ABC News

22 April 2014

More than 250,000 crown-of-thorns starfish have been removed from the Great Barrier Reef off Queensland in the past two years, Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt says.

The pest is considered to be one of the biggest threats to the reef and has traditionally been hard to destroy. Read more




The Age

06 October 2012

In 1969, the veteran TV journalist Bob Raymond produced a documentary, Life and Death on the Great Barrier Reef. In it, he broadcast spectacular images of the reef at its best, colourful and crowded with fishes.

Part-way through the report Raymond showed viewers a reef littered with the coral-killing crown-of-thorns starfish which were beginning their ''insidious march'' along the length of the Barrier Reef. Read more



Daily Mercury

27 July 2013

A WAR of spin has erupted between the coal industry and environmentalists over ports and dredging near the Great Barrier Reef, as an Airlie Beach diving instructor voices his concerns about new developments.

The debate between industry and green groups has reached fever pitch, with both sides alleging the other is trying to divert attention away from various threats to the reef's health. Read more




Brisbane Times

09 January 2014

A decision on whether to allow dredge spoil from the Abbot Point coal port to be dumped inside the Great Barrier Reef marine park should be delayed until after an inquiry into the Gladstone bund wall leak, conservationists and a Queensland Senator say.

Environment Minister Greg Hunt on Tuesday confirmed he had ordered an inquiry into how a bund wall, designed to prevent dredge spoil entering Gladstone's harbour, leaked in 2011-12. Read more




Department of the Environment logo in JPG format.



Department of the Environment logo in PDF format.


Seagrass meadows are vital habitat in tropical coastal ecosystems. However, ongoing monitoring indicates that seagrass meadows are in decline in the Great Barrier Reef where they are exposed to a range of stressors that reduce their capacity to recover after major disturbances.

Tropical Ecosystems Hub researchers used complementary laboratory and field experiments to investigate the cumulative impacts of exposure of seagrass meadows to diminished light, increased nutrients and decreased salinity, conditions that occur when water quality is reduced such as flooding and dredging.

The purpose of the research is the development of guidelines for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) for the protection of seagrass meadows, including guiding improvement to the existing Marine Monitoring Program.

The team from Project 5.3 Vulnerability of seagrass habitats in the GBR to flood plume impacts: light, nutrients and salinity tested seagrass vulnerability to water quality stressors that are typical during wet season runoff. The experiments tested environmental thresholds as well as lethal and sub-lethal indicators of stress. The tests were developed in conjunction with the GBRMPA.

This project team also mapped water quality using remote sensing, which can be used to update existing seagrass risk models. The work has provided robust and scientifically defensible environmental thresholds and has significantly enhanced the ability to detect and interpret responses to changes in water quality through high-resolution indicators testing.

The guidelines that will be developed from this project include four seagrass species and seasonally different temperatures. These will generate thresholds for species, temperature and time of light reduction. This will mean that for a specific time of exposure (e.g. duration of dredging program), the GBRMPA can state the light level required to meet that guideline. As an example, for 50% protection of seagrass density, being exposed to low light conditions for 3 months, 22.6% of surface irradiance or 7.4 mol photons m-2 d-1 is required for Z. muelleri at summer temperatures.

Large-scale water quality mapping can help define the type of seagrass communities and identify the main water types, which shape and drive seagrass response. Consequently, long term water quality data, both in-situ and through remote sensing, can provide measures of risk relative to the seagrass community health, including measures of seagrass biomass, cover and species.

This study has significantly advanced the certainty with which seagrass protection guidelines can be applied.




07 July 2014

Professor Helene Marsh – one of Australia’s leading experts on marine mammals has been named as one of the first four members of a new Threatened Species Scientific Committee.

Every year millions of dollars are spent in an attempt to reverse the trend in decline of Australia’s threatened species. Despite significant investment across all levels of Government, the private sector and non-government organisations, there are a growing number of native animals and plants facing the threat of extinction.

The committee will advise and assist Australia’s first Threatened Species Commissioner Mr Gregory Andrews to help address the growing threat of extinction of Australian species. Read more




In April 2013 an article appeared in The Conversation labelling the hunting of dugongs as simply cruel, and Aboriginal hunting as unsustainable. A response was published in the July edition of the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) newsletter by Dr Helene Marsh, Professor of Environmental Science at James Cook University, and dugong researcher since 1973, most recently within NERP TE Hub projects 1.2 and 2.1. This article presents the response, aimed at widening the context of the debate.

Dugongs: Indigenous hunting matters, but less than some other impacts

By Helene Marsh

‘How many are there?’ and ‘How are they doing?’ are the first questions people usually ask about species of conservation concern.

These seemingly straightforward questions are tough to answer for the dugong. What we do know is that despite widespread community concerns to the contrary, dugongs are generally safer in Australia’s remote areas, where traditional hunting is the major pressure, than they are around coastal urban areas where they are impacted by habitat loss, gill netting, and vessel-strikes rather than hunting.

We don’t know how many dugongs there are globally or in Australian waters. Estimating dugong numbers is difficult because the animals mostly live in turbid water and tend to surface discreetly, often with only their nostrils breaking the surface. Our best estimates mostly come from aerial surveys combined with sophisticated statistical models. About one-fifth of the dugong’s range is in Australia. 

Dugong habitat extends from Shark Bay in Western Australia along 24,000 km of the northern coastline to Moreton Bay near Brisbane. Dugongs are the most abundant marine mammals in Australia’s northern coastal waters. While aerial survey data indicate more than 70,000 dugongs, the number is certainly higher. Large parts of the remote coasts of Western Australia and the Northern Territory have not been surveyed recently, or at all. The status of Australian dugongs varies greatly. Torres Strait is the world’s largest dugong habitat. Surveys conducted by researchers at James Cook University in Queensland show that the region contains a remarkable 58 per cent of the habitat, supporting high densities of dugongs in Queensland (see map).

Archaeological research indicates that dugongs have been hunted in Torres Strait for at least 4,000 years and that the harvest has been substantial since well before European settlement. Today, dugong hunting is permitted under the Torres Strait Treaty between Australia and Papua New Guinea (PNG) and in Australia by the Commonwealth Torres Strait Fisheries Act and the Native Title Act. The data to compare contemporary and past catch rates are not available. The current total regional dugong catch is unknown although the Torres Strait Regional Authority is attempting to correct this deficiency for Australian communities. In 2004, our modeling suggested that the current dugong catch in Torres Strait was not sustainable. This conclusion is now questioned for several reasons:

1. Dugong habitat in Torres Strait is much more extensive than previously thought. In 2010 the first seagrass survey of far western Torres Strait discovered that this very remote region supported the largest continuous seagrass bed in Australia. A subsequent extended aerial survey established that it also supports a sizable dugong population.

2. The time series of aerial surveys conducted since the mid-1980s has not demonstrated a significant decline in dugong density in Torres Strait.

3. Studies of the diving behaviour of wild dugongs fitted with timed-depth recorders and GPS-satellite transmitters indicate that the aerial survey population estimates used in the modeling are significant underestimates.

4. Studies of hunter behaviour indicate that about two-thirds of the high density dugong habitat in Torres Strait is never hunted.

This research is being used by the Torres Strait Regional Authority in negotiations with the Papua New Guinea Government and Islander leaders regarding the management of hunting. The Authority is also working with a veterinarian to address animal welfare concerns.

In the remote Great Barrier Reef region, the dugong situation is similar to Torres Strait. However, dugongs along the urban coast have to cope with additional challenges. Analysis of the records of dugongs caught in shark nets indicated a precipitous decline in catch rates between the 1960s and 1980s. Aerial surveys since the mid-1980s indicated that the population had stabilised as a result of government management interventions. But the massive 2011 floods and cyclones reduced the dugong population to the lowest level since surveys began. Worse, the dugongs stopped breeding because of a shortage of food - no calves were seen in the region during the 2011 survey. Dugong mortalities recorded by the Queensland government’s stranding program in 2011 were the highest since comprehensive reporting began in 1998. Some dugongs migrated from the region and are now returning, but the high level of coastal development is cause for grave concern.

The most serious human impacts on dugongs along the urban coast are habitat loss, gill netting, and vessel-strikes, rather than hunting. All these impacts have associated animal welfare concerns. Concerns relating to Aboriginal hunting are accordingly misplaced. Dugong management in Australia needs to focus on much more than Indigenous hunting.

(1) “In the name of culture: dugong hunting is simply cruel” Thiriet and Smith, The Conversation 7 April 2013, online at

Dugong swimming. Credit: GBRMPA.
Relative density of dugongs along the coast of Queensland and adjacent Northern Territory waters based on 25 years of aerial surveys. Credit: Dr Alana Grech.
Dugong grazing. Credit: American Edu.
Dugong and diver. Credit: GBRMPA.

For further information contact:

Project: 1.2 Marine wildlife management in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area

Project: 2.1 Marine turtles and dugongs of the Torres Strait



Brisbane Times

10 January 2014

“There are a lot of impacts that are possible certainly whenever we are dredging large amounts of sediment. We have the potential for that sediment to move.

“It is being dug up, it circulates and what that does is, first of all, there can be things which are stored in these older sediments and whilst this is probably not going to be as bad as it was in Gladstone, there is still the potential for a lot of nitrogen and phosphorous, metals, pesticides – that sort of thing – to be present in those sediments and become available in the surrounding water. Read more