Senate Estimates figures reveal extent of reef dredging

MORE than 165 million cubic metres of dredging was approved or applied for inside the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area in the past 12 years, new Senate Estimates figures revealed on Wednesday.

It comes as two major Australian conservation groups prepare to launch a national campaign to ensure the protection of the reef from various threats, including dredging.

The figures were revealed in answers to questions posed by Queensland Greens Senator Larissa Waters during Estimates last year.

While the total amount of dredging applied for has not yet been approved, Environment Minister Tony Burke's answers confirmed that more than 53 million cubic metres of dredging had been approved in the world heritage area since 2000.

The Minister's answers to questions posed last August also revealed a further 14,916,500 cubic metres of dredging was approved within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park between 2000 and September 2012.

Port companies and other corporations had also already applied for approvals to dredge a further 96 million cubic metres of seabed in the WHA, although those applications were still being assessed.

Senator Waters said the nation was now on track to turn the reef into a coal and gas highway and a "rubbish dump for dredge spoil".

"What a triumph of greedy short-termism over the national interest," she said.

In addition to existing dredging projects approved or applied for, the dumping of dredge spoil within the WHA and Great Barrier Reef Marine Park was also on the rise.

More than 55 million cubic metres of dredge spoil has already been approved to be dumped within the WHA, including 25 million cubic metres inside the marine park boundary.

"The Australian Government is allowing our reef to be treated like a rubbish tip by allowing offshore dumping of that dredge spoil to the tune of 55 million cubic metres approved or applied for since 2000 - a massive 32 Melbourne Cricket Ground's worth - despite (marine park authority) policy that offshore dumping should be a last resort," Senator Waters said.

The figures reveal the full extent of approved and planned dredging within or near the reef, as the Australian Marine Conservation Society and WWF announced they would start a national campaign to protect the reef.

AMCS Great Barrier Reef campaigner Felicity Wishart said she was concerned that while most Australians supported the protection of the reef, not enough knew what was actually happening.

She said existing threats like the Crowns of Thorns starfish and coastal run-off would only be exacerbated by numerous ports developments and the resultant dredging.

"I think a lot of Australians expect our governments to ensure the reef is protected, but the Queensland Government seems to be encouraging more developments along the coast, and I don't think the Federal Government has done enough to step in," she said.

"We have started this campaign to raise public awareness, because the only way our politicians will step up and improve (environmental protection) is if the public comes out in support of it.

"There are 45 different projects that could affect the reef in different ways, and the push for more coal mines and ports is not going to make it easier to protect it."

Ms Wishart said it was an issue which should be above party politics, and she wanted all Australians to voice their support for the reef's protection.

"Both major parties have a proud record of protecting the reef in the past, and this should not be something that one party is doing more on," she said.

"I think it will be a big election issue this year, particularly in Queensland, and all parties and their local MPs should be getting out and telling the public exactly what they will do to protect the reef."

Ms Wishart said she was also concerned the public and politicians were not taking the threats seriously and that it was likely the reef could be put on the UNESCO's World Heritage Sites "in danger" list.

"We don't want the World Heritage Committee to put the reef on the in danger list - that's not what we're agitating for - what we want is appropriate protection, and resources, being put to help protect it," she said.