Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Abbot Point Unmasked

The North Queensland Bulk Ports Corporation describe The Abbot Point Coal Terminal in the following terms:

"Situated about 25 kilometres north of Bowen, the Port of Abbot Point is Australia's most northerly coal port. The Abbot Point Coal Terminal comprises a rail in-loading facility, coal handling and stockpile areas, and a single trestle jetty and conveyor connected to a berth and shiploader, located 2.75km off-shore. The terminal is being expanded with the addition of a second wharf and shiploader as well as an additional onshore stockyard and machines.

Coal is supplied to Abbot Point by rail from Newlands, Collinsville and Sonoma mines. In addition, small quantities of coal may be brought north on the coastal rail line from the Goonyella system for export. The port terminal is operated by Abbot Point Bulk Coal Pty Ltd, a subsidiary of Xstrata Coal Queensland Pty Ltd.

The port is serviced by two tugs, which are based in Bowen, and pilotage is provided by Maritime Safety Queensland. NQBP is the port authority for the port, and has three staff based in Bowen who are responsible for maintaining the Bowen wharves and providing assistance at other NQBP ports.

The Port of Abbot Point is of significant strategic value to NQBP and the State, as there are very few locations along Queensland's eastern seaboard where deep water (>15m) is so close in-shore. NQBP is considering the potential for development of a breakwater protected harbour to provide additional sheltered berths.

The coal terminal at Abbot Point, which is owned by PCQ and operated by Abbot Point Bulk Coal Pty Ltd, is currently undergoing significant expansion works."

Of course, the little bit that is not clearly revealed is that Abbot Point is right smack bang in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef.

That's the Reef right there....the dark skinny bit to the right, and below  is the Terminal with the 2.5km wharf clearly visible.

You will note, on the map to the right, the wetlands just below the Terminal, and the long stretch of beach.  So, you may ask what this is about.......(just click)...........Chalco Proposal and Chalco Home.  Certainly, this proposal appears to be clear of the wetlands and beaches, but do you really think these will remain pristine?  What we don't know, however, is what has happened to this alumina refinery proposal!

On the other hand, what we do know is that the Abbot Point coal loading facility is to be expanded rapidly.  According to the Queensland Department of Transport, Abbot Point will be handling 50 million tonnes of coal by June 2011 - double the current 25 million tonnes - and possibly as much as 110 million tonnes in the not too distant future.

Now, I'm not going to get into an environmental discussion on the merits of coal mining (I am definitely not qualified to do that).  I just want you to think about one thing - the shipping.  When you climb into your fishing boat in MacKay, or pay to experience one of the many boating/diving/fishing tours and adventures along the Barrier Reef, spare a thought for the added experience of dodging a huge number of very large ships.  When you jump into the warm and inviting Reef waters, or catch a fish, consider the possibility of some of these vessels discharging waste, leaking oil or emptying their ballast tanks as they pass by.

How many ships? I hear you ask.  Well, the Pasha Bulka, which ran aground at Newcastle, appears to have a capacity of 58000 tonnes.  The Shen Neng 1, which drove itself onto the Reef near Keppel Island earlier this year, was reported to have a capacity of 65000 tonnes.  So if we assume an average capacity of 70000 tonnes, we end up with over 700 ships by June next year.  But wait, that is 700 ships in.  They also have to depart, making over 1400 movements of very large ships in a very small waterway.  If Abbot Point achieves its target of 110 million tonnes per year, we will have over 3000 ship movements every year.  Over 3000 ship movements, all in hurry, all under pressure to reduce, or at least, control costs.

Some may believe the crews of these vessels will "do the right thing" and, probably, most of them will.  However, the Shen Neng disaster was still fresh in our minds when the Japanese bulk carrier, Mimosa, decided to take a shortcut through restricted waters (just like the Shen Neng).  This incident was reported by a London based journalist, Jim Mulrenan, in the Norwegian on-line publication, TradeWinds.no.  It was dealt with by a Townsville magistrate.  We didn't hear about this close call, did we?

How many ships, choosing to take short cuts and, perhaps, sun-bake on top of the Reef, will it take to destroy it?  I thought the Great Barrier Reef was one of Australia's natural gems, to be closeted and nurtured.  Instead, it will just be another congested sea lane, in all probability ruined for future generations by coal ships, rather than climate change.  At least we won't need to solve that problem, the Reef won't be there!

Further reading:

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Hooked On Fish - Part 4

You Have Been Conned - This Is Not Really About Fish! 

     Australia has been run on the basis of a "Dotocracy" since its earliest beginnings.  To some extent, it has been a good thing in that we have developed quaint differences between the States which, overall, has fostered a healthy competitiveness.  Where would we be without the Sheffield Shield cricket or State of Origin Rugby League?

     There have been occasions, however, when the Dotocracy fought against us.  

     Some readers may recall the stoush in the early 1900's over the site for a National Capital which resulted in a land-locked island in the middle of NSW, now known as Canberra (not a criticism - I live there and love it).  At the time of formation, and for many years after, Canberra was a hard place to get to, a hard place to live in, a hard place to communicate with and, therefore, hard to do business in.

     Readers may also recall the railway gauge issue that dogged rail travel in this country for most of the 20th century.  This was an excellent example of Dotocracy working at its best.  NSW decided on a gauge of 1435mm; Victoria and South Australia 1600mm; Tasmania, Queensland, Western Australia (with parts of South Australia) 1067mm.  By 1917, a person wishing to travel from Perth to Brisbane was required to change trains six times (an interesting read is A History of Rail in Australia).

     So, let's get back to the topic and think about joining some dots.

     In Hooked On Fish, Parts 1-3, we explored some of the issues around Australian aquaculture, particularly land based aquaculture.  We coined the phrase "Dotocracy" to demonstrate that, regardless of the amount of good work being done, efforts were fragmented.  The dots were not being joined and, as a consequence, opportunities were being missed.

     However, the issue goes far beyond the development of aquaculture, for its own sake.  We live in a country whose greatest natural resource is land.  We sent and encouraged people, from the earliest times, to explore and exploit this resource.  They did so with enthusiasm and developed agricultural enterprises, built regional cities, towns and villages.  They established forms of communication, appropriate to the technology of the day.  They tapped into resources such as water and timber.  They discovered and exploited the mineral wealth which continues to underwrite our ongoing economic prosperity.  They fought the disasters - fire, flood, dust and drought -  that confronted them on a regular basis.  They hung on and survived, often times by their fingernails, because they had to and because they had learned to love their place in the world.  

     In return, we sometimes sent a visiting Prime Minister or Premier; we handed out a few grants and prepared reports; we built a few arterial roads and we turned a promising rail network into a nostalgic anachronistic member of the "what might have been" club.  We encouraged them to tap into the rivers, the streams and the underground water basins and to plant and grow, plant and grow, plant and grow!  And now that the water is not what it used to be, now that rural enterprises use a fraction of the staff they used to, now that these towns and villages and lifestyles that we read about in "Henry Lawson" and "Banjo Patterson" are fading, our answer is to tell them they must stop using the water, they must pull out their orchards, they must stop milking their cows and "maybe you shouldn't be there!"  Meanwhile, the rest of us, the great majority who have the majority of votes, cling like limpets on a rock to the comfort and connivance of the big cities on the coast!

     Of course, its not all doom and gloom.  We just have to learn to join the dots, and that brings us back to fish, kind of!

     In the early 1970's, the Commonwealth Government of the day implimented a policy of "Regional Growth Centres".  The policy identified focus points such as Bathurst/Orange (NSW) and Albury/Wodonga (NSW/Victoria).   To an extent, there has been some long term success with this concept, although handicapped with dubious communications through a lack of rail, road and telecommunication infrastructure for the first 2-3 decades.  At no time since this policy was introduced has anything other than lip service been paid to the notion that the concept could be developed as a deliberate and aggressive strategy to ease the pressure on big city expansion, at the same time as rejuvenating our rural and regional communities.  Like the question of aquaculture, lots of dots but no lines to join them.

     The forecasts for population growth indicate that, without a policy shift, that growth will occur in our major coastal cities.  This need not be a threat.  It is, in fact, an opportunity to drive the decentralisation agenda in a much more aggressive and targeted manner.  Of course, the "no growth" brigade have been out in force on this topic. In truth, the "no growth" brigade have no argument.  If you don't grow you die.  Its that simple.  We have to learn to cope and deal with an ever increasing world population, to which we in Australia will contribute a tiny portion.

     The forecasts for climate change and its consequences for agricultural production generally indicate a long term shift is required in the manner we approach traditional agriculture and food production.  The preceding fishy tales provide an illustration of how significant intensive and integrated food production enterprises can be developed, using a fraction of the water compared with traditional methods, impacting on much smaller areas of land and potentially offering many more employment opportunities.

     This series of articles is really about the development and implementation of good policy, with particular emphasis on encouraging the survival of regional Australia.  If sound policy is developed, fully recognising the connectivity between cities, country towns, transport, communication, food production, good health, lifestyle, employment, water availability and consumption, etc, then we might just start to join the dots and escape from the clutches of Dotocracy.
     Perhaps, after all, it could start with a good feed of fish!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Hooked On Fish - Part 3

Joining the Dots - or Towards The End of Dotocracy. 

     Australian Aquaculture can best be described as an exciting industry, with a great deal of effort being applied to a wide variety of enterprises and potential enterprises, but without a central strategy to guide its development.  It is like a child's dot drawing - a large number of dots, perhaps a vague impression of what it might look like, but no real effort to join the dots.  Perhaps, because of the large involvement of state and commonwealth governments preparing their own concepts and "protect-our-patch" strategies, it might be called a "Dotocracy".       

     Let's look at just some of the dots forming our Dotocracy:

  • the Commonwealth Department of Agriculture Fisheries & Forestry (DAFF) has developed their "Best practice framework of regulatory arrangements for aquaculture in Australia". The introduction to this "framework" commences with the following statement "The Aquaculture Industry Action Agenda (AIAA) is a strategic framework between industry and the Australian Government to assist the Australian aquaculture industry achieve its vision of $2.5 billion in sales by 2010. The AIAA contains a set of ten strategic initiatives to work towards this goal. Strategic Initiative 2 is the promotion of a regulatory and business environment that supports aquaculture. This is supported by a National Aquaculture Policy Statement which was developed and agreed to by all States, Territories and the Commonwealth Government in 2003.  Around the same time that implementation of the AIAA commenced, the Productivity Commission initiated a research paper titled 'Assessing Environmental Regulatory Arrangements for Aquaculture'. The purpose of the Commission Research Paper was to assess the planning and environmental regulatory arrangements covering marine and land-based aquaculture production in Australia.".......and so on.  You, perhaps, start to get the idea (wonder how the $2.5 billion/2010 thing is going).  But wait, there's more!

  • and, of course, don't forget the National Aquaculture Council and its Strategy, mentioned in Part 1.

     So, there we have it, folks.  The above is just a small sample of what is out there in aquaculture land.  Over the last decade, or so, there has been a large amount of work done, lots of fine words and good intentions, some progress, but not nearly enough!  Most of that progress has been the result of the hard work and risk taken by private entrepreneurs, notwithstanding the growing Dotocracy surrounding them.  Companies large and small, such as Cell AquacultureClean Seas TunaHuon Aquaculture and Taylor Made Fish Farms, (whom I must thank for the photographs) to name just a few, have carried the torch.  

     Why is all this important?  Feeding ourselves and others, reducing imports and protecting marine natural resources are just part of it.  There is much more!  But none of it will happen if we don't first join the dots.


Next.......Part 4.....and finis..


Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Hooked On Fish - Part 2

We Can Do This!  

     In Hooked On Fish - Part 1, attention was drawn to the decline of the Australian total fishery and the failure to replace production from a stabilising marine fishery with production from an aggressive aquaculture fishery.  Part of the reason for that situation is most likely due to a combination of heavy population pressure on Australia's east coast and the creation of marine parks or reserves over many parts of the coastline.  These factors have, perhaps paradoxically, limited the available space for marine aquaculture enterprises.

     This is not to say, however, that marine aquaculture is a dead duck.  Not at all.  There is a significant amount of work being done in most state jurisdictions to both maintain and develop tthe marine aquaculture fishery.  This is particularly evident in Tasmania and South Australia.  Notwithstanding this important work, let's take a look at the prospects for land based aquaculture.

     Many of you may be aware of the plight of rural communities around Australia (of course, this is not a uniquely Australian problem).  You will also be aware of the growing plight of less well off countries where food resources are scarce and feeding the population challenging.  There are many similarities between such countries and our own rural communities in that they suffer from shortages of water, difficulties with communications, challenges to accessing markets, extremes of weather and struggling traditional rural enterprises.  So, in this Part 2, let's explore some of the possibilities.  Sit back and watch.......

Set you thinking?  We can do this!

Next - Part 3 - Joining the Dots - or Towards The End of Dotocracy. 

Monday, June 14, 2010

Hooked on Fish - Part 1

 Its Just Not Good Enough   

     In my article about saving the whales I touched on the concept of Aquaculture - Fish Farming to the uninitiated.  If we look at aquaculture in its global application, it is not a cottage industry.  Yet, in many countries, countries that could benefit enormously from this type of food production, it remains just that.  Indeed, in Australia, it would hardly be described as a mainstream form of food production.  The commercial fishing industry, while well managed these days at, generally, a sustainable level, is really just an anachronism to most of the 22 million people who live here. Its a little like the "family farm", "life in the bush" and Banjo Patterson.   For most of us, the fishing industry is a sunny day, a flat white or cappuccino, an outdoor cafe with a view of the "fleet" as it travels back and forth.  Somehow, those lovely fishies arrive at the supermarket, probably all caught by those brave men in their lovely little boats.  "What's that? Another latte? Don't mind if I do."

     Well, I can't leave it at that, can I?  So I have decided that, having raised the topic, I have a responsibility to explore this fishy tale just a little further.  We in Australia have a great deal of land, a great deal of coastline, a great deal of scientific skill and a great deal of enthusiasm when we find something we believe in.  Many of us in Australia are concerned about how to use scarce resources well, how to best utilise our land, how to manage our coastal responsibilities and how to cope with an increasing population.  Many of us are equally concerned with the huge problem of "feeding the world" and how best to contribute to that.  So, lets get on with it!

    However, before we proceed, some caveats may be appropriate.  Firstly, I am no scientist and have no particular expertise in this area.  I have researched and present this topic with a view to promoting discussion and, perhaps, facilitating change.  Secondly, "climate change" is a factor that must be considered in context with these articles.  For those readers who may be skeptics I simply ask, what is wrong with the precautionary principle?  Do you cross a busy highway without taking the precaution of looking at the flow of traffic or, perhaps, using a crossing?  So, my view will be, put simply and bluntly, that there can be nothing wrong with less crap in the air, less crap in the ocean, less crap in our water supplies and less crap in our food.

     Aquaculture is not a new invention.  According to an ABC "Catalyst" program in 2003, a Victorian Aboriginal tribe, the Gunditjmara people around Lake Condah, some 350ks from Melbourne, may have farmed eels over 8000 years ago.  The Food & Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) describe early Chinese aquaculture going back to around 2000 BC.  The Japanese have cultivated seaweed for centuries and there is evidence of fish cultivation in Roman times.  During the 19th century a great deal of trial and development was carried out in the US and Canada, resulting in seriously operating industries by the close of that century.

     In its Yearbook of Fishery Statistics, the FAO has provided the the following figures for worldwide marine (fish & plant) harvesting during 2006:

CAPTURE91,994,321 T1,143,273 T
AQUACULTURE51,653,329 T15,075,612 T
TOTALS143,647,650 T16,218,885 T

     The figures for Australia, by comparison, are:

CAPTURE192,574 T15,504T
TOTALS241,456 T15,504 T

     Interestingly, New Zealand, with whom we like to compete on all things from cricket, to rugby, to ownership of movie stars, caught 470,708 T and produced 107,522 T from aquaculture during the same period.  What's going on?  Have we been asleep?
     Of course, what we do have in Australia, is a cultured pearl industry.  While this is not food production, it must be recognised that it is a vital economic contributor to the Aquaculture industry (around $300m per year) and significantly enhances employment, science and skill development. 

     The cultured pearl industry is also a significant draw card and player in the tourism industry.  The Western Australian town of Broome would not be thriving as it does without pearls and the flow-on effect on the economy of that State cannot be overstated.

     Pearls aside, however, it would not be unreasonable to take a view that the Australian aquaculture industry remains without a national focus and a national strategy.  Now, of course, someone will draw my attention to the National Aquaculture Council and its Strategy circa 2007.  This strategy draws attention to many issues needing attention within the industry.  There are good things here and the strategy should not be sidelined.  Nevertheless, I have to say that it is without the type of gutsy, long range, vision necessary to drive this industry forward with pace and vigor.  It is, in fact, "sleepy", so obviously a bureaucratic document, making all the right noises to gain all the right support for the pittance of funds it asks for.  The strategy focuses heavily on entry to the European Community, arguably one of the more difficult markets to enter.  It makes no attempt to draw on the expertise of the pearling industry as far as marketing is concerned and, most importantly of all, fails to address the easiest market to access.  What is that, I hear you say?  The Australian market!  It has got to be easier to replace the 380,000 tonnes (FAO 2001) of seafood product we import than to develop new markets thousands of kilometers away, at least as a first step in growing this industry.

     The following graphs, courtesy of the FAO, illustrate clearly what is happening to Australian fish production:

This figure illustrates the Australian "caught" production, as in caught in the ocean, not farmed.  It shows what appears to be a decline in recent years, after some 15 years of variability.

This figure illustrates the Australian "farmed" or aquaculture production.  It is showing a steady growth since the late 1980's.  This would coincide, roughly, with the growth of salmonid production in the southern states.

This figure illustrates total Australian seafood production.  It will be seen that, in spite of the growth in the aquaculture industry, total production is in decline at approximately the same rate as the decline in "caught" production.   

     The stark fact that these graphs tell us, provided they represent the real situation, is that in a country with vast amounts of land, surrounded by vast amounts of coastline, we are unable, or unwilling, to produce enough fish to meet our own needs.  This nation, rightly or wrongly, found the means to produce rice, cotton, oranges, tomatoes, beef, wool, lamb and wine in what is, virtually, desert.  

     How much fish product could be produced from a 5 hectare land based aquaculture project and how much rice, cotton, beef, etc, could be produced from the same area?  Oh, before you ask, I'll bet pounds to peanuts that, with a little good management and a little bit of recycling, a land based aquaculture project would use a fraction of the water required for any of the other agricultural products.  Not that I have any objection to those type of products, of course.  Quite enjoy a sausage, or a steak, perhaps a tasty lamb shank, even a glass of red.  Mmmm...now that's a thought.

      We manage the marine fishery reasonably well these days and are heading toward a fully sustainable marine environment.  Yet, we have not done well in growing and developing an aggressive and advanced aquaculture industry.  What we do not do well ourselves cannot be taught, given or sold to others.  In spite of some great individual efforts, our national commitment is just not good enough.

     Next - Part 2 - We Can Do This! 

Monday, June 7, 2010

Save The Whales But Don't Forget The Fishies!

     If I ever get to see a live whale, swimming freely in the ocean, it will most likely be while standing on a cliff overlooking some part of the Australian East Coast.  You won't get me in a boat for the very simple reason that I enjoy my tucker and see no point in using it to burley up more fish, of the whale variety or otherwise.

     Yet, I am a strong supporter of the anti-whaling fraternity.  Its probably just sentimentality; after all, we kill and consume plenty of other mammals.  But killing and chasing these magnificent creatures does seem completely pointless, unless, of course, you happen to sell or consume the flesh.

     So, what happens if the slaughter is stopped?  The most obvious is that whale numbers will stabilise and then increase.  We will enjoy, with greater frequency,  the sight of them moving gracefully up and down our coast and marvel at their magic.  Many of us will experience more "up close and personal" moments and the enchantment that brings.  Perhaps, tragically, there will be more beachings and the drama such events bring to effected communities.  There will also be consequences!

     Whales feed very near the bottom of the ocean food chain. Yet, they are not the only specie dependent upon this source.  Put very simply, more whales mean more competition for other species.  Generally, this would not be an issue as nature, if left to work its own magic, will strike a balance.  However, nature is not left alone; we have not left it alone.  The impact of human intervention in our ocean environment is complex and without dispute.  Perhaps it is time to reduce our impact, to allow the big fish and the little fish (and all in between) to sort things out.

     Seafood, as we all know, is an excellent source of protein and essential oils.  Many communities around the world are heavily dependent upon harvesting the oceans as their only means of abundant protein.  Many more, like we in Australia, also depend on an ocean harvest to add variety and nutritional complexity to our diet.  Yet all countries, rich or poor, are finding it much more difficult to source supply.  We are forced to travel further, fish deeper, take more risks to produce the plunder demanded by the market place.  In the process, the food chain shrinks, species become scarce, ocean life gradually dies.

     The answer to efficient seafood production, world wide, lies in the rapid development of aquaculture.  "Fish farming" is a far more efficient and consistent means of producing large amounts of seafood quickly and cheaply.  It has endured the developmental and experimental agonies and is now established as an important link in the human food chain.  A 2002 report, presented by the ABC's Landline program, gives voice to the possibilities of this industry.  There is also a large amount of aquaculture technology now available, allowing fish farming from the micro, back yard level, to large commercial enterprises.  In most respects, it is no longer experimental.

     Humanity demands to be fed. Yet, if we wish to save the whales, we cannot ignore the fact that we must ensure their food chain is viable.  Subspecies must be allowed to survive and prosper.

     Oh, by the way, we have not yet touched on climate change.  The warming and acidification of the ocean may just do the job on the whales, and more, without a harpoon being fired.  But, we will still, more than ever, need the protein seafood can give us.  Everything is connected, after all.........."the shin bone is connected to the knee bone....is connected to the thigh bone......is connected to the hip bone....etc, etc!"



Sunday, June 6, 2010

Miner's Tax - The Pulping & Putrefying of Policy Reform

     In its 2008/2009 budget, the Rudd government established a detailed review into the Australian Tax system.  The aim of the review was "to create a tax structure that will position Australia to deal with its social, economic and environmental challenges and enhance economic, social and environmental wellbeing".

     The review was comprehensive, with the final Report being delivered to the Government in December 2009.  While acknowledging the necessity to stage reform over time, the Report provided a framework within which this process might be implemented and, in so doing, developed nine major themes within which this reform might take place:

  • Concentrating revenue raising on four efficient tax bases
  • Configuring taxes and transfers to support productivity, participation and growth
  • An equitable, transparent and simplified personal income tax
  • A fair, adequate, and work supportive transfer system
  • Integrating consumption tax compliance with business systems
  • Efficient land and resource taxation
  • Completing retirement income reform and securing aged care
  • Toward more affordable housing
  • A more open, understandable and responsive tax system

     The Government eventually responded to the review and its Report by way of a media release on 2 May 2010.  In that release the Government introduced a "Super Profits Tax" on the mining industry, at the same time handing out a few gifts, some of them attractive, to other sectors of the business and private community.

     In around the 26th paragraph of that media release, the Government finally acknowledges that the announced reforms are a product of the taxation review Report and to expect further announcements.  However, it is difficult to see just how these decisions constitute a logical and representative response to the detailed strategy outlined in the Report.  A cynic could be excused for taking the view that, once again, the Australian public are being hoodwinked and diddled by a pressing need for political expediency that pays little attention to genuine policy reform.

     Of course, what would an ordinary battler, such as myself, know about these things?  

     Yet, I can't help but wonder, should we be given an opportunity to start an Australian tax system from a blank sheet, what such a system would look like were the blank sheet to be overlayed in a manner reflecting the design espoused in the Report.  Nor can I help but wonder that, just perhaps, the authors of the Report might just have had it in their minds that a logical person may examine the totality of the recommendations and prepare a logical strategy for implementation over a given time frame.  

     Like many observers of the political "argy bargy" over many decades, I have heard the call for "tax reform" on many, many occasions.  Again, also like many others, I have heard many announcements described as "tax reform".  Sadly, such reform, with the exception of the GST, has always been superficial.  Are we, again, going to forsake another opportunity for fundamental structural tax reform, all for the sake of political expediency?  I hope not, yet I fear Chris Uhlmann and Peter Hartcher may just be right!

Oh dear..................

There was a young man from Taxation
Who heeded the call of his Nation
To find a reform
That varied not from the norm
Yet created a media sensation.