Aerial of the Great Barrier Reef.
Aerial of the Great Barrier Reef. C Veron

Debate over Great Barrier Reef dredging reaches fever pitch

A WAR of spin has erupted between the coal industry and environmentalists over ports and dredging near the Great Barrier Reef, as an Airlie Beach diving instructor voices his concerns about new developments.

The debate between industry and green groups has reached fever pitch, with both sides alleging the other is trying to divert attention away from various threats to the reef's health.

And while the lobby groups go head to head, Airlie Beach tourism operator Tony Fontes said on Friday he was afraid the effects of new projects to the north and south of the Whitsunday Islands could not be predicted.

Mr Fontes has run a diver training and tour business on the reef since the late 1970s, taking people out to test their skills under the water around the Whitsundays.

He said he had already seen the effects of minor dredging projects at local marinas and fears what is to come with several major projects in the pipeline.

Mr Fontes said small local dredging projects around Airlie had loosened sediments, causing constant plumes of muddied water to flow throughout the area he dives in for more than a year after the works were done.

"I can't really comment on the science, but the big problem as I see it is that no-one seems to know what the real, long-term effect of these new dredging projects will be," he said.

"I just don't think we can take a chance and hope for the best that these projects won't have an impact."

His comments came as the Queensland Resources Council began a new campaign to "set the record straight" about the reef's health.

Chief executive Michael Roche said "every credible scientific report" had named the crown of thorns starfish, water quality and extreme weather events as "the real culprits".

"Neither an increase in shipping traffic nor decades of port dredging has been scientifically recorded as contributing to coral cover loss or a historical decline in the environmental health of the reef," he said.

However, the council's statement did not include the concerns of the United Nations World Heritage Committee, which has repeatedly said shipping and port developments were key concerns.

While the mining lobby pointed to evidence in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority's 2009 Outlook report, that report also did not include millions of tonne of dredging which has since been approved near the reef.

WWF Australia hit out at Mr Roche's comments on Friday, saying 150 reputable Australian scientists had signed an open letter calling for port construction outside of existing port areas to halt.

The letter was sent out earlier this year, highlighting the scientific community's concerns that port development could exacerbate the existing effects of the starfish, sediment run-off and extreme weather.

WWF conservation director Dr Gilly Llewellyn said scientists had told the public "loud and clear" that industrialisation was threatening the reef.

"Concerns about the impacts of industrialisation on the reef are not hysterical claims by environmental activists as QRC proclaims," she said.

As the debate continues, Mr Fontes is more concerned about how the developments could affect his business and family.

"Personally, I think if the reef does lose world heritage listing it's embarrassing for starters, it's almost better to never have had it then to have it called 'in danger'," he said.

"That's the frightening thing that no-one seems to know, I'm not a scientist and I don't know what the tipping point is.

"I just feel I have a big responsibility to leave something (here) that I've enjoyed - to make sure it's still here for my children and their children to enjoy too."