The Gladstone Harbour
The deep water Port of Gladstone is the largest port in Queensland, and is the 4th largest coal port in the world. Located in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, the port abuts the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (GBRMP), but by virtue of legislation is part of the 1% of the heritage area excluded from the environmental strictures imposed on sites within the GBRMP.
Gladstone Harbour is the hub of Queensland’s booming Coal Seam Gas (CSG) industry, and the site of up to 6 current and proposed processing plants, where the CSG will be converted into Liquefied Natural Gas and then shipped from the port, through the harbour and onto the reef, bound for destinations around the world.
The port, and the surrounding Gladstone Harbour, is managed by the Gladstone Ports Corporation (GPC), a Queensland Government-Owned Corporation that trades as a commercial enterprise. Last year the GPC made a profit in excess of $100 million, and paid more than $50 million in dividends to its shareholder, the Queensland State Government.
The Dead and Diseased Marine Animals in the Gladstone Harbour
Between May 2011 and early 2012 a number of marine animals began dying in the Gladstone Harbour. They included turtles, dugongs, fish, crabs, sharks and stingrays. Many more were found to be suffering from diseases, most featuring red spots, lesions and parasites.
A number of inquiries have been held into the outbreak of the diseases, but none have specifically identified the cause. Theories range from the effects of the 2011 Queensland floods; an influx of barramundi from the nearby Awoonga dam (the fish escaped over the dam’s spillway during the floods); climate change; La Nina weather effects; dredging of the harbour; and a leaking bund wall in the enclosure containing the dredged material from the harbour.
We believe that the cause was more simple, and was a result of the wholesale stripping of seagrass meadows in the Gladstone Harbour in the latter part of 2010. In this article we shall explain why.
Seagrass meadows are like underwater lawns, and play important ecological and environmental roles in marine environments. They directly and indirectly support many coastal fisheries by providing important habitat for juvenile and adult fish; and species such as bream, snapper and mullet live in seagrass habitats for all or part of their life cycle.
The underwater meadows provide an important food source and shelter a huge variety of other marine plants and marine animals such as tiny worms, shellfish, sea stars and crustaceans. These, in turn, attract larger animals and so begins a complex food web. Seagrass beds are also used by fish to spawn and as shelter from predators.
Larger animals such as dugongs also graze directly on seagrass plants. Seagrasses provide nursery areas for species such as the western rock lobster, tiger prawn and herring that are important to our fishing industries. Seagrass meadows also help to stabilise the seafloor by trapping sediments.
Exposing Gladstone Ports Corporation Lies – The Truth About Gladstone Harbour
Gladstone Ports Corporation (GPC) have been consistently telling us that the floods destroyed the seagrass. Former long-time GPC CEO Leo Zussino has been particularly virulent about the matter, telling anyone who will listen that the loss of the essential marine seabed habitat was all the fault of the 2011 Queensland floods.
It’s a lie. The seagrass beds were gone before the first rainfdrop even fell.
This is what Zussino (pictured below) wrote in his article Green Lies – The Truth About Gladstone Harbour published on 25 January 2015:
Monthly seagrass surveys from 2011 undertaken by the world-renowned tropical seagrass expert, Dr Michael Rasheed, revealed that the extensive seagrass meadows in Gladstone harbour which were totally destroyed in the one in one hundred year 2011 floods, were almost fully restored to good health by 2013 whilst the Ports Corporation was dredging 22mill cu mt within the harbour.
Zussino’s claims are a fiction, for 2 primary reasons that we will explain below.
The extensive seagrass meadows in Gladstone Harbour were not destroyed by the one in a hundred year floods of 2011.
They were instead destroyed by dredging between October 2010 and January 2011; specifically by the use of a cutter suction dredge called ‘Wombat’ to dredge 343 426 m3 of material from the Queensland Curtis Liquefied Natural Gas construction dock (adjacent to Curtis Island) during this period. This was disposed of at the Fishermans Landing reclamation area.
Mr Zussino describes ‘Wombat’ as one of two small backhoe dredgers. ‘Wombat’ is in fact 64.3m long and 11m wide.
The Wombat dredge at work
Mr Zussino also claims in Green Lies that the Western Basin Dredging and Disposal project – which is digging an entirely new shipping channel across the length of the harbour – had been operating with only two small backhoe dredgers since late May 2011.
This is true in relation to the Western Basin project, but Zussino’s claim completely ignores the fact that dredging in relation to the Fisherman’s Landing North expansion – the precursor work to construct a number of new wharves for the increased number of ships coming into the port via the second channel – commenced on 12 October 2010 and continued until January 2011. The dredging was conducted 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
The truth is that this dredging and the associated pollution from it removed the vast bulk of seagrass, not flooding.
The Real Story is Revealed in Dr Rasheed’s Research Findings
The ‘world renowned tropical seagrass expert, Dr Michael Rasheed’ confirms this fact in his Seagrasses of Port Curtis and Rodds Bay, November 2012 – TropWATER Report no. 13/08 2013. This report – which was commissioned by the GPC – is produced annually and provides the results of monitoring from 15 selected seagrass meadows. Twelve of these are within the Port of Gladstone Port Limits.
The other three are in Rodd’s Bay, some 50km to the south of the main port, and well outside the port limits. Rodd’s Bay was included in the monitoring as a reference site, but has been surreptitiously included in the seagrass health reports as if it were part of the harbour precinct (more of that later).
Dr Rasheed’s report demonstrates clearly and conclusively that the mass disappearance of the seagrass meadow’s occurred prior to the 2011 floods, and that in 6 of the 13 sites monitored within the port precinct seagrass stocks actually increased after the flood; quite a different proposition to that put by Mr Zussino and the GPC.
Most Queenslanders will remember well that the Queensland floods occurred in December 2010/January 2011. Although Gladstone was not hit hard by the floods, the Awoonga Dam – which holds somewhere between 1.25 -2 million barramundi – overflowed in mid-December 2010 and continued to spill over until March 2011.
Leo Zussino’s Misrepresentation of the Facts
Leo Zussino has repeatedly claimed that the flood, coupled with the dam, overflow caused both the diseases found in marine life in the harbour, and the mass loss of seagrass meadows.
It is simply not true and, as far as the seagrass meadows are concerned, Zussino’s hypothesis is simply impossible; because Dr Rasheed’s observations of the seagrass meadows were conducted in November 2010. As mentioned above the floods did not begin until December 2010 at the earliest.
The seagrass meadows could not possibly have been destroyed by the flood as Zussino claims – Dr Rasheed’s published observations were recorded before the first raindrop fell.
The whole about the floods destroying the seagrass meadows in Gladstone Harbour is absolutely untrue – a downright lie. The table below – which show the size of the seagrass meadows (in hectares) between 2009 and 2011 shows the truth of what actually occurred.
In the table the number on the left is the identification number of the seagrass meadow used by the scientists monitoring its health. The next column is the location in the harbour of the meadow.
The 2009 column shows how many hectares of seagrass existed before the Fishermans Landing dredging began.
The 2010 column shows how many hectares of seagrass remained after the dredging commenced (but before the floods).
The 2011 column shows how many hectares of seagrass there were after the floods.
The results are damning.
Dr Rasheed’s report focuses on the size of the seagrass meadows at the monitored sites in November of each year, and as you can clearly see from Dr Rasheed’s figures, more than 1000 hectares – nearly 40% – of seagrass meadows had disappeared between November 2009 and November 2010, a month before the big rains came.
Ony 135 additional hectares disappeared after the 2011 floods.
But, and it’s a huge but, if you take out the reference points at Rodds Bay – as you should, because they are not even in the Gladstone Harbour – then it’s a completely different story; because the losses due to the flood were centred predominantly in Rodds Bay, and it is there where the meadows were decimated by natural causes, not in the harbour 50km to the North.
Take a look.
Now that Rodds Bay is removed, you can see that In the actual Gladstone Harbour itself more than 1000 hectares of seagrass meadow disappeared between November 2009 and November 2010, a similar figure to that with Rodds Bay included.
However after the flood events of 2011, one hundred and seventeen hectares of seagrass meadow actually grew back in the Gladstone Harbour, not disappeared. The new growth included a meadow each at Fishermans Landing North and South, and one at Wiggins Point – the precise areas affected by the Fishermans Landing dredging.
The truth is that the floods didn’t decimate the seagrass at all – quite to the contrary, they stimulated its regrowth. It was the dredging and its side-effects that killed the meadows. Humans did it, not Mother Nature.
Yet we have never been told this important fact. The seagrass meadow disappearance was all blamed on the rain, and the floods, and the low light conditions (Editor’s note: clouds) that had allegedly occurred over the period – ‘in short the La Nina weather pattern’, as Mr Zussino said in his April 2011 media release.
Zussino’s release didn’t mention a word about the Fisherman’s Landing dredging, or the consequent loss of seagrass meadow. Oh no, it was all the weather’s fault.
It was total bulls**t.
Patent, unadorned crap.
The Queensland public were lied to and mislead; and to this day the facts continue to be hidden, obfuscated and distorted.
The Big Lie – Why the Dredging Was Approved
In the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) provided to the State Government in support of its application for permission to dredge the harbour, the GPC claimed that only 89.18 ha of seagrass would be removed from the Fishermans Landing North Meadows: 2.74 ha from Meadow 8, and 86.44 ha from Meadow 9.
GPC Environmental Impact Statement – Fishermans Landing Expansion
The State Government accepted these claims and approved the seagrass removal, even though it acknowledged that turtles, dugongs and dolphins would be displaced from their habitats. The Government claimed that the project is not expected to have a significant net negative effect on the diversity of the systems within the Port Curtis region, nor is it expected to have flow-on impacts to the communities that use the habitats within the project area.
It may well have been right too, if only 89.18 ha of seagrass had been removed.
But the 89.18 ha figure was a lie. A fiction. A sham.
418.2 ha was removed or died around the dredging area in just months.
Both the GPC and the Queensland Government had noted in their EIS statements that seagrass in the vicinity of the project area may suffer impacts resulting in the smothering of existing substrates by sediments settling from the water column during the dredging and decant activities for the project, but the Government believed (or so it said) that the GPC’s modelling indicating that the sediment from the dredging would fall where it was dug was true.
Someone should have told them how tidal waters work. The sediment from the dredging – which the GPC and the Government claimed would settle where it was dug – was in fact carried by the moving waters and spread across the harbour, choking seagrass meadows far and wide. Imagine throwing tonnes of toxic dirt on your lawn and you will begin to understand exactly what happened.
Over 600 additional hectares of seagrass died across the harbour.
Soon sick fish started appearing near the dredge site. Then sick crabs; and turtles; and dolphin, and dugong. Then the barramundi that were washed over the Awoonga Dam spillway began to arrive in the harbour. They soon became ill too.
The food chain had been disrupted by the removal of all the seagrass.
There was nothing to eat. The water became more turbid because there were no seagrass roots to stabilise the seabed. The marine life got sick, and many fish, dugongs, turtles, crabs and prawns died.
It was as simple as that.
Sure, there were various contributing factors such as water quality, increased schools of barramundi, and salinity issues. But the base cause was that the seagrass meadows had been destroyed.
Those seeking the cause of the catastrophe have been looking at every reason but the obvious. They have been misled, and taken down false paths, becoming so dazed by conflicting scientific opinions that in the end they couldn’t see the wood from the trees.
It all starts from the bottom. It was the seagrass, stupid.
So to the second major distortion and untruth peddled by Leo Zussino, Dr Rasheed and the band of merry men and women whose incomes were reliant upon the $10 million expended annually on consultants by the Gladstone Ports Corporation.
The seagrass meadows that were destroyed in the 2011 flood have not been returned to full health.
Well you know now that the meadows were not destroyed in the flood.
And despite Mr Zussino and Dr Rasheed’s assurances that that the seagrasses have recovered, the trurth is the exact opposite. The meadows are dead or dying. They are damaged beyond repair.
But all the Australian public hear from those charged with the meadow’s care is a deafening silence.
The last time the GPC and Dr Rasheed publicly released a seagrass monitoring report on the 15 monitored sites was in December 2013. The report was heavily abridged, and did not contain the comparative tables we printed above, that were published in the 2012 report. In fact the December 2013 report contained very little information at all.
But what we did glean from the scarce information provided was that the news was all bad.
At most monitored sites seagrass levels had dropped to below 2011 levels. The majority of once abundant meadows had experienced significant declines in seagrass cover over the course of the monitoring program. Seagrass levels had peaked at historically low levels, and the replenishment of the seed bank was limited.
There was little hope of recovery. Further significant declines were expected in future surveys.
The seagrass meadows had been murdered.
The Queensland Government approved the dredging project on the basis that Rodds Bay was likely to become an increasingly important habitat to support displaced animals no longer able to use the Western Basin. Rodds Bay no longer has any seagrass. Who knows where the displaced marine animals will go, or when they may wash up dead upon our shores?
Monitoring of the 15 sites that once contained seagrass meadows is so longer required under the dredging permit conditions. So the GPC – the corporation committed to managing environmental harm and preserving the inherent worth of the environment for future generations – has simply stopped conducting them.
Now instead they publish brief quarterly updates, and an annual environmental report, the most recent of which was released in December 2014. In this report we learned that the sites being monitored had reduced and altered, as had the observation and reporting methodology.
Presumably it was hoped that the new reporting regime would show the seagrass health in a more favourable light.
If so, the gambit failed.
The seagrass hasn’t grown back, and the long-term picture is bleak. A further 1665 ha of known seagrass is expected to be affected during the course of the current Western Basin Dredging Project. Given the history of the Fishermans Landing expansion it is anyone’s guess what the true devastation of the seagrass meadows will be.
We will probably never find out, because the bulk of the report is filled with reasons why accurate readings can no longer be taken. The primary excuse is that the monitoring equipment may become fouled or affected by physical disturbances. Given that the primary recording devices are placed on tidal mudflats and left unsecured and unattended (see pictures below), this is highly likely.
Lea Zussino wrote 6 weeks ago that Dr Rasheed’s reports are published proof that the Australian public has been misled by environmental activists and others about the environmental condition of Gladstone harbour.
No they’re not Leo.
They’re published proof that you lied.