University of Queensland Professor Hugh Possingham
University of Queensland Professor Hugh Possingham Geoff Potter

Scientists call to halt port developments due to reef threat

MORE than 100 Australian scientists have called on the Queensland and Australian Governments to hit the pause button on any new port developments, while a massive national assessment of all the risks to the Great Barrier Reef is completed.

Signatory to an open letter sent to both governments, University of Queensland Professor Hugh Possingham said a massive, independent, peer-reviewed study of all threats to the reef needed to be undertaken.

He was one of about 150 Australian and international scientists calling for a halt to new port developments, which all signatories believed could exacerbate existing threats to the reef.

Prof Possingham said it was a "rare occurrence" that such a scientific consensus could be found on any single issue, but showed the importance of the worth of the environmental asset.

"The Australian public have a right to have a full and comprehensive assessment, and we need that in clear, plain English to show what it's going to cost and what the real risks are," he said.

He said total coral cover on the reef could have fallen to as little at 5% of the total reef area by 2050, despite valiant efforts including tackling crown of thorns starfish and the $200 million Reef Rescue program.

"We need to have a proper, independent, peer-reviewed study of all the stressors on the reef to make it clear what the scientific situation actually is," Prof Possingham said.

"This is a daunting and complicated task, and I don't envy the task of the strategic assessment or the state's coastal development plan.

"But these processes when done by either government or the ports themselves have not been subject to a rigorous peer-review process."

Prof Possingham said he did not want a permanent ban on new port developments, but an independent assessment of how existing infrastructure could be shared, and how best to deal with current threats.

"It's obvious with some of the large dredging programs, that they are having an impact, but we think there are better ways to do this," he said.

"None of these issues can be seen in isolation, and I'd like to have economists on board with any such projects to show how much extra costs there would be with more environmentally-sustainable options."

The letter calls on both state and federal governments to ensure new port developments, including at north Curtis Island, Balaclava Island and Port Alma in Central Queensland.