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We need to talk about mangroves, offsets and Walker Corp

SPECIAL REPORT: The Walker Corporation has come under the spotlight for its masterplan at Toondah Harbour redevelopment on Brisbane’s Moreton Bay that encroaches on mangroves protected under the Moreton Bay Ramsar Wetland. So how important are mangroves? According to the experts they provide a vital role in protecting the coast from severe weather and erosion. They provide breeding habitat for marine species and sequester massive amounts of carbon emissions. Yet despite their value, and that it’s technically illegal to clear them, we are still losing large areas of this incredibly important vegetation.

According to the Australian Marine Conservation Society, coastal development continues to be a threat to mangroves.

 “Like coral reefs, mangrove forests are an extremely productive and important ecosystems,” campaign manager Adele Pedder told The Fifth Estate.

“Mangroves are multifunctional. They protect the shoreline from storm surges and wave attack, are the source of nutrients for inshore marine life, filter and purify water flows from the catchment, provide nursery areas for barramundi and banana prawns, and are an important resource for Indigenous communities.”

Despite the fact it is illegal to clear mangroves in most Australian jurisdictions, there are loopholes.

It is possible, for instance, to apply to the Commonwealth under environmental protection legislation for permission to clear mangroves for development, Pedder says.

As a result, coastal developments associated with infrastructure, such as ports, and residential and tourism developments are getting the green light to clear mangroves.

Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia are the worst offenders.

A part halt to clearing has been achieved in The Kimberley where a marine park has been declared, largely because the state government has recognised the value of tourism and fishing, Pedder says.

Walker Corp under fire for proposed development

In Queensland The Walker Corporation incurred the ire of community groups and environmental advocates for its masterplan for the Toondah Harbour redevelopment on Brisbane’s Moreton Bay. The plans would see an area of coastal wetland listed as of international significance under the Ramsar Convention, and an area of mangrove habitat, cleared for reclamation works.

The goal is to use the reclaimed land as part of a mixed-use precinct incorporating more than 3000 dwellings, a commercial and tourism hub, upgraded ferry and recreational boating facilities and public open space.

The plans are currently being assessed under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

Walker confirmed toThe Fifth Estate that the Toondah Harbour Priority Development Area overlaps with the Moreton Bay Ramsar Wetland by 42 hectares. The total area of the Moreton Bay Ramsar Wetland is 120,350 hectares.

An entrance channel within the development area is already subject to intermittent dredging.

A public expression of interest for a private company to undertake development of state and council land in the formally designated Priority Development Area saw Walker selected as the preferred proponent in 2015.

“This tender requires the successful proponent to undertake capital dredging to straighten and widen the 2.55 kilometre Fison Channel and extend the existing turning basin,” a spokesman for Walker said.

In June 2017 federal minister for the environment and energy Josh Frydenberg announced Walker had been given the green light to progress its development application’s referral to the next stage of having “the science tested”.

Walker referred the proposal to the federal government in June 2018.

“The government has decided that the project is a controlled action requiring further assessment and approval under the EPBC Act. The assessment will be by Environmental Impact Statement (EIS),” the spokesman said.

“The landform and all dredging and reclamation impacts will be identified through the rigorous environmental impact assessment process, which will commence when Walker has received the guidelines for the EIS.”

Following this process, a number of development applications will be submitted to the state government under various state laws.

The spokesman said that Walker aimed to “achieve sustainability outcomes beyond what is required by legislation at both a community and projects level”.

Environmental groups remain concerned

The Environmental Defenders Office Queensland has had the project on its radar, and encouraged concerned community members to comment on the latest incarnation of the development plans, which were out for public consultation period during May and June this year.

Last month, the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Humane Society International called on the government to reject the development application.

“The environment minister already has enough evidence to reject this unprecedented high-rise development,” ACF policy analyst James Trezise says.

“He knows it will harm the internationally protected Moreton Bay wetland and destroy 42 hectares of fragile biodiversity.”

Evan Quartermain, head of programs at Humane Society International, says the organisation is disappointed that the development is set to destroy vital habitat, and that it “hasn’t been declared clearly unacceptable from the outset”.

“In designating the Moreton Bay a Ramsar site, Australia agreed to conserve these globally significant wetlands and they should be absolutely off limits to such destructive impacts,” he said.

“If Minister Frydenberg seeks to excise an area from this international commitment just to facilitate the Toondah Harbour project it will be a dark day for Australia and the threatened wildlife we pledged to protect.

“It’s the sort of ministerial discretion that needs urgent curtailing through a new generation of environment laws that Australians could count on to actually protect nature.”

The problem with biodiversity offsets

One of the ways a project like Toondah often suggests it will mitigate harm from clearing critical or protected habitat or vegetation areas is through biodiversity offsets – essentially replacing the damaged or destroyed area with a protected or restored area elsewhere.

The Walker spokesman said Walker proposed to “beneficially reuse dredged material to reclaim land for urban development and to create new intertidal habitat, rather than transporting material to an alternative marine or land-based location”.

Environmental Justice Australia legal expert Dr Bruce Lindsay told The Fifth Estate that his organisation had dealt with a lot of biodiversity offset schemes, and that while the intent of them is to ensure there is no net loss, or even a net gain, when environmentally harmful activities are undertaken, “in practice this hardly ever occurs”.

The schemes are basically a compensatory mechanism for environmental damage and harm, he says.

While some schemes propose a “like-for-like” offset – for example, koala habitat cleared in one place is offset by koala habitat restored or protected elsewhere – it is difficult to design offset schemes to achieve like-for-like outcomes.

In the case of a vegetation community such as mangroves, there is no like-for-like option, as they occupy a very specific ecological niche right where they are.

“It is often impossible to be able to compensate for those losses or damages,” Lindsay says.

The issues are not only on the practical level in terms of the effectiveness of biodiversity offsets. Lindsay says they are also highly problematic in principle.

“They generate a legitimating excuse for loss or damage… and they are being used in some very shonky situations.”

Damage to a Ramsar-listed wetland is “pushing into those domains where loss is irreversible – and we shouldn’t attempt to”.

We need to strengthen environmental regulations

Lindsay says that having strong environmental regulations that permit governments to simply say “no” to damaging developments could drive the development industry to be “more innovative” in what it proposes.

“There are certain circumstances where the answer should be no.”

This might also encourage the development industry to “change their thinking” and lead to a strong preference for other projects that do not involve damage or loss to biodiversity.

Regulations can also send a strong signal to investors, he says.

One aspect of mangrove clearing that should ring property investor alarm bells is that the areas where they are being cleared are areas where they are extremely valuable for protecting the coastline from storm surges and cyclones, AMCS’s Adele Pedder says.

The structure of a mangrove vegetation community means it dissipates both wind energy and wave energy in a way a sea wall simply cannot achieve.

It could affect food supply

Mangroves are also critical in terms of protecting ongoing stocks of some of our favourite seafoods.

Pedder says that many species have a lifecycle where mangroves are a key habitat for a part of the lifecycle, including prawns and barramundi.

This should be on everyone’s radar, with a recent report showing Australia’s fisheries are in even worse shape than thought.

The research by Graham Edgar, senior marine ecologist at the University of Tasmania’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic, found that over the 10-year period from 2005 to 2015, commercial fish stocks dropped by an average of 33 per cent – a decline matched by a 32 per cent decline in total Australian fisheries catches over the same period.

“Contrary to years of sustainability reports, our study indicates that excessive fishing pressure is contributing to decline of many Australian fish species,” Edgar wrote in an article at The Conversation.

Pedder points out that in addition to proven tools for protecting fish stocks, such as marine parks and reserves, protecting and restoring mangrove habitat is an opportunity support fish stocks to recover.

Mangroves and carbon

There is also another reason investors should be interested in protecting and restoring mangroves – they are one of the world’s most efficient ecosystems for storing carbon, and there is a whole new “blue carbon” market arising centred on mangrove areas.

“Unlike terrestrial vegetation, mangrove ecosystems can accumulate carbon without reaching saturation and they can store the carbon for thousands of years,” Pedder says.

“Blue carbon ecosystems are one of the most efficient bio-sequestration systems on Earth. Tropical mangroves store on average 3-4 times more carbon than tropical terrestrial forests.”

She says the blue carbon industry is “taking off” and that there is money to be made in rehabilitating and protecting mangroves as carbon stores.

Essentially, they are an ecosystem with “so much intrinsic value”, Pedder says.

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