Monash,” Clarke says. But, he adds, “we went into this with our eyes open. If it had taken 10 or 11 years, I still think it would have been time well spent. I think the team would have loved another month or two.”

Davies describes painting as “a very monastic experience. You have to be very comfortable with listening to your own head. You have to actually enjoy being on your own, and the silence and the thinking. A lot of people today have trouble with that.” (The irony that Davies can talk the leg off a table and is highly active on social media will not be lost on his friends.)

Devising each plate, however, was a painstaking team effort. Photographic images would be bounced between authors and artists before the first drafts were made, then bounced around again. Just as the text was drafted and re-drafted, plates went through multiple iterations until everyone was happy.

But it’s obsession, and Davies’ obsession in particular, that drove the project onward. And onward. Whatever anxiety was created in the process, the results speak for themselves. “We wanted to make an identification guide that’s satisfying not only to people who are starting out birding, but people who already birders and want to get better at it,” Rogers says.

Davies was born both to birding and to art; his father was also an illustrator. “It’s something I do on my own, and I did that from a very early age. I got a strong direction of where north was by the time I was six! I could just walk off in the bush and come back to where I started very quickly.”

With the guide done, he’s returning to larger paintings. He’s working on one now: a pair of scarlet robins on a 1.1 metre x 810 cm canvas. He started it eight years ago, before the field guide called. “Obsession just becomes an abnormality when it’s used in different situations to this,” he says. “When it’s used in the activity of doing something artistic, it’s actually the most important part of the whole process.”

First published in Spectrum (The Age/Sydney Morning Herald), 28 April 2017

This piece ran with the following teaser in the front section of both papers:

IT’S A true story, based on love, obsession and sometimes madness. Thankfully, the authors (and their publishers) managed to avoid murdering each other along the way. But after nearly a decade in the making, The Australian Bird Guide finally hits bookstores on Monday.

To call The Australian Bird Guide long-awaited would be putting it mildly. There are a number of field guides to Australian birds in print, most of which are regularly revised and updated. But an entirely new tome is as rare as, well, a very rare bird indeed: this is the first publication of its kind in about 17 years.

Melbourne artist Jeff Davies was the first of three illustrators, in addition to three authors, to be approached by CSIRO’s publishing division nearly 10 years ago. Instantly, the questions started: “I had various people tap me on the shoulder saying, ‘when are you going to finish’ – and that was when I’d just started,” he said. Some privately wondered if the book might ever be finished.

For the first year, Davies said, he sat at home without income, accumulating a vast archive of avian imagery for reference: much of what’s new about this book is a byproduct in the explosion of new knowledge generated by digital photography. When the project ran over time – the authors were on a five-year contract – Davies spent another two years without income as the book was finished. It features more than 4700 colour illustrations, with many species illustrated for the first time.

Davies, who had previously worked on the mammoth multi-volume Handbook Of Australian And New Zealand Birds, has a well-earned reputation as a perfectionist and a stickler for detail. In the twitchier circles of Australia’s birding community, however, detail is everything. For them, the wait will be worth it.

Davies said he would have refused the assignment if he hadn’t had sufficient time, but also understood the significance of the opportunity, as well as the magnitude of the task. “I’m 60. I’m going to be dead in a couple of decades time, I’m not going to fuck around and waste time,” he said. “I throw everything in otherwise I don’t bother doing it at all. But I think people who knew me already knew that.”

Rats of spring

In Ronald Strahan’s revised edition of The Mammals of Australia, C. H. S. Watts describes the Plains Rat as among “the loveliest of Australian rodents”. While its loveliness might be in the eye of the beholder, it’s certainly among the most tenacious, being adapted to some of the driest, most inhospitable country: the stony gibber deserts and cracking clay soils of the Lake Eyre Basin.

There, it can survive without drinking, obtaining water from food starches, aided by its highly concentrated urine and absence of sweat glands. During the day, colonies shelter from predators and the intense heat in complex burrow systems that can be more than 40 kilometres long, yet separated from each other by only a matter of metres, interconnected by runways on the surface.

Plains Rat. Minden Pictures/Alamy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not that water is a problem for the plains rat right now. Surveys at Andado Station, a cattle property in the south-east of the Northern Territory abutting the western edge of the Simpson Desert, are showing a spike in numbers following unseasonal winter and spring rains. And it’s places such as Andado, and animals like the plains rat, that are helping prompt a rethink of how we might save what is left of our desert fauna.

It’s well known that Australia has one of the worst mammal extinction rates in the world, with 30 species – more than 10 percent – lost since European settlement. Many more are at imminent risk of extinction. What might seem unusual is that most of those extinctions have occurred in our remote areas, far from the major urban centres of the eastern seaboard.

Cats and foxes take much of the blame, but the causes of the ecological catastrophe are multifaceted. Changed fire regimes are a big problem, so too overgrazing, not only by cattle but feral herbivores including rabbits, goats and camels. But there’s another, more subtle factor at play: in a country of climatic extremes, our native fauna often rely on small pockets of the landscape in which to take refuge during drought.

Once, the Plains Rat (Pseudomys australis) was thought to be far more widespread, from the western slopes of the Great Dividing Range straddling Queensland and New South Wales, and from the Nullarbor east all the way to the mouth of the Murray. It’s thought to have declined by up to 90 per cent since European settlement, and it’s nationally listed as vulnerable under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

Andado – where the gibber plains of the Lake Eyre Basin, the sand dunes and spinifex of the Simpson Desert and the runout of the Finke River all intersect – is a plains rat refuge, a place where it has always survived through the bleakest times. It booms and busts according to prevailing conditions; at least some of the historic records from further afield were probably never an indication of stable populations.

Overlooking Andado swamp at dusk, Andado Station, March 2015

Many of our arid-zone animals and birds have existed this way forever. The Flock Bronzewing, a pigeon that still occasionally darkens desert skies in aggregations of hundreds of thousands, is one. The Long-haired Rat is another, and the Letter-winged Kite – the world’s only nocturnal hawk – follows its periodic irruptions: as the rats spread, only to die off as conditions return to normal, so too do the kites.

It follows, then, that if a refuge is excessively degraded or disturbed, we go a long way to wiping out the animals that depend upon it, too. The difficulty is in identifying these areas. A refuge may be not much more than a dot on the map. It has taken a century, for example, to locate a stable, apparently sedentary population of the Night Parrot, long believed extinct. And refuges vary from species to species.

Dr Diana Fisher, a fellow at the University of Queensland’s school of biological sciences, is trying to map where these areas are. She points out that a species refuge “might not look much different to the rest of the landscape, but there’s something about it that protects them, not just from the dry conditions, but also predators and disease”.

Finding out where feral predators themselves eke out a living during bad times is helpful, too. “Cats are very good at surviving in the desert, but they have some limitations where they don’t do as well with very hot conditions,” Fisher says. “They have to find a refuge themselves, so finding where [they are] might enable us to use that information to control them.”

Non-government organisations such as the Australian Wildlife Conservancy have had some success creating their own wildlife refuges: heavily fenced areas, purged of feral animals, with surviving populations of native fauna such as the Woylie, a species of bettong, reintroduced from other areas, in miniature simulacrums of what the Australian landscape might once have looked like.

“There is now consensus at a policy and scientific level that a network of feral predator-free areas are required,” says Atticus Fleming, chief executive of the conservancy. He points to the Bilby. “The Bilby now lives in less than 5 percent of its original distribution and the population’s estimated at less than 10,000,” he says. “About 15 percent of the world population is on AWC land in feral predator-free areas.”

Again, feral predators are only one part of a more complex picture. While the Bilby needs all the help it can get to survive in Queensland’s Channel Country, it seems to be comfortably outlasting cats in the even more inhospitable Great Sandy Desert of Western Australia.

Different stressors on different species rarely work in isolation. “We’ve already lost a lot of things – [many of] the bandicoots [including the bilby] and that sort of range of animals have gone, but defining what the disturbance would have to be to make those things disappear is the tricky one,” says Alistair Stewart, a fauna scientist with the Northern Territory’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Occasionally, it might be more straightforward. “There is potential for mining to be so selective that it could have a devastating effect – the footprint size of an open-cut mine could encompass one of these entire refuges,” Stewart says. Generally, though, that’s a bigger danger for our microfauna – hidden, less mobile invertebrates such as land snails – than it is for mammals and birds.

Refuges also might not function as well as before. They may be degraded by overstocking. In drought, the better-watered parts of the landscape support livestock as well as wildlife, putting pressure on smaller, less genetically diverse populations. And animals that disperse after rain are more easily wiped out by predators elsewhere. The result is that the booms aren’t as big and the busts are longer lasting.

The Letter-winged Kite is one species that has suffered, undergoing an almost imperceptible decline over the past 30 years. This graceful raptor breeds in colonies mostly in the Strzelecki and Diamantina River systems, dispersing across the continent during boom times. Now it is rarely seen outside its core range: cats have been observed in the bird’s nest trees, wiping out chicks and stifling population growth.

Not all of our fauna operates like this and not all refuges are climatic. Mountains and areas of rocky scree serve the same function. Fire doesn’t spread so quickly and it’s easier to make a quick escape from predators. In the MacDonnell Ranges west of Alice Springs, the Black-footed Rock Wallaby is locally common, whereas a subspecies in the West Australian wheat belt is in dire trouble.

Mark Carter, an Alice Springs-based ecologist and guide, says animals such as the Long-tailed Dunnart – which truly is one of our loveliest marsupial mice, with a jauntily crested tail more than twice its body length, thought to be used as a balancing rod – might once have been far less strict in terms of its habitat requirements, but now survives in only the most rugged parts of the landscape.

Fisher backs this, saying there is evidence that there are few predators in rocky areas. “That’s a protective thing, perhaps, for things like rock wallabies and northern quolls. And also maybe it’s a better fire environment. But we’re not sure yet if it’s just the rugged habitat – there are fewer cats, and it’s easier for the animals to escape – or if there’s more vegetation, because the fire doesn’t get in there as much.”

The key point, Carter says, is that these safe havens are often not in the form we imagine and not where we might imagine them to be. “The one thing they’ve all got in common is that they’re extremely vulnerable. It wouldn’t take much to just completely wreck them for the animals that are so dependent on them.”

First published in The Saturday Paper, 3 December 2016