Department of the Environment

Archived media releases and speeches

The Hon Tony Burke MP

Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities

Keynote address at Coast to Coast Conference in Brisbane

18 September 2012

I want to focus, as this conference is wanting to focus, on the protection of the ocean.

The ocean is that great shared international asset, which in so many ways has had damage - extensive damage in a relative short period of time.

When we talk about damage to the atmosphere we tend to talk about things that have happened since the industrial revolution. When we talk about deforestation, we talk about changes that have largely happened over the last thousand or so years.

But much of the damage to our ocean has really happened in the space of the lifetime of one person. The damage to our oceans has been occurring at a rate of knots, and Australia has a role now in leading the way on turning the corner for protection of our oceans.

There are a number of threats that our oceans face. One of them in many parts of the world has been the issue of over-fishing. Australia has dealt with this better than most countries in the world, but it doesn't mean that at any point we should say our process is perfect.

The second issue that we've had to deal with is the issue of run-off, and chemical run-off and nutrient run-off have been particular challenges in many parts of the world. There are parts of our oceans where there are dead spots, where you simply have no life at all, and that challenge needs to be met.

Finally we need to look at our oceans the way we look at our environmental assets on land, and that is to have an understanding not simply of the concept of the species but the concept of habitat.

Just as you don't protect koalas by only running around looking for where there's a koala and making sure you're being nice to it, it's helpful that it also has a place to live. In a similar way the habitat within our oceans is as important as protecting and targeting the species themselves.

On the first issue of the oceans at large and making sure that we have areas of protection, Australia some months ago now launched the largest ever and most comprehensive network of marine protected areas in the world. Some people have wanted to see this as being a way of managing fisheries. It's not.

The science behind it is not the science of fisheries management. The science behind it is the science of identifying different bio-regions, and in identifying the different bio-regions you then make sure that you have a representative network across our oceans that provides protection for them. Effectively it's the equivalent of providing a national parks reserve in the ocean.

Some people have said - particularly with reference to the Coral Sea - well if it's in really good condition why on earth would you protect it? The answer is really simple. When we decide on land where our national parks should go we don't seek out the areas that have been clear felled and had car parks put over the top of them, and say oh, that's the area we'll make a national park. The fact that it's pristine makes it the environmental asset.

You don't need to choose what you protect based on what is under imminent threat. Having intact ecology and saying we're not going to wait till it's nearly destroyed before we decide to protect it is smart policy. It's better for industry because they haven't gone down a whole path of having assets deployed there. It's a better option to have these things dealt with a long way in advance.

That's the concept that we've had on land for a long time with national parks, and it's exactly why the government's determined to continue with proclamation this year on having the most comprehensive network of marine national parks in the world.

We then go to a more recent issue, which I think given that we're talking about the oceans, it wasn't originally in the remarks that I'd prepared to speak to you today about, but I think it's appropriate that I talk about the legislation that's currently going before the parliament.

Science meets Parliament is on in Canberra this week, and some people have questioned whether the reason we put legislation through the parliament in the context of the super-trawler is a rejection of the scientific knowledge that we have so far or not.

If I could explain as an Environment Minister, there are many occasions when a proposal is put to me and I go through under the Act the various questions that I'm legally obliged to ask. In most instances the scientific research that provides the answers to the questions is available. And when it's not I ask for the work to be done and put conditions around any proposal, or sometimes delay particular work being carried out until the research is done.

With fisheries management, up to now I hold no such power, and we have had the extraordinary situation where if the answer comes back that on a particular environmental question the scientific work hasn't been done, it actually provides an advantage to the company that therefore the lack of knowledge means I can't condition against it. The scientific work into these particular environmental questions under the current model that we have gets done in fisheries that are highly utilised, and industry, through a co-contribution method, pays for that scientific work.

But when you had a fishery like Small Pelagic Fishery, which has been under-utilised, by definition you haven't had industry players there and the work hasn't been done. So the scientific knowledge which is out there, which is close to ten years old, I have no problem with. No problem with what's there, but I can't pretend that that is enough for me to be able to make a responsible environmental decision.

When I ask questions like well if you get a localised depletion of small pelagic fish in an area, are there particular times of year where the migration patterns for seals, that would be problematic, the answer is we don't know.

Now, on the basis of that I can't guess the conditions, and I need to make sure that my environmental decisions are based on sound science and are based on quality information. So when the information comes back when the question comes back with the answer I don't know, the only responsible thing to do is to say well I want the work to be done so that I can get the answer to those questions.

The reason the legislation is going through the parliament at the moment with respect to expanding my powers under environmental law in the oceans, is to make sure that when we don't know we can find out, and to make sure that when not enough scientific work has been done we have the opportunity and the time to invest in more.

The process of this one is one where initially I had thought the fisheries management agency would be in a position to be able to answer those questions. When it turned out they weren't, not necessarily through any fault of their own, but when it turned out that these questions I was asking weren't able to be answered I went to my department and said what are my powers under current law to be able to insist that this work gets done?

When they came back and said well you can't stop the whole process, you can only condition to the extent that you know, I put the maximum level of conditions that I legally could down and set about finding out how we could change the law, because the law clearly fell short in protection of the oceans.

The Senate debated this issue extensively yesterday. They delayed it for about an hour while they debated whether or not they had time to debate the issue, but having decided after the first hour that they did have time to debate the issue, they then set about debating it. I am very hopeful that they will be able to continue to debate and bring the issue to a conclusion today in the senate.

There's a lot of people wanting a higher level of certainty that they're not able to get until this legislation passes and within the Parliament, I certainly know the Green Party supported us in the House of Representatives and has been generally faithful in the Senate and I certainly hope that they're willing to assist in this way in making sure that we are able to bring the issue to a conclusion in the later hours of this evening.

But we then move to the issue of runoff. One of the greatest success stories I think we have in marine protection since this government came to office originally under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was when we established the Reef Rescue program. Now, back when I was Agriculture Minister, I remember visiting cane growers' properties and the work that this program was doing on land was incredible.

Now, if you think of one of the greatest threats to the reef being the problem of runoff, whether it be chemical and nutrient runoff or whether it simply be dirt, because you've got less ground cover, so when you get heavy rains, you just get a whole lot more sediment making its way out into the ocean and out into the reef area.

The challenge of reducing that, even though it's work on land, has a massive and pretty much immediate impact on the quality of water in the Great Barrier Reef. Now, cane growers' properties that I visited, for example, I remember going to a property where, through the co-investment between smart farmers and the government, we had situations where they would GPS out and map out every square metre of their cane field and would have the different qualities of the soil throughout every square metre of the cane field.

As they would drive the tractor along, they would adjust the amount of chemical and nutrient that was added to what that precise part of the cane field required. So we ended up with a situation where after the investment had taken place, you had ongoing and permanent savings for these operators, where some of them were using as little as one-seventh, one-seventh, of the chemical use they'd had to use previously.

An extraordinary outcome, which saved them money and it also meant they were only using what needed to be used and when the rains came, the runoff didn't follow in the same way it always previously had. So when you get out into the deeper water, in terms of marine parks, I think we've been on the right track.

When you look at the impacts on land, we're making sure that we take everything into account, whether it be the conditions that I've imposed on the Alpha proposal or whether it be the work that we've done on Reef Rescue. But between land and before you get to reef, the ocean has its front lawn.

The front lawn is known as seagrass beds. Now, just as if you want to look after koalas, you've got to make sure that you've got your forests, similarly, even though seagrass itself is not threatened, many species which rely on it are. For turtle and dugong, seagrass represents 97 per cent of their diet.

For turtles and dugongs, seagrass is pretty much their only supermarket. When you lose the habitat, then you necessarily have a knock on impact on those species. Now, up until now, with our offsets policy, we've had a principle which has applied universally, but has basically only ever been taken up on land with one exception, which was Curtis Island.

But except for that, the principle of offsets has been taken up on land and almost never once you get underwater. The principle is this, and many environmental groups, I accept, don't like an offsets package, because they would prefer that if there's significant environmental damage, the project simply be blocked all together.

My view is if you can get an equivalent or improved environmental outcome in a sustainable way, then you should still go down that path. Now, on land, the example is pretty simply. On land, what companies do is if they are involved in clearing an area of habitat or an area that is itself in some ways threatened, then they have to find other areas or they choose to find other areas of low quality, but similar, habitat and bring it up, bring it up to the same level of quality of what we'd otherwise be losing through the project.

The additionality of where that improvement happens counts towards the offset, so they don't get credit for the entire parcel of land and that's why offsets are really a one to one, but they accredit for the additionality, the extent to which they improve the areas that they put into protection.

Now, companies do that all the time on land, but they don't tend to do it underwater. Now, the reason they don't do it underwater makes perfect sense. It's pretty hard to buy a quarter acre block of ocean. They don't tend to be sold in those terms, but what it's meant is when we look at offsets underwater, they've generally been second rate environmental outcomes.

They might involve research, they might involve extra levels of management but rarely have we seen the sort of quality habitat that we can preserve on land being preserved underwater.

The reason with Curtis Island we were able to get some areas that were put under a higher level of protection as part of the project proposal, the reason we were able to do that with Curtis Island was not simply the willingness of the companies to engage, but the willingness of the relevant state government, in that case, the Queensland Government, to be able to deal with putting some areas underwater into a higher level of protection.

I want to initiate this conversation with all governments, in particular, those with critical seagrass habitat. Our seagrass across Australia is about roughly one and half times the size of Tasmania. There's a lot there, but there's a lot to rely on it and around the world, we've been losing it and losing seagrass at extraordinary levels.

Basically over the last century or so, about twenty-nine per cent of our seagrass has been lost and I know that in the climate change discussion, people always go to Brazilian rainforests and places like that as your carbon sinks. Let's not forget seagrass is nearly triple the value of a carbon sink per acre, to what you get from your average forest.

It nearly runs at triple the rate of carbon sequestration. It's an extraordinary asset, environmentally, in every way, in issues other than habitat, as well. But what I would like us to be able to do is to start to think creatively. The offsets rules have always been there. They've never distinguished between land and sea.

But we've rarely taken up the opportunity that is there in making sure that we get a higher level of protection for seagrass. There are various options that are now being looked at by some companies where they are looking at options that do not involve dredging - options that might involve barges and different methods to make sure that seagrass is not lost. The environmental difference between a project that involves dredging and doesn't is extraordinary and we need to be taking these issues properly into account.

But there will always be some projects where dredging takes place and if, instead of the standard offsets we've been using, of only looking at scientific research and a little bit of sea country management, if we can start to look at finding ways of creating some real offsets and improve in the quality of seagrass elsewhere then we will massively improve the environmental outcomes that we're currently seeing along our coastal areas. And if we get the right level of cooperation from state governments it won't actually be a negative for the companies at all - won't actually be a negative for the companies at all.

So we have an opportunity that technically has always been there but has been taken up so rarely and consequently we've gone backwards step after backwards step. I don't want to see seagrass go the way of the kelp forests. I often get congratulated when I put something onto the threatened list - when the koala was put onto the threatened list, when the giant kelp forests were put on the threatened list because by doing so they do get a high level of protection.

But let's face it - there is nothing to celebrate in putting something onto the threatened list - nothing to celebrate at all.

It is by definition an admission that as a country, we're in a process of failure and it is a last ditch effort to try to turn that corner. I don't want to be in a situation where we are ever considering whether seagrass is in a similar situation but we already know that the species that rely on it are.

If we can turn this corner, if we can start to plan properly and make sure that we don't just say oh well we can spend some money elsewhere and that will deal with the pain we're causing here - if we can actually start to have some long term strategies for the protection of seagrass then our oceans have a chance of being in a much more significant and a much better state of health.

There are a number of threats to seagrass. Some of them go to the issues of chemical and nutrient runoff. Some of them go to ocean acidification associated - well not associated with climate change but associated with increased CO2 is the reason you get your ocean acidification with the formation of carbonic acid in the ocean.

But let's face it, we can talk about the impact of runoff, we can talk about the impact of ocean acidification, but realistically digging up seagrass isn't real good for it either and if we continue down the current path we are in a process which I think looking twenty years down the track we will deeply regret. So I will be encouraging all governments - all state governments to join with me in a conversation to see if we can find together some of the offsets that because of the nature of tenure companies can't find on their own.

At the end of all of this we end up with a comprehensive way of looking at our oceans - a comprehensive way of caring for our oceans. For a long time in Australia and throughout the world - throughout our early history - if it was under water before the invention of the glass mask you just didn't have a clue what it looked like. You didn't have a clue what was there and it made sense to most people that it would be a dumping ground.

We can't allow that to go on. While our planet is called Planet Earth we all know seventy per cent of it is ocean. It is a blue planet. Some would call it Planet Ocean. And we are nearly too late in many parts of the ocean in turning it around. Australia as a nation of islands is in a unique position and we are currently leading this global debate. It involves some difficult challenges for us. It involves a level of caution that we haven't always instinctively shown.

But I'm always reminded when I go to the beach of the child on the beach with a bucket because I remember playing the game; you remember playing the game - build a sandcastle, run down and fill the bucket with water, chuck it over the sandcastle and make the sides all hard. Then about ten minutes later jump on the whole thing. But the contents of that bucket and that game that has been played for a century - the contents of the bucket have changed. Between a hundred years ago and now the water within that bucket is biologically different, chemically different and physically different. It contains less life, more acid and more rubbish.

In every square metre of ocean - every square kilometre of ocean there's an average of thirteen thousand individual pieces of plastic. You go to a place like Lord Howe Island and you will find up to forty-five pieces of plastic inside the stomach of birds because it will look like food. We are making ground at the same time that we are causing immense damage.

I'm quite determined that just as the environmental agenda going back the last twenty and thirty years saw Australia make significant ground in protecting some of our magnificent places on earth so too in the current time and for the decade to come we build a national and international legacy on protection of the ocean whether it be national parks in the ocean, whether it be the impact on seagrass, whether it be the impact of runoff, there is an obligation that we have that generations before us got wrong. It's our job to get it right.