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Rockhampton bishop speaks out after coral reef pummelled by Cyclone Debbie

Coral reef damage

Danger signs: Reef bleaching between Cairns and Townsville is posing a risk to the Great Barrier Reef Photos: Ed Roberts

DAMAGE to the Great Barrier Reef in the wake of Cyclone Debbie has prompted one of Queensland’s bishops to renew a call for greater environmental protection.

“Speaking as a former industrial chemist, I note that there has been tremendous damage done to the reef by the run-off of waters and untreated effluent contained by our industries,” Rockhampton Bishop Michael McCarthy said.

Bishop McCarthy has spoken out after many reefs off the north Queensland coast were pummelled and broken by extreme weather.

Scientists raised further environmental concerns with fresh run-off pollution from torrential rains sweeping into Great Barrier Reef waters.

Satellite images of the Burdekin River have shown a brown veil of sediment flooding from the river mouth about 18km out into the sea and onto the reef. Scientists consider this a major source of sediment potentially harming coral and sea grass by restricting light.

“This is where we could be directing our resources to ensure that our environment is preserved for the future and for our planet’s long-term viability,” Bishop McCarthy said.

“The waste water and untreated effluent from our cities and industries does cause incredible damage to ecosystems of our reefs and lands, and can be addressed by careful management and planning.”

Scientific aerial photos taken three days after Cyclone Debbie hit, hint at the scale of damage in the erosion-prone Burdekin catchment, and show flood plumes from the Burdekin, Fitzroy and Gregory rivers pushing sediment and nitrogen pollution out to sea.

To add to the woes of the reef, scientists last month warned that coral bleaching for two consecutive years was causing massive coral loss.

Great Barrier Reef

Damage: Alluvial gullies can be up to tens of hectares in area, each producing tens of thousands of tonnes of sediment to the reef each year.

Last year, the northern areas of the World Heritage-listed area were hardest hit, with the middle-third now experiencing the worst effects.

Bleached corals are not necessarily dead corals, but it can take at least a decade for a full recovery of even the fastest-growing coral.

In 2004, the Catholic bishops of Queensland released a pastoral letter about the Great Barrier Reef, which Bishop McCarthy said was “still timely”.

The letter, Let the Many Coastlands Be Glad, emphasised the shared ecological responsibility for the Great Barrier Reef and the need for action to ensure its survival.

The key issues of harm were identified as global warming, sediment run-off from land, sewage outflow, deteriorating water quality and over-fishing. The reef was described in the letter as “a sublime gift and blessing from God”.

“Care for the environment and a keener ecological awareness have become key moral issues for the Christian conscience,” the letter said.

Bishop McCarthy said the 2004 document remained a call to action.

“I would encourage all to re-read this important and timely directive,” he said.

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