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Posted on 02 August 2011

Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2003
AuthorsMorton, B
JournalMarine Pollution Bulletin
Pagination1213 - 1214
Date Published10/2003
Keywordsbiodiversity, conservation, Ningaloo
AbstractUnlike its globally famous counterpart, the Great Barrier Reef on the northeastern coast of Australia, the Ningaloo Reef on the northwestern side of the continent is relatively unknown outside Western Australia but is possibly almost as ecologically rich and certainly more pristine. The 230 km long part fringing and part barrier reef that is Ningaloo, lying from between 200 m to 7 km offshore on the western side of the North West Cape Peninsula, owes its existence a warm current which sweeps south down the west coast of Australia. The Leeuwin Current arises in the Western Pacific and flows through the Indonesian Archipelago where it is warmed and diluted by monsoon rains. It continues into the Timor Sea where it meets the eastern waters of the Indian Ocean. At Australia’s North West Cape it is turned south and forms an eastern boundary current of warm (2–3 °C above ambient), reduced salinity water about 50 km wide and 200 m deep. The seasonal influence of the Leeuwin Current can be detected as far south as southwestern Australia but an initial major effect is to warm the waters off the North West Cape and thus sustain the Ningaloo Reef over the cooler Austral winter months. Ningaloo is the largest continuous reef area in Western Australia and is formed by a rich coral community not usually seen on the western sides of continents. From it, at between 21 and 23 °S, for example, have been recorded 217 species of zooxanthellate corals in 54 genera as compared with the ∼50 species recorded from Hong Kong at an equivalent 22 °N. Its waters are also rich in other marine wildlife such as migrating Dugongs, Manta rays and Whale sharks, as well as Humpback whales. The backdrop to the reef itself, the limestone cliffs of Cape Range, which once bordered the Tethys, are also spectacular in their own right and effect the transition to a relatively more recent Pleistocene raised-reef, wave undercut outcrops of which are interspersed by brilliantly white sandy beaches washed by dazzlingly blue ocean. The reef itself sits as a thin veneer on the same Pleistocene base so that, in places, living and fossil corals can be seen side by side. Located 1132 km north of Perth, Ningaloo is not just remote, but also relatively uninhabited and although probably largely unknown and unseen by the majority of Australians, the number of visitors is growing. In fact, Ningaloo is fast becoming an Australian “must see” tourist attraction in one of the most beautiful parts of this continent although existing facilities to accommodate such visitors are considered too few. I have been coming to various regions of Western Australia on research trips for some 15 years now, attracted by the near-pristine beaches in comparison to Hong Kong’s polluted ones. Over about the same time frame, there have been proposals made by a development company, Coral Coast Marina Development, to build an A$200 million (∼US$ 136 million), 2500 bed, tourist facility, in the form of a resort style marina, at Mauds Landing, 3 km north of the existing township of Coral Bay and literally abutting the Ningaloo Marine Park. For 16 years, the proposal has sparked heated debate within the Western Australian community and was opposed principally by a Mum and Dad style popular movement, the “Save Ningaloo Campaign” and which in the absence of any significant funds relied on a “bumper sticker” approach to creating awareness and unremitting political lobbying. In an Australian state which is population poor but natural resource rich and where politicians at all levels are widely, if untruly, believed to be in the pocket of big business, nobody actually thought that Mum and Dad had any hope of stopping the development. Everything seemed to be against them: for example the Environmental Protection Authority twice gave its approval for the project. Earlier this year, however, the chairman of this body changed his mind, but the Environment Minister then disqualified herself from making a final decision about plans for a revised resort on the grounds of a conflict of interest because she had appealed against the earlier EPA-approved plans for the site in 1997. Mauds Landing Resort therefore looked forward to imminent approval. But then the amazing happened. In early July 2003, soon after I arrived in Western Australia on another research trip, the premier of Western Australia, Dr Geoff Gallup, received a report prepared by an environmental appeals committee on the Mauds Landing proposal. The report concluded that: “The environmental risks and management needs for the proposal have not been demonstrated to be environmentally acceptable”. Within 48 h, on 5 June, Dr. Gallop was in Coral Bay to announce that the State Government had outright rejected the proposal. Mum and Dad, to their own surprise and that of everyone else, had won! Ningaloo has been saved! Dr. Gallop was reported to have said: “This [the Ningaloo Marine Park] is a very precious asset. It has iconic status. It would be a dereliction of duty for any government that would make a decision that would throw this away”. Further, he said: “Today, we have drawn a line in the sand and declared that we will not accept developments that threaten this precious and fragile coast. We are keen to create the best marine and national parks possible”. Recognising that there is a need for better tourist facilities around the marine park, however, Dr. Gallop subsequently announced that the Western Australian Government itself had initiated plans to provide these. Such facilities would include additional government-funded hostels and campsites, the installation of boat moorings in nearby Bills Bay and an A$7.5 million (∼US$ 5 million) wastewater treatment plant. It is likely that the Coral Coast Marina Development Company will seek compensation through the courts for the A$7 million (∼US$ 4.8 million) it has hitherto invested in the project. This, however, is nothing when set against the enormous political advantage that Dr. Gallop has achieved for himself and his party which “Saved Ningaloo Reef” when elections come around in 2005 and when the continuing support of the “greenies” will be essential for victory. The Labor Party’s election victory in 2001 was obtained, for example, only with green support by promising to regulate the publicly unpopular policy of clear felling old-growth native forest in Western Australia. Some politicians at last appear to be waking up to the reality that in this part of Australia the majority of people are becoming much more environmentally aware. Regrettably, however, the Ningaloo fairy-story does not end on a completely happy note. In formulating plans for its own improved tourist facilities on the lands surrounding the marine park, aerial surveys of unofficial campsites adjacent to it in the peak July 2002 period showed a dramatic increase in the number of campers on three pastoral stations, that is, from 150 campsites in 1995 to 342 last year. The increasing number of camping and backpacking tourists to this remote part of Western Australia has, in the absence of sufficient licensed accommodation, created a nicely lucrative little cash earner for farmers in, arguably, one of the last remnants of paradise. And so the stage is set for a continuing battle over Ningaloo but now between the Western Australian State Government and influential local, maverick landowners. One can only hope that in this looming conflict, Dr. Gallop will show the same resolve as in 2003 with the developers. Notwithstanding, many commentators believe that the three-cornered hat problem of Ningaloo can only be resolved by the designation of the marine park as a World Heritage Site. Such designation is not, however, either a simple matter or automatic. Unesco itself has to be convinced of the effectiveness of the plans set in place to manage the site before designation can be awarded. And therein lies the crux of the modern problem. Ningaloo is remote and hitherto visited mainly by but a few of the more adventurous local families––Mum and Dad camping with the kids. Today, however, eco-tourism, as on the Great Barrier Reef, is an important national, state and local revenue earner. In order to balance this with the national interest in heritage and natural resource protection, however, a comprehensive management plan has to be prepared first so that all interests are catered for and such that everyone benefits from the magnificence of Ningaloo and will thus wish to protect it. One option would be the creation of a management body along the lines of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. On the same day that Dr. Gallop made his decision with regard to the proposed Ningaloo Reef development, however, a report published by the Authority found that the overall health of its charge is still in a state of continuing decline.
Short TitleMarine Pollution Bulletin
Refereed DesignationRefereed