Changes in the Great Barrier Reef since European settlement

Daley, Benjamin (2005) Changes in the Great Barrier Reef since European settlement. PhD thesis, James Cook University.

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Abstract

This thesis presents the results of research into the environmental history of the Great Barrier Reef since European settlement, with particular emphasis on the period from 1860 to 1970 for which comparatively little scientific information about this ecosystem has been collected. Few environmental histories of the Great Barrier Reef have been written; those that exist have made limited use of archival and oral history sources. My research used archival and oral history sources more extensively in order to write three narratives of changes in the coral reefs, islands and marine wildlife of the Great Barrier Reef. Recent scholarship within the sub-discipline of environmental history has acknowledged that the production of such narratives – that focus on the changing relationship between human societies and the environment – is an essential task of environmental historians. My narratives are based on detailed descriptions of environmental changes, collected using qualitative methods including textual analysis and semi-structured interviewing; those narratives constitute an interpretive account of numerous ways in which humans have used and modified the Great Barrier Reef between 1860 and 1970. Changes in coral reefs are described in the context of the geomorphological evolution of the east Australian continental shelf during the Holocene epoch, which resulted in deteriorating water quality and the progression of some reefs – especially nearshore reefs – from juvenile to senile geomorphological states. Subsequent natural and anthropogenic impacts have brought several of these vulnerable reefs close to critical ecological thresholds, beyond which their recovery from degradation is unlikely. My research has found evidence that early European reef fisheries, coral mining, coral collecting, shell collecting, the creation of access channels and tracks, and military impacts have degraded some coral reefs; I present evidence to indicate the extent of these various impacts. In particular, no accounts of historical coral mining and coral collecting in the Great Barrier Reef have previously been written, yet those activities resulted in the removal of considerable quantities of coral from many reefs over long periods of time. As a result, some coral reefs were probably far from pristine at the time of the formation of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (GBRMP) in 1975. Changes in many islands of the Great Barrier Reef have also been substantial: for example, the construction of the navigation beacon at Raine Island, the removal of guano from many islands, the destruction of native vegetation and fauna, the introduction of exotic species such as coconut palms and goats, and the development of infrastructure. Some islands have been significantly transformed as a result of these activities, including Raine Island, several islands of the Capricorn-Bunker Group, and the most accessible tourist resort islands in the Cairns, Townsville and Whitsunday areas. Considerable impacts have also occurred on some marine wildlife species, including the commercial fishing of dugongs and turtles in the Great Barrier Reef and in adjacent coastal waters. I provide reconstructions of the extent and impacts of those fisheries, based on analysis of the reports and records of various Queensland Government Departments together with oral history evidence. I also describe other changes in marine wildlife, including the effects of the commercial humpback whale fishery and the effects of Indigenous hunting of dugongs and turtles. Together, the three environmental history narratives contained in this thesis represent an account of almost continuous human exploitation of the Great Barrier Reef between 1860 and 1970 which probably amounts to considerable degradation of the ecosystem, at least in localised areas and for particular species. Consequently, my research has several implications for the contemporary environmental management of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area (GBRWHA). I argue that the re-evaluation of some ecological baselines is necessary, as documentary and oral history evidence indicates that the Great Barrier Reef has been exploited earlier, for a longer period, in more locations and more intensively than has previously been documented. In particular, some coral reefs, islands and marine wildlife species require additional scientific research and monitoring – linked with agreed performance indicators – in order to ensure their effective conservation. In addition, I have evaluated the use of qualitative methods in environmental history research. While the coverage of documentary sources describing the Great Barrier Reef is uneven for the period before 1970, those sources contain rich information about environmental changes. In comparison, oral histories provided sparse data, although some evidence about coral mining was obtained only from oral history sources. My research indicates that the use of multiple methods can best inform accounts of environmental changes in the Great Barrier Reef.

Item ID: 1312
Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Keywords: environmental history, Great Barrier Reef, European settlement, nineteenth century, twentieth century, geomorphological evolution, anthropogenic impacts, degradation, human exploitation, ecological thresholds, fisheries, coral mining, coral collecting, shell collecting, dugongs, turtles, humpback whales, guano, channels, infrastructure, military impacts, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, GBRMP, exotic species, indigenous hunting, environmental management, qualitative methods
Date Deposited: 09 Nov 2007
FoR Codes: 21 HISTORY AND ARCHAEOLOGY > 2103 Historical Studies @ 0%
05 ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES @ 0%
05 ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES > 0502 Environmental Science and Management > 050204 Environmental Impact Assessment @ 0%
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