April 15, 2024

A review of the Queensland government’s Great Barrier Reef protection regulations has found that almost half the affected farmers still believe there is little or no scientific evidence to support pollution reduction rules.

The laws, passed in 2019, were based on scientific advice that limits on sediment and chemical runoff were needed in the reef catchment, amid concerns about water quality.

Some opponents of the laws – including groups representing cane growers and graziers – at the time sought to discredit the consensus science, including by backing a speaking tour of north Queensland by the contrarian scientist, Peter Ridd.

A review of the regulations published last week found that the combined effect of the regulations and other programs had resulted in positive “practice change” in the agriculture sector within the reef catchment. Data shows compliance rates improving across the catchment.

But the review also raised concern about ongoing “scepticism, mistrust [and] resistance” among farmers, including many who remain unconvinced by the need for the regulations.

There remains concern within farming communities, including that some requirements were “confusing” or “vague and contradictory”, and that record-keeping requirements had been costly and time-consuming.

Stakeholder consultation undertaken as part of the review found that many farmers still did not accept the science.

“Some respondents expressed scepticism about the science and data underpinning the reef regulations and the relationship between practice change and water quality, or whether the reef was at risk at all, leading to doubt about the need for the reef regulation,” the review found.

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A survey found 40% of respondents believed the evidence for the regulations was “weak” and that 7% thought there was no evidence. Only 5% believe there was “strong evidence” to back the regulations.

Sugarcane (61%) and grain producers (57%) were the most likely to believe evidence was weak.

“Stakeholder feedback, particularly from sugarcane producers, suggested that mistrust in government may present as a barrier to compliance and may be further fuelled by disbelief in the underpinning rationale for the reef regulations,” the review found.

The review also noted significant concerns about compliance activities and that the government had made changes to its compliance program as a result.

“Some respondents … felt that their practices (and constraints) are not well understood by the department and compliance officers, and as a result feel they must justify and explain their operations,” the review found. “It was suggested this has resulted in losing confidence in the process and regulations.”

Water quality is considered the second most serious threat to the health of the reef – after global heating.

Last week, the Great Barrier Reef marine park’s government authority confirmed the another mass coral bleaching event driven by global heating – the fifth in only eight years.

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