In the south of Australia, Queenslanders have a reputation for being a bit thick, a bit dim, a few snags short of a barbie. I don’t know if that’s true, but according to Jon, the guy that drove our boat out to the Great Barrier Reef last week, not many people up there seem to realise the degree to which they all rely on the reef for their livelihoods. It’s not hard really. Drive into Cairns and you’ll notice an array of high rise apartments along the shore. The shiny new marina is packed with shiny new boats, all advertising trips to the reef. Daybreak tours. Sunset tours. Fishing, diving, snorkeling. You name it.
Further up the coast in Port Douglas, another row of resort hotels, day spas, camp grounds, and another shiny new marina, plus a shopping centre, all selling trips, or t-shirts, or fluffy turtle toys – essentially, selling the Great Barrier Reef.
The reef is a delicate, but prolific ecosystem. Snorkelling, immersed in that underwater world, it’s not hard to see why people flock to experience it. Coral blooms floral on the sea bed in columns which have taken thousand of years to form. Colonies of boulders or brains; branches like staghorns protruding up into the clear water. Angels, butterflies, clowns – so many varied, multi-coloured fish dart about, nibbling on the edges of coral. A green turtle pushes his face into a coral flower bed and comes out chomping. The coral is the bedrock of life here.
So it is good news that the Queensland government has just backed down and said that it is NOT going to dump dredging spoil into the marine park which encompasses the Great Barrier Reef. The question remains whether the coal they want to transport out of Queensland is worth the extra expense of dumping the spoil inland – and whether the taxpayers will wear it.
Latest figures suggest that the Great Barrier Reef generates 6 billion dollars every year, with an estimated 63,000 jobs, but when Jon takes his boat for some repairs, he asks the guy doing the welding at the boatyard about his thoughts on the health of the reef. “Well, it would be a shame to lose it” he says. “But life would go on”. “Would it?” asks Jon. “You’d be out of business, for a start!”. “How come?” says the welder. “Look around you” says Jon. “Where does your business come from? None of these boats would be here if the reef didn’t exist. None of the businesses which take tourists out would survive.”
“Ah.” says the welder. “I see what you mean”.
The same is true for every bar, restaurant, cleaning service, plumber, and retailer. Everyone up here relies on the reef. And if everyone up here relies on the reef, then think of the businesses in other places which benefit from the “also ran” effect. People come to Australia to see the Great Barrier Reef, but then they go on to Uluru, to Sydney, or to Kakadu. But it might just be the reef which is the star attraction.
Plans to build the world’s largest coal port at Abbot Point, just 50 km from the Great Barrier Reef can never be a good idea. The risk to this, one of the seven natural wonders of the world, from prolonged dredging and increased shipping far outweighs any financial benefit. Australia seems to be hell bent on stripping the land of all its natural beauty and resources. Soon, all that will be left is a vast wasteland fringed by a skirt of caravan parks staring at a gray, lifeless ocean.