The Great Barrier Reef is an Australian national icon. It's common knowledge that it's one of Australia's most beautiful attractions, but conservationists say the Queensland government's latest tourism venture could put the already stressed reef under further strain.
The Queensland government has announced plans to dredge the Cairns shipping channel to accommodate mega cruise ships, while also purchasing the Springvale cattle station north of Cairns to limit sediment runoff. The news has provoked mixed responses from conservationists in terms of the effects the two decisions will have on the Great Barrier Reef.
Queensland Treasurer Curtis Pitt has backed a revised plan at a cost of $120 million to dredge one million cubic metres of the Trinity Inlet in Cairns and allow 37 "mega cruise ships" into the channel by 2026, saying it will deliver jobs for residents living in far north Queensland.
"I'm very excited by the scale of the vessel we'll be able to attract in Cairns. Our number one priority is jobs. It is about jobs and delivering jobs." Pitt said, according to the ABC.
"This is a great outcome. It means the reef will be protected while we'll be able to bring more tourists in to Cairns to see just how beautiful the reef is."
However, the Cairns and Far North Environment Centre (CAFNEC) , a not-for-profit conservation group working towards the protection of areas such as the Great Barrier Reef, believes the revised Cairns Shipping Development still poses a risk to the tourism industry and World Heritage area in far north Queensland.
Roz Walden, Director of CAFNEC, in a statement provided to the Huffington Post Australia said: "The [Great Barrier Reef] is already under immense pressure and is expected to take years, if not decades, to recover having just suffered the worst coral bleaching event on record,
"[The plan] flies in the face of the basis of our tourism industry. We rely on our clean, green image and our reputation of exemplary environmental stewards as a thriving nature-based tourism destination."
According to Imogen Zethoven, campaign director of the Australian Marine Conservation Society, the dredging process stirs up sediments, metals and pesticides on the seabed that can bury reefs and damage future growth.
"Dredging stirs up huge amounts of sediment and that matter is suspended in the water column and can be resuspended every time a ship goes past or it can fall onto either seagrass meadows or into a reef," Zethoven told the Huffington Post Australia.
"It can create a sticky mess on reefs and degrade them. Essentially it can kill reefs if there's enough sediment and fertiliser pollution."
In an attempt to protect the Reef, the Queensland government's $7 million purchase of the Springvale cattle station is said to reduce sediment pollution into the Normanby River system through gullies created by years of animal grazing and help coral recover from natural bleaching.
Steven Miles, Queensland Environment Minister, said: "What the scientists tell us is that this one property is responsible for 40 per cent of the sediment running into the Normanby River system, and ultimately into the Great Barrier Reef," according to the ABC.
"If in remediating this single property we can almost halve the sediment running into the Normanby, we can make an enormous difference to the Great Barrier Reef."
Zethoven believes the purchase of land and the remediation of gullies will significantly reduce sediment runoff and work towards protecting eroded areas in the Great Barrier Reef.
"Springvale itself is the biggest source of sediment pollution in the Normanby catchment and so to protect and remediate the eroded areas is a very significant gain," she said.
"The result will be a very substantial reduction of sediment flowing into rivers in that northern environment."
According to Miles, the move was a critical decision in helping protect the wildlife that live in the Reef.
"I am confident this purchase will go a long way in protecting crucial habitat for a number of endangered and threatened species, and will also improve the health of the Great Barrier Reef by significantly reducing the impact of sediment run-off in this area of the Reef over time," he said in a statement provided to the Huffington Post Australia.
"Sediment and the attached nutrients have a range of impacts on the reef, so this 56,000 hectare land purchase was critical."
For Zethoven, the two decisions are a sign of the division within the Queensland government in relation to the treatment of the Great Barrier Reef.
"Overall, [the government] is operating in two different directions and we need them to implement a coherent rescue plan for the Great Barrier Reef so that a gain in one place isn't overtaken by a loss somewhere else," she said.
"Cairns is a beautiful environment, people don't want to see highly polluted waters because that isn't what Cairns and the Reef are famous for."