Lady Elliot Island, on the Great Barrier Reef.  Photo Contributed
Lady Elliot Island, on the Great Barrier Reef. Photo Contributed Contributed

Coal dust kills coral, slows seagrass and fish growth

QUESTIONS about shipping coal along the Great Barrier Reef have been raised after a James Cook University study found coral exposed to high concentrations of coal dust died within two weeks.

The study also found coal dust released into seawater slows seagrass and fish growth, which, according to the Australian Marine Conservation Society, highlights the need to stop coal port expansion down the Reef coastline.

SHIPPING LANES: Designated routes ships follow along the Great Barrier Reef. Contributed: Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authroity
SHIPPING LANES: Designated routes ships follow along the Great Barrier Reef. Contributed: Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authroity Declan Cooley

"Coral exposed to lower concentrations of coal lasted longer, but most of them also died after four weeks of exposure," author of the study Kathryn Berry said.

But given the low cost of commodity prices, the need to ramp up exports and proposed port expansions in Gladstone and at Abbot Point, it's unlikely traffic along the reef coastline will slow down.

In a report released by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, it estimated that by 2020 there would be around 4,200 coal vessel calls to Great Barrier Reef ports.

Last month Gladstone Ports Corporation exported 5,233,213 tonnes of coal in 57 vessels.

LAND AHOY: Number of ships reported running aground between 1987 - 2012. Contributed: Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.
LAND AHOY: Number of ships reported running aground between 1987 - 2012. Contributed: Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. Declan Cooley

The JCU study found coal dust is released into seawater at loading and storage facilities when it is blown or washed into the sea, during transport, and in rare shipping disasters.

The Great Barrier Reef campaign director at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, Imogen Zethoven, said coal dust along the reef coastline near ports was already very high and a further increase in coal dust from port expansions would be a disaster

"The Reef is in a fragile state…and it simply cannot stand more pressure from the impacts of industrialisation and global warming if it is to survive and recover," she said.

But in a statement released by Queensland Resource Council Chief Executive Michael Roche, he said traffic from coal ships in the Great Barrier Reef sits at six ships a day, accounting for less than half of all shipping traversing shipping lanes in the reef region.

"The [study] involves pouring coal dust over coral in a tank of seawater," Mr Roche said.

"It is not obvious how realistic a simulation this is given we do not export coal dust, rather we export solid coal."

EXPORT NATION: Shipping routes used between Australia and the rest of the world. Contributed: Created by digital journalism studio Kiln and University College London's Energy Institute.
EXPORT NATION: Shipping routes used between Australia and the rest of the world. Contributed: Created by digital journalism studio Kiln and University College London's Energy Institute. Declan Cooley


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