Great Barrier Reef ‘Research’ – A Litany of False Claims

WE may live in the information age, but how true are many of the scientific claims we read and hear?  For ten years the World Wide Fund for Nature, WWF, has been campaigning to ‘Save the Great Barrier Reef’. [1,2,3] When the WWF campaign was first launched in June 2001 it was claimed Diuron was killing seagrass and dioxins were killing dugongs and so both these pesticides should be banned.  Ten years on and the ban on Diuron appears imminent, but the chemical is probably no more harmful than the dioxin that was found to be natural.[4]

The WWF campaign is an example of prejudice against industry and pesticides and also how alarmism is increasingly favoured over evidence resulting in junk science. [5]

My introduction to the exploitation of the Great Barrier Reef as a reason for banning chemicals came in August 1998 soon after I started working for Queensland Canegrowers Ltd .  Jon Brodie, a scientist with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, GBRMPA, phoned me as the industry’s new environment manager, with information that a soon-to-be published research study had found elevated levels of pesticide residue, most likely from sugarcane farming, accumulating in the fat tissue of dugongs. [4]

I was concerned, alarmed, I wanted to see the data.  But I was told it was not yet available.  When I was finally faxed the few pages, I found it was primarily an analysis of the type and quantity of dioxins found in the fat tissue of dugongs that had been killed in fishing nets.    Reference was made to another study which analysed dioxins found in cane land soils and commented that perhaps there was a link.

Meanwhile a dioxin expert at the University of Queensland, Brian Stanmore, advised me that the particular dioxin generating the concern and interest was very common.   Four years later, in 2002, investigations undertaken by the National Research Centre for Environmental Toxicology, concluded that the pesticide Brodie had phoned me about in 1998, was in fact a natural, non-toxic dioxin common along the entire Queensland coast. [6]

Just a year earlier, in 2001, when it was already apparent that there were problems with the claim that runoff from sugar farms was killing dugong, WWF made exactly this claim at the launch of their ‘Save the Great Barrier Reef Campaign’. [1]

Their campaign was well resourced and immediately stirred governments into action with various committees and enquiries established.

I found myself on the Reef Protection Taskforce as the Canegrowers’ representative.  The Taskforce was to advise the Queensland Government on the development of a Reef Protection Plan to “reduce the impacts on the Great Barrier Reef of land based sources of nutrients, sediment and pollution” and was lauded in a WWF campaign progress report as a key WWF ‘anti-pollution achievement’. [5]

But the WWF representative on the Taskforce, Imogen Zethoven, was not happy when the first 3-page science statement presented to the Taskforce for endorsement didn’t include anything about damage to the reef.

Zethoven demanded it be redrafted, and government obliged.   The revised statement came out with a covering email with comment that: “whilst there is no evidence of widespread deterioration (of the Great Barrier Reef), there is documented evidence of localized deterioration on individual near-shore reefs.”   It was another three days before the scientific papers purporting to support this claim were provided and heading the list was an unpublished report commissioned by the Queensland Department of Fisheries hypothesizing that Diuron from cane lands was the cause of mangrove dieback at the mouth of the Pioneer River in 1999. [5]

The report was the work of Norm Duke, then a botanist at the University of Queensland, subsequently funded to publish a series of research papers on the issue, each generating a media headline claiming Diuron from cane land killed mangroves. [7]

John Abbot, a research chemist at Central Queensland University, and I, have reviewed the work of Duke and his team.  Our findings just published in the international Journal Human and Ecological Risk Assessment detail the many substantial flaws in this research.   We explain how concentration of chemical bound to sediment was used as a measure of biological availability when the relevant literature indicates they should have been measuring concentration in solution.  In order to get a result in experimental investigations the researchers dosed seedlings with concentrations of chemical orders of magnitude higher than anything found in waterways.  Worst still, their experimental design mixed waters from the control and treatments. [7]

The research nevertheless made it through the peer-review process perhaps because it plays on a popular Litany – the widespread belief that pesticides are harming the environment and that without political pressure for change we are all doomed.

In the very first report Duke corroborates his concern about an impact from Diuron by calculating a hypothetical value for the amount of Diuron applied to mangroves expressed as the amount of Diuron applied in a particular catchment divided by the area of mangrove in that catchment. Of course Diuron is applied to sugarcane, not mangroves, and only a fraction of the herbicide applied to sugarcane will be transported to the vicinity of mangroves and the area of mangrove will not affect concentration levels.   So Duke’s example is not logical.  For example, consider a situation where mangroves are growing on opposite sides of a river, if all the mangroves on one side are removed, this would not change the concentration of the herbicide affecting the remaining mangroves.

Most Australians would expect that policies, including whether to ban a particular pesticide, are based on sound science including the testing of hypotheses, the consideration of alternative causal factors, and an awareness of the relevant scientific literature – not to mention logical argument.    Yet such considerations have been lacking in much of the purported scientific discussion concerning potential impacts of land-based activities on the Great Barrier Reef.

There is a need for activists and researchers to begin with more open minds and take a more systematic approach, in short there is a need for cultural change as opposed to the current obsession with amassing evidence to support ever more regulation, legislation and the banning of product important to industry.

In the past books were frequently banned.  Nowadays we tend to approach this issue with some caution recognising that dangerous ideas are best openly discussed.  And history could conclude that many pesticides, including Diuron, are best kept registered and used appropriately, rather than simply banned because of prejudice.

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This article was first published at On Line Opinion http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=12719

References

1.  Clear? – or present danger?  Great Barrier Reef Pollution Report Card.  WWF Great Barrier Reef Campaign.  June 2001 http://pandora.nla.gov.au/tep/20672

2. Barclay P. 2011. Our waterways: are we poisoning them and ourselves? Australia Talks, ABC Radio National. June 28, 2011. http://www.abc.net.au/rn/australiatalks/stories/2011/3243560.htm

3. Williams B. 2011. Farm chemical diuron found in Great Barrier Reef catchment at levels 50 times higher than those considered safe.  Courier Mail.  http://www.couriermail.com.au/news/queensland/farm-toxins-flow-to-reef/story-e6freoof-1226143002578

4. Marohasy, J. 2003. Deceit in the name of conservation.  IPA Review.  Volume 55,  Page 7-9. http://jennifermarohasy.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/Review55-1DeceitinNameConservation.pdf 

5. Marohasy J., and Johns G. 2003.  WWF Says ‘Jump’, Governments Ask ‘How High?’.  IPA Occasional Paper.  http://www.ipa.org.au/publications/547/wwf-says-’jump!’-governments-ask-’how-high-’

6. Prange J.A., Gaus C., Papke O. and Muller J.F. 2002. Investigations into the PCDD contamination of topsoil, river sediments and kaolinite clay in Queensland, Australia.  Chemosphere Volume 46, Pages 1335-1342.

7. Abbot J., Marohasy J. 2011.  Has the herbicide Diuron caused mangrove dieback? A re-examination of the evidence.  Human and Ecological Risk Assessment. Volume 17,  Pages 1077-1094. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10807039.2011.605672

 

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11 Responses to Great Barrier Reef ‘Research’ – A Litany of False Claims

  1. MostlyHarmless October 10, 2011 at 8:14 pm #

    I admit I have a long running aversion to the over-use of pesticides and herbicides in agriculture, but I also have an aversion to ill-founded scares, and “never mind the truth, let’s get on with the campaign” environmental groups, especially WWF.

    The research you mention is similar to the sort that claims that increased CO2 harms both flora and fauna in the oceans. Concentrations of dissolved CO2 equivalent to several times that which might result from burning all the known reserves of fossil fuels worldwide are often used to “prove” that severe damage is likely to occur within decades.

    Of course, most interested observers read newspaper and magazine summaries (often with “added value” from reporters), or at best abstracts of papers, and thus rely on others’ opinions, rather than forming their own, informed opinion. We’re seemingly bombarded with claims of species extinction (though not one is named), forest die-off, and one of the latest – the much hyped species “migration” to higher, cooler latitudes and elevations. It didn’t take much research on my part to discover that the “migration” was almost entirely range expansion. The studied species aren’t averse to warmer climates at all, but colder ones. This is not science, it’s politics.

  2. MikeO October 11, 2011 at 12:41 pm #

    Well not being young I have seen many reports about the demise of the GBR. Since it was entirely eaten by the Crown of Throrns star fish in the sixties I wonder why the long gone GBR is being discussed. In my memory there are at least four other predictions that the reef will be gone in x years because of threat y. I wonder if the people who promulgate this nonsense have ever read “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” Aesop’s Fable. It is a regular boring story with almost nill substance.

    There was an interesting comment on it by Peter Ridd in the Bolt Report last Sunday. To increase the extent and “health” of the GBR the two best things would be to increase the sea temperature and level. That is right global warming! You see here an article by Peter Ridd http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=6134&page=1 in it he says this: “Third, we have many organisations and scientists that rely for funding on there being a problem with the GBR. Most grant applications on the GBR will mention at some stage that a motivation for the work is the threat to which it is exposed. I confess that I do this in all my applications – it’s the way the game works.”

    I am fed up with junk science and the “used car salesman brand” of it that we get from many quarters.

  3. Charles October 11, 2011 at 1:15 pm #

    The research investigation described in your text is unfortunately pretty much a summary of the state of public science in Australia and other developed countries at present. They set out with a definite agenda (in fact that is the only way to get funding) in mind, and anything that doesn’t fit the pre-determined objective is either discarded, or tortured until it gives up some sort of answer that might go close to fitting the bill. It is confirmation bias in its most perfect form.

    We desperately need a review of all research in Australia as under the current process we are developing a generation of public service, group thinking processors with no investigative enthusiasm nor ability to think laterally. Consequently the term scientist has something of a debased reputation.

  4. MikeO October 11, 2011 at 2:01 pm #

    OOPS “It is a regular boring story with almost nill substance.” I did not mean the Aesop Fable I meant the continual story of the GBR going to be destroyed. Maybe someone will make a B grade movie around it. The plot is always the same just the number of years and the cause that varies.

  5. Mack October 11, 2011 at 2:22 pm #

    30 years of a govt. orchestrated litany of lies.

  6. MikeO October 13, 2011 at 8:32 am #

    The crown of thorns eating the reef was put about by Ben Cropp in the early sixties. So that makes it 50 years! Jennifer probably knows better than I but I think coral reefs need warm sea water and are centred around the equator. If the sea level were to rise it would incease the areas of shallows. According to Ridd they have existed for 300 million years. In that time there has been much hoter times than now. If you are a reef then GW is a very good thing.

  7. Luke October 13, 2011 at 9:37 am #

    Positive attitude towards improved farming practices for Reef protection

    http://www.qff.org.au/media_releases/111/

  8. el gordo October 14, 2011 at 8:24 pm #

    Good news story Luke, a sensible approach by government we can be proud of.

  9. hunter October 17, 2011 at 11:06 pm #

    Imagine big eviro telling less than the truth about something and then getting it enshrined into law. Where have we ever seen that pattern of behavior before?

  10. Ken Stewart October 27, 2011 at 8:25 am #

    The mangrove dieback in the Pioneer River was in a tributary creek whose catchment was not canefields, but suburban backyards!

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  1. News & Views – October 13, 2011 | JunkScience.com - October 13, 2011

    […] Great Barrier Reef ‘Research’ – A Litany of False Claims – WE may live in the information age, but how true are many of the scientific claims we read and hear? For ten years the World Wide Fund for Nature, WWF, has been campaigning to ‘Save the Great Barrier Reef’. When the WWF campaign was first launched in June 2001 it was claimed Diuron was killing seagrass and dioxins were killing dugongs and so both these pesticides should be banned. Ten years on and the ban on Diuron appears imminent, but the chemical is probably no more harmful than the dioxin that was found to be natural. The WWF campaign is an example of prejudice against industry and pesticides and also how alarmism is increasingly favoured over evidence resulting in junk science. (Jennifer Marohasy) […]

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