Coal threatens the Great Barrier Reef, Source: Flickr - Lock the Gate Alliance
Coal threatens the Great Barrier Reef, Source: Flickr – Lock the Gate Alliance

Written by Sam Mortimer, edited for online by Riana Horner

New research has revealed the potential environmental impacts which shipping coal could have on the Great Barrier Reef’s ocean life.

A team of Australian researchers from James Cook University and the Australian Institute of Marine Science in Townsville found concentrations of fine dust between 30 to 40 milligrams per litre led to the death of coral within two weeks.

They also found coral dust stunted the growth of fish and sea grass by half in a ‘what if?’ scenario.

Principal Research Scientist on the project Dr Andrew Negri said their research has been focused on finer coal particles.

“We were interested in the fine coal particles because they can move around with the currents and stay suspended for a longer period of time,” Dr Negri said.

“They can effect light levels getting down to the sea floor, they can effect feeding and they also seem to be quite sticky and they stick to the surface of coral and sea grass,” he added.

With 4,000 ships passing through reef each year, Dr Negri said while we have some of the world’s best navigation systems and checks in place on the reef.

The team hopes their findings will help educate authorities and operators on potential threats to the reef.

“We need to understand both the risk of an accident occurring, and after this research we are now starting to understand what those risks may be,” Dr Negri said.

This is the first publication to come out of the three-year study, and Dr Negri said there is more to come on the surprisingly sensitive organism.

Greens Senator Larissa Waters has maligned the Federal Governments supportive stance on coal mines, by saying the economic reality is that coal is on the way out and a clean energy future would reduce the risk to the Reef.

The Queensland Environment Minister, Steven Miles, said although the research is useful, coal shipping is not the main threat to the Great Barrier Reef.

He told the ABC that people should not be concerned about shipping safety.

“It is already the most strictly regulated shipping area in the world,” he said.

“It’s very closely monitored and regulated and that includes regulating channels through which ships can traverse,” he added.