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Tougher Law Introducted to Protect Great Barrier Reef from Pesticide Runoff

(Beyond Pesticides, June 10, 2009) On June 4, Australia’s Queensland Government introduced legislation to prevent dangerous runoff of farm pollution, marking a major turning point for the conservation of the Great Barrier Reef. Some farmers claim it is unnecessary government interference in agricultural practices.

Currently 80 percent of rivers draining to the Reef breach water quality guidelines due to farm fertilizer, pesticide and sediment runoff. The Queensland Government introduced the bill, entitled the Great Barrier Reef Protection Act, into Parliament to regulate farm practices and pesticide use. More specifically, the bill targets water pollution control at its agricultural origin. Failure to comply could trigger a $30,000 fine. Activists, while welcoming the new measure, say such legislation should have been introduced years ago. Environmental groups: WWF-Australia, Queensland Conservation, Australian Marine Conservation Society and Wildlife Queensland are united in their support for the new laws.

Premier Anna Bligh says the Great Barrier Reef Protection Act will decrease sediment, nutrients and pesticides entering the reef.

World Wildlife Fund (WWF) spokesman Nick Heath says the legislation will help the environment and farmers. “The Government’s just released a new estimate that there’s over $30 million worth of fertilizer and pesticide going onto the reef every year,” he said. “It’s a turning point for the Reef – welcome news after years of concern.”

“This is also a turning point for Australian agriculture – for too long there has been too little change in environmentally risky and outdated farm practices,” said Mr. Heath.

Many hope that once made law, clear prohibitions of unacceptable high risk practices are set, and that $175m, which has been promised as a commitment to reef protection, is properly allocated between new on-ground enforcement, education and extension capacity. Activists say that the Federal and State governments must unite investments ($200m from the Commonwealth and $175m from the State) to ensure the deepest pollution cuts in the shortest time. Activists are hoping for a 50 per cent cut in pollution over 4 years, as well as an annual review of progress. The legislation would also indirectly help protect 60,000 jobs dependent on the reef’s health.

However, farm industry groups find this new measure to be unnecessary and that farmers are being unfairly persecuted. Grant Maudsley, from Agforce, said monitoring runoff and recording the use of chemicals was already in place and that the amendments would not produce any real environmental outcomes. Secretary of the Proserpine Milling Co-operative (an association for the sugar mill industry) Ian McBean, says the government is over-regulating and that the sugar industry is already implementing environmentally friendly practices. “We really seem to be heading down a nanny state path here,” said Mr. McBean. “The sugar industry has made a very concerted effort to improve its environmental performance and yet it seems to me that the state government is claiming that those very practices that the industry has implemented will only work if they’re under government control.”
But Col McKenzie from the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators notes that 5 years ago, when the reef rescue plan was first put out, asking for voluntary changes would not have been enough. Inevitably, according to Mr. McKenzie, any voluntary measure would have to be followed up with legislation.

The Great Barrier Reef, the largest coral reef system on earth and home to thousands of species of fish, coral, birds, turtles and other sea mammals, is under threat from overfishing, land-based pollution and coral bleaching exacerbated by increased sea temperatures due to global warming. The herbicides atrazine and diuron have been detected at river mouths, inshore reefs and intertidal seagrass monitoring locations. Most runoff comes from pastoral and sugar cane plantation activities. Phased out organochlorine pesticides such as dieldrin and the breakdown products of DDT, are still being detected in mud crabs collected along the reef coast as well.

Previously only 4.6 percent of the reef was fully protected, but after public campaigning and pressure from WWF, the Australian Government committed to a plan to protect 33 percent of the reef. For more information on the Great Barrier Reef visit WWF-Australia.

Sources: ABC News (Australia), WWF- Australia


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