Canegrowers Proserpine manager Mike Porter says the scientific studies conducted as part of the regulations did not involve enough direct consultation with farmers.
Canegrowers Proserpine manager Mike Porter says the scientific studies conducted as part of the regulations did not involve enough direct consultation with farmers.

Fierce debate over science behind reef regulations

CONTROVERSIAL reef regulations have sparked fierce debate between an environmental group and canegrowers as the science behind the guidelines is thrust into the spotlight.

A Senate inquiry into regulations enacted in a bid to improve the quality of run-off water into the Great Barrier Reef took place in Brisbane last week.

The main focus of the inquiry was directed towards how reef science was informing the policy and the transparency surrounding the data, which would directly impact Queensland coastal farms.

However, members of the Whitsunday Conservation Council have slammed the inquiry, saying the science should not be under question.

The conservation council's chair Jessa Lloyd said there were decades of evidence regarding the negative effects poor water quality had on the reef.

"Years of research performed by the government's own reef and water quality scientists has shown that agricultural chemicals including fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides, along with heavy sediment loads from land clearing is a major cause of the current poor state of many coastal and marine ecosystems along the Great Barrier Reef," she said.

Whitsunday Conservation Council committee members Tony Fontes, Dr Lindsay Simpson, Jessa Lloyd and Andrew Marshall.
Whitsunday Conservation Council committee members Tony Fontes, Dr Lindsay Simpson, Jessa Lloyd and Andrew Marshall.

Among this research included work from agencies such as Reef Catchments, who release a Healthy Rivers to Reef Partnership report card every year to monitor waterway health.

The 2019 report, released in July this year, returned a B average grade for the Mackay Isaac Whitsunday region, compared to a C grade the year before.

The report noted that pesticides continued to be the poorest scoring water quality indicator in both freshwater and estuarine systems with the key contributors being chemicals that are used to suppress pest insects and weeds.

The inshore marine area of Airlie Beach received a D, and remained in an overall poor condition for the third consecutive year.

Ms Lloyd said without strict guidelines to reduce poor water quality, the reef, and consequently the tourism industry, would suffer.

"We now have a federal Senate inquiry into the science underpinning the need for these reef regulations at a time where we need to listen to the science and act with 100 per cent compliance toward best management practices to ensure the reef has a chance of survival in the face of warming oceans, coral bleaching, sediment loading and onshore land clearing," she said.

 

The annual waterway health report card is produced by 31 partner organisations in the Mackay-Whitsunday-Isaac Healthy Rivers to Reef Partnership.
The annual waterway health report card is produced by 31 partner organisations in the Mackay-Whitsunday-Isaac Healthy Rivers to Reef Partnership.

"These regulations are long overdue and it is disappointing to see the science now being challenged by our politicians and industry lobby groups whose interest it appears, does not favour the health of the reef, which is important to us all."

However, Canegrowers Proserpine manager Mike Porter said the scientific studies conducted as part of the regulations did not involve enough direct consultation with farmers.

The regulations introduced in 2019 place strict limits and monitoring measures on canefarmers and included a push to reduce end-of-catchment pesticide loads by at least 60 per cent.

Mr Porter raised concerns about the lack of communication between researchers and farmers, saying it led to targets that could mark the end of the industry.

"Our industry is not opposed to some form of regulation," he said.

"However, the government aim is to step up targets, which are in some ways unrealistic and unachievable.

"That regulation is very much unproven and almost experimental, and it will see canefarmers go broke.

More than 100 Whitsunday canegrowers and industry professionals gathered to hear Green Shirts Movement national co-ordinator Marty Bella speak about standing up against new Queensland reef laws in October 2019.
More than 100 Whitsunday canegrowers and industry professionals gathered to hear Green Shirts Movement national co-ordinator Marty Bella speak about standing up against new Queensland reef laws in October 2019.

"There's second, third and possibly fourth generation cane farms in the Proserpine area and these farms have been growing cane in this environment for many years and understand intimately how the environment works for their farms.

"They're working within regulations and adopting new technology to try and further improve their footprint, but researchers don't come onto the farm and don't discuss what their findings are."

Canefarmers in the region follow a Six Easy Steps program to help calculate an appropriate rate of nitrogen for their cane production, which Mr Porter said allowed growers to tailor pesticide loads to their crop.

The program involves monitoring and adopting guidelines for soil as well as keeping records to interpret trends and modify nutrient inputs if required.

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Mr Porter said if the amount of nitrogen allowed through this program was regulated to a lower level by the government, farmers would "never get productivity back".

"Over reliance on science isn't going to help, there needs to be this communication and conversation happening between science, industry, agriculture generally and the regulators," he said.

"That is the clear path to finding a balance.

"Growers understand there are regulations as there are in most industries, but what we need to do is have very balanced and considered legislation and conversation around what the impacts are to all the stakeholders.

"It seems a little bit left-sided to just say we're going to introduce stiff targets and you guys are going to have to meet them.

"It's not a simple solution just regulating and reducing inputs.

"Let's have that conversation, let's have an open discussion about what that means and what the research means."


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