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Great Barrier Reef Damaged By Pesticide Runoff

(Beyond Pesticides, August 17, 2007) The widespread presence of pesticides and other agricultural runoff has been confirmed in the world’s largest coral reef system. Degradation of the system threatens not only a natural treasure but also the region’s economy.

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is the subject of a recent report by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. Entitled the “Annual Marine Monitoring Report 2006,” the study confirms extensive contamination in eight of the ten major tributaries into the marine park, much of which is fertilizer and pesticide runoff from the area’s farmland. Local environmental groups are calling for government protection of the reef from these pollutants, and tourism interests worry that damage to the reef will reduce the number of visitors to Australia. According to World Wildlife Foundation-Australia program leader Nick Heath, “Reducing pollution load is possible and will help us save the Reef, as well as the 60,000 tourism jobs based around the Reef.”

According to the report, “Water quality in the Great Barrier Reef is principally affected by land-based activities in its adjacent catchments, including vegetation modification, grazing, agriculture, urban development, industrial development and aquaculture. Nutrients, sediments and pesticides are the pollutants of most concern for the health of the Great Barrier Reef.”

Among the pesticides found in the waters sampled are diuron, which is found at the mouth of each tributary year round, atrazine, the other most commonly-applied pesticide, and other herbicides. Herbicides are also routinely found in inshore reef water samples.

Mr. Heath cited a 2004 report that found sugar cane farmers were over-applying pesticides by 75 percent as a contributing factor to the study’s results. “These pesticides are used on the ground to kill weeds and will have the same effect in the ocean,” he said.

Mud crabs were also tested for bio-accumulation of persistent organic contaminants like PCBs, dieldrin, and DDT, which is present in 33 percent of the crabs tested. While the concentration of these chemicals is relatively low and not in commonly eaten parts of the crab, the results indicate that long-since banned chemicals are still affecting the ecosystem.

In response, activists call for the Australian government to invest in protection of the Reef. “If nothing is done it’s quite a grim future for the reef,” said Mr. Heath. “Pollution will continue to stress corals, continue to feed wave after wave of crown of thorn starfish outbreaks, reducing coral cover and probably even worse reducing the resilience of the reef to be able to deal with the increased temperatures expected from climate change.”

Mr. Heath’s concern for the Reef’s future is corroborated by a University of North Carolina study, which found that over the past 20 years the Reef has reduced in size at five times the rate of the rainforests.

The continued documentation of environmental degradation throughout the globe in conjunction with pesticide contamination reinforces the need in a global economy to buy certified organic products and vote with your dollar by refusing to support companies that are not socially and environmentally responsible.

For past Daily News on the Great Barrier Reef and pesticides, click here.

Sources: The Sydney Morning Herald, Voice of America, The Herald Sun, WWF-Australia


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