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The Hon Peter Garrett AM MP
Minister for Environment Protection, Heritage and the Arts

Speech to the opening of the Marine and Tropical Sciences Research Facility (MTSRF) Conference

Pullman Hotel & Casino
Cairns, Queensland
18 May 2010

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I want to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land we stand on today, the Gimuy Yidindji people and their communities.

Thanks for inviting me here today to share the achievements of the Marine and Tropical Sciences Research Facility. This conference is a concluding event for MTSRF research. However, what you have achieved over the past four years will inform and influence governments and other stakeholders for years to come.

There's no question that far North Queensland is a very special part of the world, and the Rudd Government is absolutely determined to ensure that its extraordinary values, and they are extraordinary by any measure, continue to be recognised around the world.

Here we have the meeting place of two naturally diverse ecosystems – the Great Barrier Reef and the Wet Tropics rainforests – both World Heritage listed, both remarkable natural wonders, and both places where people live and work in jobs that actually rely on these remarkable natural assets.

It's a great example of how investment in protecting and managing the natural environment is actually an investment in our economic future.

I'd like to acknowledge the role of the Member for Leichhardt Jim Turnour, because he has been a vigorous advocate for this region, and his advocacy has produced results. In October, we announced an investment of $3.8 million in Queensland's natural heritage, including an elevated boardwalk in the Mossman Gorge. This project will enable people, including those with physical disabilities, to enjoy the natural wonders of the Gorge, while at the same time, creating jobs for local workers.

Through the Caring for our Country Reef Rescue initiative the Australian Government has provided a significant increase in funding with a commitment of $200 million over five years to help farmers adopt land management practices that will improve the quality of water entering the Great Barrier Reef lagoon. By focusing on reducing the run-off of nutrients, pesticides and sediments, we are lessening the impact of land-based pollutants on reef ecosystems and importantly improving the reef's resilience to the impacts of climate change.

Our Reef Rescue investment is built on the solid foundation of Reef science carried out by MTSRF and others. By targeting investment to those places and activities that pose the greatest risk to reef water quality, we are focusing our funding where it can achieve the most cost effective results.

An important component of Reef Rescue is the $10 million Reef Water Quality Research and Development program. Research funded through this program will enhance our understanding of the water quality benefits of improved land management practices and support the development of tools and expertise to accelerate their uptake. Research institutions in northern Queensland will no doubt be heavily engaged in this important work.

But today I want to note the achievements of the Marine and Tropical Sciences Research Facility, celebrate what has been achieved to date, and look forward to what I consider to be a bright future for research in this region.

The MTSRF has been a significant part of the Commonwealth Environment Research Facilities or CERF program. Funding of $40 million over the last 4 years has brought together a number of thinkers to examine the future of some of our greatest natural treasures.

These researchers have been drawn from across the country to focus attention to threshold issues across this region.

However, at the heart of this consortium has been a great academic institution in James Cook University and research bodies made up of some of Australia's best minds, the Australian Institute of Marine Science and the CSIRO.

All proudly based in northern Queensland, staffed with dedicated researchers with strong local knowledge and a genuine concern for their own backyard.

In this International Year of Biodiversity it's important to acknowledge some of the great achievements that have been made by MTSRF researchers to help ensure the long-term stability of the Great Barrier Reef and Cape York.

The Reef has had a particular fascination to researchers for decades, and over that time masses of data has been collected, covering everything from water quality and abundance of flora and fauna to fishing activities and much more. With the development of the e-Atlas a collaboration between MTSRF and other Australian Government agencies, we now have both a repository for that data and a mechanism for displaying and analysing it. Best of all, the e-Atlas is freely available online to all Australians, in fact to anyone with an interest in this part of the world.

I also want to congratulate MTSRF researchers, who in association with the Queensland Government, have worked to improve the conditions of seagrass beds along the Reef. This region is bucking the international trends in seagrass decline and the flow-on benefits are accruing. It appears that the presence of seagrass reduces the impact of severe tidal activity that can cause coastal erosion. Sea grasses also have the capacity to filter toxins from farm run-off water and reduce its impact on the Reef. This process has been so successful in Queensland that it has been exported to 25 countries around the world, with 270 sites currently being monitored.

The project 'Resilience to climate change' examines the Great Barrier Reef as one area in Australia which is especially vulnerable to climate change. Led by Professor Terry Hughes of James Cook University and Dr Julian Caley from the Australian Institute of Marine Science, this project has recently undertaken work on forecasting a climate-related disease that affects coral. This disease, known as 'white syndrome' has a terrible impact on reef structure, and it appears that there is a direct correlation between increased heat-stress on the reef, and the abundance of this particular disease.

This is not an isolated example of the positive collaboration between institutions based here in northern Queensland that has come about from the MTSRF.

Another is the work of Dr Karen McNamara and Professor Kevin Parnell on the effect of climate change on the Torres Strait. Many of the islands face regular severe inundation and others experience a range of climate stresses. Only a short time ago, my colleague Minister Penny Wong visited the Torres Strait and saw the risks it faces for herself.

This research project developed strategies to help communities both mitigate these impacts and adapt to the realities of their present situation. It also helped to communicate these climate issues to the communities in the region. It's essential that these communities have a good understanding of how and why the world they know is literally changing before their eyes, and what they can do about it.

One aspect of MTSRF's work that I want to highlight is its attention to producing practical information that can be applied by end-users. There is no better example of that than the work on road construction guidelines for rainforest habitats.

Increasing human activity around and through patches of your magnificent, World Heritage listed rainforest presents a real threat to wildlife such as the southern cassowary.

The preservation of the cassowary is not just an exercise in this bird's conservation. It acknowledges the special role these birds play in the delicate biodiversity of the rainforest. Their role in consuming native rainforest fruits and spreading seeds is crucial for regeneration. To protect these rainforests we much protect the cassowary, and that is a particular challenge for those who design and construct infrastructure.

The guidelines to be launched at this conference recommend the construction of roadside fences in cassowary habitat, alongside other measures such as ropeways through canopies for arboreal species like possums and tree-kangaroos, and tunnels under roads for other species. This work has also informed the EPBC Act policy statement 'Significant impact guidelines' for the Southern Cassowary. It is assisting those who are developing close to cassowary habitats to take the necessary steps to undertake their activities, while at the same time ensuring this iconic species is protected.

In 2006 the MTSRF was brought under the broader CERF program umbrella. CERF was designed to conclude after four years, at which point it would be reviewed and the next stage determined. The four years is up, and the CERF program is now coming to a close. In February I announced the broad direction of the future CERF program, now renamed the National Environmental Research Program, or the NERP. The NERP capitalises on the elements of CERF that we felt brought the greatest benefit.

In addition to MTSRF, CERF has had 22 separate investments, including fellowships, significant projects and seven multi-million dollar hubs. For the future, we will be streamlining these investments into three or potentially four broad-ranging research hubs, to the tune of about $20 million per year.

This structure should enable scientists with common interests to deliver a creative, highly integrated and high quality research program. NERP is actively encouraging collaborations to deliver better outcomes for end-users. We also want to make sure that this research is able to have a positive effect on policy development, and help set targets we all need to reach. The rainforest road construction guidelines I mentioned earlier are exactly the kind of work I want to see coming from the new program.

Critical to delivering research which is of lasting use to policy makers is taking account of the bigger picture: namely the multiple interactions within and across ecosystems so as to inform decision making that contributes to the health of the whole.

The NERP hub structure will enable both a more concentrated research focus, while at the same time streamlining our administration and developing strong working relationships between the hubs and government.

The NERP's hubs have been carefully designed to enable maximum coverage of those areas we feel are in the greatest need of attention.

The Northern Australia Hub will enable researchers with specific interests in the area from Cape York to the Kimberly to come together, to further research priorities that could be as diverse as examining mangrove ecosystems in the Northern Territory, to starfish infestations in the Gulf of Carpentaria.

The marine and terrestrial ecosystems research will assist researchers from land and water, from north and south, to find common ground and work toward their common goals. We will be able to examine the strength and vulnerabilities of our ecosystems from Burnie to Broome, Albany to the tip of the Cape .

The final hub is, I'm sure, of particular interest to many here, the Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait Hub.

This Hub will provide focused opportunity for researchers with an interest in this part of world. It will allow existing researchers to continue their work and open doors for new voices and ideas. In September last year I launched the first Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Outlook Report. The outlook report covered a wide-range of issues, including assessing biodiversity and ecosystem health, the resilience of those ecosystems, the impacts of commercial and non-commercial activities, the efficacy of existing protection and management measures, and overall risks to the Reef. Many of the findings in the Outlook report were the result of MTSRF research, now it is time to move to the next stage.

I want to see a strong connection between the findings of that report and the work of the future Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait Hub. The report highlights where the news is positive, such as the Reef's capacity for ecological recovery.

It also points to the considerable risks faced by the Reef, with climate change, increased coastal development and run-off as the most serious challenges. I hope that the positive collaboration between researchers and government, which led to this Outlook Report, will continue.

Any potential threat is of tremendous concern for all those who value the Great Barrier Reef. In this room we have people who depend on the Reef for their livelihoods, for example, those who are involved in the tourism industry. We need our best and brightest to work together to address the issues that put the health of this nationally and internationally recognised treasure in jeopardy, and construct out of those research collaborations, creative, effective and long-lasting solutions.

This region will always be supported by this Government, we recognise how crucial it is to Australia's national interest. The current MTSRF and the future Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait Hub are important elements of that support.

Last week the Rudd Government handed down its third Budget and provided valuable support to the Reef. There was an additional $12 million in funding for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. This includes $4 million for the Reef HQ Aquarium in Townsville and $3.8 million to encourage local action and foster a sense of community with Reef conservation at its heart. I mentioned earlier that a great strength of MTSRF has been its local knowledge and engagement, something that should endure and grow. This is why the new Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait Hub will be administered out of this region.

I also want to ensure that we not only capitalise on current successes, but look to further build this region's research capacity. I have been keenly aware of the concerns of many that the change to the NERP would weaken that capacity. I believe we will continue to build capacity by fostering wider collaboration and encouraging a tighter focus on the Reef, Torres Strait and Northern Australia and the unique biodiversity that occurs here.

We will continue to support our talented researchers, and ensure that environmental research has a bright future in this region. A great example of this already growing capacity was the creation of the Cairns Institute at James Cook University, which will allow a multi-disciplinary approach to the special problems faced by the 3 billion people who live in the tropics. This Government is aware that the end of a major research program and adjusting to a new one is a difficult transition.

In order to ensure that researchers are able to continue to work, and produce valuable and useful outputs, the Government has offered CERF hubs and MTSRF additional funds for the concluding months of this calendar year. Each hub has been offered significant funding, including an initial allocation of $1.25 million for the MTSRF, to continue their work and to harvest their research.

In addition, I am pleased to be able to announce that MTSRF will be granted an additional $750,000 for rainforest research. Apart from the new opportunities that will arise for rainforest research under the new NERP program, this funding will ensure that capacity is maintained to undertake that research.

A key focus of the transition program is harvesting of information from MTSRF research. We need to make sure that all the useful work that researchers have been undertaking over the past four years is effectively communicated and put into action. MTSRF's work covers a broad area, and the potential impact on policy is considerable. It's important that we realise that potential, and that's what this transition phase is all about.

What has been achieved over the past four years by researchers in the Marine and Tropical Sciences Research Facility is remarkable.

This is a very special part of the world, and the Australian Government has been proud to support this program. We look forward to the final products, so that we can better understand how we can further support this region's environmental future.

Through the MTSRF transition funding and the new National Environmental Research Program the Rudd Government is determined that the scientific research community in northern Queensland will continue to be supported. By working together the research community will only grow stronger.

I want to close by thanking my department for their management of the MTSRF and all those, past and present, in the Reef and Rainforest Research Centre who administered this diverse and demanding program. And I also want to thank you, the researchers, whose work is so important to this region and our country's future.

Thank you.

[ENDS]

Commonwealth of Australia