As Norwegian oil company Equinor goes on the PR offensive over its plan to drill for oil in the Great Australian Bight, scientists and community leaders warn the risks run far deeper than oil spills.
From the Adani mine in Queensland to fracking, governments at both state and federal level, of both major parties, have fallen behind a race to extract the last scraps of wealth from the fossil fuel industry, despite the risks posed to iconic and economically vital ecosystems such as the Great Barrier Reef and now the Bight.
Disasters like Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico may conjure images of blackened birdlife and slicked coastlines, but as marine biologist Dr Jodie Rummer explains, such worst-case scenarios aren’t necessary to do permanent harm. “Oil spills are the most obvious [direct threat], but the less obvious is the increase in boat traffic and noise,” Rummer says. “Not only from the boats but also from the piledriving that has to occur for that kind of infrastructure to be put in place.”
Then, of course, there’s the big one: climate change. “We’re not going to be able to limit the planet’s warming at 1.5 degrees if we’re allowing more and more fossil fuel exploration to happen,” she says. “We already know what warming does to marine ecosystems, we know what one-degree of warming has done to the Great Barrier Reef over the past several years with mass coral bleaching. Limiting to 1.5 degrees is not great but it’s certainly not going to happen if we keep allowing more and more fossil fuel exploration to happen.
“We can’t even model a system and learn from the lessons of the Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Horizon spill, because it’s an entirely different game in the Great Australian Bight,” she says. “[But] it doesn’t require a massive spill to cause damage; a lot of the research we’ve been doing on the Great Barrier Reef with simulating oil pollution has used concentrations that would equal a couple of drops of oil in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. That’s not very much, but the effects we’re seeing are dramatic.”
Rummer’s research and that of her colleagues has shown small concentrations can cause cardiac and cognitive issues, preventing fish from schooling and recognising predators. The stakes are high; the Bight is home to unique ecosystems and whale sanctuaries of global significance. “We think of the Great Barrier Reef being Australia’s icon, but I’ve been so impressed with the Great Australian Bight,” Rummer says. “So many endemic species, that only live there, nowhere else in the world. It’s a critical whale sanctuary, and migratory path for a lot of the really big whales, Southern right, blue, sperm, and humpback whales – there are almost 40 species of whales and dolphins in the Bight, not to mention the fish and other marine life.”
“Sixty-thousand years our people have looked after it, and that ocean is still pristine today,” says Bunna Lawrie. A Mirning Elder, Lawrie’s ancestors were among the 24 tribes that have lived along 600km of coastline for thousands of years, their culture and way of life inextricably tied to the ocean.
“We see the whales as our family, we see the land and sea as our family because it gives us everything,” Lawrie says. “The rain, water, shellfish, we all depend on the ocean. It’s very important for us to keep that connection with the whales, we live in harmony for thousands of years, side by side, and [now] we’re the voice for the whales.
“It’s one of our biggest resources that Mirning people have survived on for thousands of years, and that means a lot to us – and our future as well.”
For Rummer, who will discuss issues facing the Bight alongside Lawrie as part of WOMADelaide’s Planet Talks program, the focus on the immediate economic impact of fossil fuel explorations is only part of the story. “It’s a very short-sighted investment,” she says. “A long-sighted investment is in the marine system and biodiversity, protecting natural resources. We know what oil pollution will do to fish and marine life, we know what sound pollution will do to marine life.”
The risk posed to larger species is even greater. “If you look at some of the bigger species, sharks, they don’t have enough generation time to cope with these factors. They take a long time to mature, to reach sexual maturity, they don’t produce much young either, so they really don’t have a chance at the rate that we’re changing the oceans and the planet.”
It’s a point Lawrie echoes. “The whales come in to mate and give birth, it’s a whale sanctuary and nursery where they nurse and feed their calves, and then at the same time teach them.
“Mirning in our language means is to listen, learn and understand, the whales to the same thing, listen, learn and watch their mothers, then swim that long distance back to Antarctica, and continue that cycle.
“The ocean’s not a giant washing machine, where it can wash and spit it out,” he says succinctly. “Once it’s done it’s done.”
The Planet Talks
Friday, March 8 to Monday, March 11