Senate debates

Wednesday, 6 December 2017


Environment and Communications References Committee; Report

5:10 pm

Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I present the report of the Environment and Communications References Committee on the impacts of climate change on marine fisheries and biodiversity, together with the Hansard record of proceedings and documents presented to the committee.

Ordered that the report be printed.

I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

I replaced one of my heroes in this place, Bob Brown. One of the reasons I convinced the Greens that they should preselect me in his place was that I felt that the world's oceans, and Australia's oceans, needed more focus in parliament. They needed a party and a senator who would stand up for the world's oceans and for healthy oceans. I'm pleased to table this report today. It's the sixth Senate inquiry, in the five years that I've been here, that I've initiated into the health of our oceans, and it's the second Senate inquiry that I've chaired. It's been a great privilege to have been in the position where I've had all these resources at my fingertips. And I will say I've had good people to work with on the Senate committee. We've managed to write such a comprehensive report on, arguably, one of the greatest catastrophes that we're facing on the planet at this point in time. I'd like to quote another hero of mine, Sir David Attenborough, who's very shortly going to be releasing his movie, Blue Planet II. He says:

The world's oceans are under the greatest threat in history.

His documentary will lay bare the shocking damage that humanity is doing to the ocean.

Climate change, through rising global emissions, is warming our oceans. If you're listening to this speech and you get this report, you can go to the additional comments that the Greens have made at the end of the report. I say that I would have liked this report to have been called 'Warming oceans: the canary in the coalmine'. Unfortunately, I couldn't get agreement from the committee to go with that title. But that's the key point that I'd like to make here today: the oceans are where we're seeing the visible impacts of climate change now. We have bushfires, floods, extreme weather events, biodiversity loss, deforestation and other issues we deal with in our terrestrial ecosystems. But what's going on in the oceans now, beneath the surface of the sea? We are seeing direct, tangible impacts of our changing climate, and it's very disturbing.

The reason I wanted to use the word 'coalmine' is that we know absolutely that the burning of fossil fuels and our obsession with coal is contributing to this. The committee visited Queensland. We had two hearings in Queensland. One was in Cairns—and Senator Hanson's here—where I also visited and dived on the reef, but I did pay for that myself. We also had a hearing in Townsville, where we heard from a number of experts. I dare anyone who doesn't believe in climate change to go there and stick their head under the water. They'll see what I saw. I went out there with a scientist who explained it to me. It was a very emotional day for me. I dived on the reef with my kids nearly five years ago, and I could see the changes in just those five years. We've had two totally unprecedented and unpredicted back-to-back coral bleaching events. They have been absolutely devastating. The tourism operators who took me out there were quite open about their concerns. In fact, their view is that, basically, this is last-chance tourism now. They have almost lost faith that we can do anything to reverse the changes that they are seeing on the Great Barrier Reef.

But I would like to step back a little bit further than that. That's not actually what led me to initiate this inquiry. It was changes in my own state that led me to initiate this inquiry. In the same years that we saw back-to-back bleaching events on the Great Barrier Reef, we saw unprecedented warming in the oceans off Tasmania. The area from Tasmania across to New Zealand and in south-eastern Australia is now recognised globally as the canary in the coalmine for warming ocean impacts. In the last two weeks, while we were writing this report, another heatwave even bigger than the events of 2015-16 has hit the coast of Tasmania. Let me tell you about those 2015-16 events. We've lost our giant kelp forests, an ecosystem that has been there for 10,000 years—longer than the Great Barrier Reef. Those giant kelp forests are nurseries for fisheries like rock lobster and abalone. They're gone. That heatwave event wiped them out. And it's not just ecosystems. What about our fisheries? What about our export industries that create jobs and wealth in our economy?

One thing I can tell you about Tasmanians is that most of them live near the coast and they love fishing. They've all got pots; they all go fishing. We've had huge campaigns on the back of stopping supertrawlers. We've built relationships with recreational fishing groups. They are seeing what's going on. They now want to see things like marine protected areas to try to take the pressure off these oceanic areas. The heatwave in 2015-16 devastated the oyster industry in Tasmania through Pacific oyster mortality syndrome and other viruses. The abalone industry virtually went into collapse, the rock lobster industry is now virtually on its knees in most parts of Tasmania except for south-west Tasmania, and the salmon industry, which is something the Greens have looked into in the past through the Senate, actually couldn't meet its contracts. Tassal, the biggest salmon producer, had to cancel its contract with Coles because of productivity problems it was having from warming waters and lack of dissolved oxygen. We saw mass fish mortality in Macquarie Harbour. This is an industry that Tasmanians are pegging their future growth on, and it's being undermined by climate. There's nowhere to run and there's nowhere to hide in a future of climate change.

It comes back to acting, and I'm pleased to say that this report is not all just about bad news and making sure people are aware of what's going on under the ocean. There's a list of recommendations here that I'm very proud of. There are things we can do, but we've got to be really careful here. Only last year I fought my biggest campaign as a senator to stop hundreds of job cuts at CSIRO in my community in Tasmania and in Victoria. The government tried to cut the jobs of nearly all the climate scientists—the people who work on the modelling, the observations, the forecasting for climate and weather and the ocean systems. There were 350 of them. We were told we didn't need them anymore, because climate change was somehow a fact now and we just needed to get on with doing something about it—not that we're doing that. We managed to reverse those job cuts thanks to a select committee that I chaired with the Greens, and I must thank Labor for their support in that regard as well. But those jobs aren't enough. Just yesterday, the Climate Council said we need at least another 77 climate and weather jobs urgently if we're going to try to manage the risks—the risks to our economy, not just to our ecosystems and to the biodiversity in our oceans. This is as much an economic problem as it is an environmental problem.

There are other key recommendations in here in relation to increased funding for science research, including fully funding the RV Investigator, the new CSIRO boat that's had its funding cut to just 180 days a year. It is one of the world's best research vessels and its capacity is totally underutilised. There are a lot of other good recommendations here. The one that I would like to push—and the committee agreed to at least review the prospect—is to have an oceans commissioner, someone who sits across government departments, liaises with parliament and advocates for the ocean; someone who makes sure the ocean is put front and centre. I would like the process for choosing that position to be that submissions are put out to the community so that we can have an apolitical appointment, someone who's experienced and respected and cares about the oceans. It doesn't cost much to have a commissioner. I admit there have been problems with the Threatened Species Commissioner, but that's because of the way it's been set up, and the appointment. I believe this is a really critical role that we need to legislate for in parliament and implement.

We don't need to wind back protections to marine protected areas. It's absolutely critical we do everything we can to take pressure off the oceans. That's another key recommendation in here. And we've recommended a whole series of things around funding and review of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and, of course, changes to the EPBC Act to put in climate triggers. These are big recommendations for change on what arguably is one of the biggest issues we face on the planet. (Time expired)


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