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Integrated Marine Monitoring for Port Operations in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area

By: Dr. Nathan Waltham, Principal Research Scientist, Centre for Tropical Water and Aquatic Ecosystem Research (TropWATER), James Cook University, Queensland, Australia

Dr. Michael Rasheed, Principal Research Scientist, Centre for Tropical Water and Aquatic Ecosystem Research (TropWATER), James Cook University, Queensland, Australia

Mr. Kevin Kane, Senior Manager Environment, North Queensland Bulk Ports, Queensland, Australia

Queensland coastline showing Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area and location of 

North Queensland Bulk Port operations

Queensland coastline showing Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area and location of North Queensland Bulk Port operations.

The Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area (GBRWHA) is the jewel in Australia’s National Estate. It contains the world’s most extensive coral reef ecosystem—the only living organism distinguishable from space. Stretching 2,300 km along the Queensland coastline, it is the equivalent size of 70 million football fields and is home to approximately 3,000 coral reefs, 600 different types of soft and hard corals, more than 40,000 km2 of seagrass, 1,600 different types of fish, and over 130 varieties of sharks and rays. In addition to these important ecosystem services, the reef and catchment area holds incredible cultural value and significance. In terms of net worth, it contributes approximately $5.6 billion to the Australian economy each year.

In 1981, the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) was inscribed on the World Heritage List, fulfilling criteria vii-x for World Heritage inclusion based on its superlative natural beauty, intactness, ecological significance, and unique geomorphological features and natural habitats. In addition to coral reefs, the GBR catchment areas support important estuaries and freshwater wetlands, which in their own right support a rich diversity of aquatic plants and animals and contribute to the GBR ecosystem. Up to 62% of the commercial fish catch and 76% of recreational catch have a critical estuary lifecycle phase relying directly on the connectivity between reef ecosystems and the shallow coastal and freshwater wetland features.

Ports are essential for economic trade and prosperity and vital for the day-today function of modern society. Australia is an island nation, its national anthem proudly stating “our home is girt by sea.” Not surprisingly, over 99% of the country’s trade occurs through its coastal port facilities. Continued operation, maintenance, and growth of our nation’s port infrastructure is critical in Australia continuing to compete in the global goods and services market and to sustain a growing population for generations to come.

North Queensland Bulk Ports Corporation (NQBP) is the Port Authority for four major port facilities in the Australian State of Queensland. Three of these ports are located adjacent to the GBRWHA. NQBP is possibly the only port authority in the world to manage three Priority Ports located on the shores of a World Heritage Area. NQBP is an organization that believes it is a true privilege to work in this magnificent part of the world, and it is this privilege that drives a culture and vision to lead the sustainable development of Queensland ports.

The organization has always demonstrated a high level of environmental management and stewardship in recognition of its intergenerational presence and location within the connecting coastal habitats of the Great Barrier Reef.

Hay Point Coal facility, Queensland. Photo credit: North Queensland Bulk Ports Corporation.

Hay Point Coal facility, Queensland. Photo credit: North Queensland Bulk Ports Corporation.

NQBP has developed a long-term strategic approach to environmental monitoring and research by partnering with leading science institutions and experts. An investment of this nature is important not only to the continued stewardship role within of the GBRWHA but also to better support management decisions relating to ongoing operation, maintenance, and growth of their ports. Having long-term, robust, and trusted environmental information on hand is the key to managing, minimizing, and setting perspective of impacts to the marine and coastal environment.

One of NQBP’s longest established research partnerships is with the Seagrass Ecology Group at James Cook University’s Centre for Tropical Water and Aquatic Ecosystems Research (TropWATER). Seagrasses are one of the major coastal habitats and are important for a range of fish and iconic marine species, such as dugong and turtles that rely on them for food.

This 22-year program is one of the longest continuously running seagrass monitoring programs in the world and has been instrumental in ensuring the protection and management of seagrasses that occur within and around NQBP’s port areas. It has also provided the foundation for a range of associated science and research programs filling gaps in knowledge of seagrass habitats. These have included significant advances in understanding seagrass resilience and recovery, quantifying productivity of tropical seagrass systems, developing tools and thresholds for management, and deciphering the role climate plays in shaping tropical seagrass meadows.

Water quality in marine coastal waters has always been considered a key vector to understanding disturbance to a range of receptors, including benthic communities, nekton (fishes), and megafauna, and is of particular interest to the GBRWHA coral reef communities. Fundamental to understanding and informing management in this complex environment is being able to integrate a range of information collected to examine the key environmental drivers of habitat change. It has long been known that marine water quality is often one of the primary drivers that is observed with seascape change.

High frequency water quality logger measuring available light, important for seagrass, 

on the seafloor. Photo credit: Dr Michael Rasheed.

High frequency water quality logger measuring available light, important for seagrass, on the seafloor. Photo credit: Dr Michael Rasheed.

NQBP has performed a number of key environmental monitoring initiatives over the past decade or so, usually coinciding with a major port development or dredging program. In July 2014, the first ambient marine water quality monitoring program commenced at NQBP’s Ports of Hay Point and Mackay. This is a commitment by the organization to a long-term program that collects real-time information on natural change in the marine environment, even in the absence of any forecasted major port developments.

The program has been implemented by a team of specialist Marine Scientists from TropWATER at James Cook University, Australia. Taking a multi-disciplinary approach to the task, the team is integrating water quality monitoring using:

  • traditional static water sampling;

  • state-of-the-art high-frequency continuous loggers positioned on the seafloor;

  • a novel use of MODIS true-color satellite imaginary to map the extent of coastal water quality conditions and qualitatively assess the dispersal of river plumes; and

  • working with the marine habitat science team to ensure information can be linked to seagrass and coral monitoring programs.

The first 12 months monitoring (July 2014 to July 2015) provided the platform to begin the process of understanding the natural water quality characteristics within and surrounding both port areas. The 2014/15 austral wet season (November to March) unfortunately coincided with the start of an El Niñ o period, which resulted in a climate period of sustained warmer months and reduced rainfall.

Nicola Stokes, NQBP Senior Environmental Coordinator 

measuring water quality in port area. Photo credit: North Queensland Bulk Ports.

Nicola Stokes, NQBP Senior Environmental Coordinator measuring water quality in port area. Photo credit: North Queensland Bulk Ports.

The total rainfall for this year was within the 10th percentile of the total annual wet season rainfall distribution recorded for the region in the last 105 years (1910 to 2015). In contrast, in the previous year (2013/2014), the wet season rainfall was within the 95% percentile of historical records. While coinciding with a very low rainfall year, the first year of monitoring has proven to be scientifically lucrative as opportunities to collect continuous water quality data over a period of time that is not influenced by rainfall and catchment flows are rare. Indeed, this highlights how short-term programs can contribute to misleading conclusions, which is important when considering that monitoring programs such as this often inform long-term, multi-million dollar management strategies and asset protection decisions.

These data have been effective in generating models where sediments suspended in the water column (a measure of water clarity and important when considering sediments smothering of important coral reefs and seagrass) can be predicted by examining local environmental conditions. In fact, the continuous high-frequency loggers have recorded peak suspended sediments occur approximately every 2 weeks following strong patterns of prevailing trade winds in the region. Interestingly, these data have shown that suspended solid concentrations in the inshore coastal area near the Ports of Hay Point and Mackay naturally exceed the Government’s threshold limits in water quality guidelines for the Great Barrier Reef lagoon area.

Coral reefs provide important habitat for many tropical reef fish. Photo credit: Dr 

Nathan Waltham.

Coral reefs provide important habitat for many tropical reef fish. Photo credit: Dr Nathan Waltham.

The use of satellite images of the local coastal environment has also been effective in mapping the extent of small river plume events, which have been validated using the high-frequency field loggers. The utility of this methodology needs further refinement, particularly under average or higher rainfall wet seasons in the region. It is hoped that the predictive capability improves with time and there is a greater application of satellite imagery to qualitatively assess dispersion of coastal runoff, pollution plumes, and the like. This approach to remote sensor monitoring should be able to better map and assess impact of sediment plumes on sensitive receptor habitats in the region and better assist the adaptive environmental management frameworks that are implemented during port expansion programs or dredging campaigns.

The ambient marine water quality monitoring is about to enter a third year. The database now contains hundreds of thousands of statistical observations and continues to increase understanding of water quality conditions adjacent to these two major port facilities and more broadly to the drivers of changes in the GBRWHA.

Conclusion

The condition and resilience of the GBRWHA is important to all Australians and many others in the international audience. The global, national, regional, and local significance of the GBR and its catchment areas justifies the most strenuous efforts to undertake and continue long-term robust monitoring and evaluation of marine water quality and the condition of critical marine habitats. An integrated and focused monitoring program that is supported by serious scientific review and refinement is essential in making the best use of the information collected.

A commitment of this nature can be considerable for any industry. Sustainably developing world-class ports that are vital to Australia’s financial future and protecting the unique environment where generations of people live, work, and play is core to how NQBP does business—it’s about getting the balance right. Quite simply, NQBP takes their environmental and social responsibilities as seriously as their commercial acumen.

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