Will the Great Barrier Reef die off: How harmful are coastal development activities and can Marine Biodiversity Offsets be effective?

In 2017 Amer­i­can ecol­o­gists from the Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy (MIT) develop the ground­break­ing tech­nol­ogy “Gen­Calc”. The new cal­cu­la­tion method offers the oppor­tu­nity to ini­ti­ate transna­tional bio­di­ver­sity com­pen­sa­tion and credit trad­ing – for the first time with­out neglect­ing the com­plex­ity of ecosys­tems and bio­di­ver­sity. Soon, a num­ber of coun­tries that have already estab­lished bio­di­ver­sity off­set and bank­ing sys­tems declare their readi­ness to serve as test­ing regions for the new tool. In 2018, New South Wales and Vic­to­ria, where com­mer­cial bio­di­ver­sity bank­ing schemes have been in place since the mid-1990s, as well as New Zealand, start to imple­ment the new tech­nol­ogy from MIT and cre­ate a test net­work of banks. Controversy rages over the Great Barrier Reef. Photo: Tourism & Events  Queensland (source: http://www.smh.com.au/environment/abbot-point-dredging-approval-under-heavy-fire-20140905-10cqsu.html#ixzz3DViG1pqh)The new soft­ware enables the trade of valu­able species cred­its through­out Ocea­nia. Care­ful eco­log­i­cal mon­i­tor­ing takes place in par­al­lel to stop oper­a­tions if a decline in species is reg­is­tered. But this was not an issue, at least not until the end of 2018: Lit­er­ally overnight, Great Bar­rier Reef corals start to die off en masse as an unin­tended side effect of coastal devel­op­ment activ­i­ties. Due to unlikely cir­cum­stances, the mon­i­tor­ing sys­tem alarm is sent too late for this ecosys­tem to be saved. The aquatic flora and fauna of the Great Reef are lost for­ever. In the wake of this dis­as­ter, blame is attrib­uted to a soft­ware failure.

 An apoc­a­lyp­tic vision?

The (hypo­thet­i­cal?) sce­nario above is adapted from the Chal­leng­ing futures of bio­di­ver­sity and bank­ing report (pre­pared by the Inno­va­tion in Gov­er­nance Research Group, Berlin). This is what came to my mind when I read the head­line of an ABC (Aus­tralia) arti­cle: Great Bar­rier Reef envi­ron­men­tal off­sets are flawed some days ago. What? Wait a minute: Great Bar­rier Reef and envi­ron­men­tal (or bio­di­ver­sity) off­sets in the same sen­tence? If there is one ecosys­tem that is to be con­sid­ered absolutely unique and out­stand­ing on a world­wide scale (of course I know, when look­ing into detail every sin­gle ecosys­tem that exists is unique) then I would sure be the Great Bar­rier Reef. And as such, with­out any doubt, it should not become sub­ject of off­sets at all.

Despite, things are not always as obvi­ous as they seem. While any direct impact on the Great Bar­rier Reef from devel­op­ment would never be admis­si­ble, it is still likely that it may be affected by indi­rect and cumu­la­tive impacts, espe­cially by coastal devel­op­ments. There­fore, marine bio­di­ver­sity off­sets might actu­ally present a use­ful add-on option to the nec­es­sary con­ser­va­tion activities.

The alter­na­tive would obvi­ously be to ask whether any coastal devel­op­ment has to be pro­hib­ited – at least for a unique and frag­ile ecosys­tem such as the Great Bar­rier Reef. But would that ever be polit­i­cally achievable?

 New arti­cle: Effec­tive marine off­sets for the Great Bar­rier Reef World Her­itage Area

 If you want to read more about marine bio­di­ver­sity off­sets and the Great Bar­rier Reef, have a look this arti­cle to be pub­lished in the Octo­ber issue of Envi­ron­men­tal Sci­ence & Pol­icy by Melissa Bos, Robert L. Pressey and Natalie Stoeckl from Aus­tralian Research Coun­cil Cen­tre of Excel­lence for Coral Reef Stud­ies at James Cook Uni­ver­sity, Queens­land. The researchers chose not weigh into the debate sur­round­ing whether or not off­sets should be used, and instead focussed on ways of improv­ing the effec­tive­ness of cur­rent off­sets. Melissa Bos (in the arti­cle for ABC men­tioned above) argues that despite the chal­lenges marine envi­ron­ments present in terms of their man­age­ment, work­ing with them is not impos­si­ble. How­ever she states:

“Off­sets should not ever be used to jus­tify the approval of a devel­op­ment that oth­er­wise would not have been approved. In an ideal world, we could pre­vent all dam­age to the Great Bar­rier Reef, and we could do away with off­sets. But in real­ity, it’s a bal­anc­ing act: if you don’t have off­sets, devel­op­ment will still go ahead, but we’ll have noth­ing to force com­pa­nies to com­pen­sate for their damage.”


Here’s the abstract to the research article:

Bio­di­ver­sity off­sets are a preva­lent mech­a­nism to com­pen­sate for devel­op­ment impacts to nat­ural resources, but the appro­pri­ate­ness and effi­cacy of off­sets remain the sub­jects of research and debate. Effec­tive off­sets for impacts to marine resources present even more chal­lenges than those for ter­res­trial impacts. The Great Bar­rier Reef World Her­itage Area is glob­ally valu­able for both bio­di­ver­sity and her­itage, but coastal devel­op­ment is under­min­ing these val­ues, and more effec­tive off­sets are needed to com­pen­sate for the dam­age. To improve the effec­tive­ness of marine off­sets for the Great Bar­rier Reef, we rec­om­mend that: (1) pro­po­nents be required to fol­low and doc­u­ment their adher­ence to the mit­i­ga­tion hier­ar­chy, which con­sid­ers off­sets only as a last resort after avoid­ance and mit­i­ga­tion, (2) pro­po­nents and reg­u­la­tors con­sider the risk of off­setabil­ity prior to off­set design, (3) the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment require off­sets to achieve addi­tional, mea­sur­able net ben­e­fits, rel­a­tive to the coun­ter­fac­tual base­line, for all affected val­ues, (4) spe­cial­ist third par­ties (not gov­ern­ment or pro­po­nents) design and imple­ment marine off­sets, (5) off­sets are direct and spe­cific to the affected val­ues, with very min­i­mal invest­ment into research, (6) off­sets are con­sol­i­dated into strate­gic imple­men­ta­tion sites, with long-term legal pro­tec­tion, that are con­sis­tent with the zon­ing of the Great Bar­rier Reef Marine Park and adja­cent coastal land uses, (7) the time between impact and net ben­e­fit should be min­i­mized, and net ben­e­fits should be main­tained in per­pe­tu­ity, (8) pro­po­nents pay the full cost of off­set imple­men­ta­tion, mon­i­tor­ing and eval­u­a­tion, and cost is agreed upon before the devel­op­ment is approved, and (9) mon­i­tor­ing of the effi­cacy of off­sets is sep­a­rate to but coor­di­nated with regional mon­i­tor­ing pro­grams for ecosys­tem health, and mon­i­tor­ing data are made pub­li­cally avail­able. Within this con­text, and with care­ful and rig­or­ous meth­ods as described herein, off­sets can con­tribute to main­tain­ing the Out­stand­ing Uni­ver­sal Value of the multiple-use World Her­itage Area.

Abbot Point Coal Terminal

One of the lat­est coastal devel­op­ments poten­tially influ­enc­ing the marine area and Great Bar­rier Reef is the Abbot Point Coal Ter­mi­nal (see my pre­vi­ous post Gina vs. the reef? A plea for informed debate on bio­di­ver­sity off­sets). This has been con­tro­ver­sely dis­cussed and picked up by the media, espe­cially for the plan to dump spoil in the sea which was recently aban­doned. Read more: Abbot Point dredg­ing approval under heavy fire.

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