Ningaloo needs help

Stretched along the western shore of Australia’s North West Cape is Ningaloo Reef, one of the longest and healthiest fringing coral reefs in the world. The cape’s crystal blue waters harbour Ningaloo’s 260km stretch of coral coastline. It is home to over 500 species of tropical fish, 250 species of coral, and turtles, humpback whales, manta rays, and other marine species endemic to the area. Unlike the Great Barrier Reef, Ningaloo is not yet bleaching. But that does not mean it is out of harm’s way.

Fish aggregations on the Ningaloo Reef.
Photo: Jess Hadden, @jesshaddenphoto.

In 2011, the Ningaloo Marine Park was named a World Heritage Area which brought protections to the unspoiled, underwater paradise. Industrial activity has been non-existent within the gulf. Until now, it has been widely agreed that this environment is too sensitive and valuable to expose to industrialisation.

Until now, there hasn’t been a need for an organisation like Protect Ningaloo.

Now, there is.

Ningaloo’s unspoiled, underwater paradise.
Photo: Jess Hadden, @jesshaddenphoto.

Protect Ningaloo is a local, non-profit organisation based in the nearby town of Exmouth. The group stands up for the protection of the North West Cape. It is built by an alliance of the Cape Conservation Group, Conservation Council WA and the Australian Marine Conservation Society. All of these groups were members of the Save Ningaloo Reef campaign that ran from 2000 to 2005, and came together with one common goal: to protect and preserve the ecosystems that make up the North West Cape. So why are we hearing from them again?

Whale sharks and fish which are a part of the North West Cape’s ecosystem.
Photo: Jess Hadden, @jesshaddenphoto.

Subsea 7, a multinational organisation, supplies equipment and materials to the offshore oil and gas industry. It proposes to build a pipe fabrication and launch facility within the Exmouth Gulf, within the North West Cape area. 

Oil and gas pipes will be assembled in a factory near Learmonth, 35km south of the town of Exmouth. It would become the first thing you see as you fly in. From there, the pipes will be rolled down rail lines and launched offshore at Heron Point. The 10km pipelines will be dragged along the seabed for around 1.5km until they become buoyant and are tied to a tug boat. The boat will pull the pipes through the waters of the Gulf and north through the World Heritage listed Ningaloo Marine Park. Once on the outskirts of the park, they are laid back onto the seabed in a ‘parking zone’, before being dragged again, lifted and transported to a designated oil and gas rig.

The proposed towing route through the Exmouth Gulf. Source: Protect Ningaloo.

Jeremy Tager recently joined Protect Ningaloo as a full-time campaigner against the proposals. He has a 20-year history as an environmental activist, mainly on the east coast, for companies such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. His Perth office is lined with photos from the Great Barrier and Ningaloo reefs; images of turquoise blue waters and vibrant fish a strong reminder of his work.

“The entire project that’s being proposed by Subsea 7 is insane,” he says. “I just don’t know that there’s any other way to describe such a large scale of potential damage and destruction in an area that is so wild, so abundant and fertile, and so peaceful as well.”

The construction of a 350m rock wall at the Heron Point launch site, the scouring associated with dragging pipes and chains along the seafloor, the effects of potential emissions and spills on mangroves, industrial activity taking place above subterranean cave systems. Tager says these are all concerns which bring unnecessary risks and pressures to the marine and terrestrial environment.

Tager says the projects like Subsea 7’s would also change Exmouth’s economy and community, and often cause division in small towns. In October 2018, Exmouth Chamber of Commerce and Industry chairman Bruce Sullivan told The Guardian that business leaders were confident the project would bring ‘huge benefit’ to the local community. This statement contrasts with the voices of 700 volunteers who Tager says have been in touch to help stop this proposal, and displays the division already emerging.

He says a region that depends so heavily upon its ecotourism industry needs to be cautious about the irreversible damage industrialisation may cause. “The plans show a total lack of thoughtfulness, a total lack of care and a total lack of awareness of the way in which nature-based tourism operates.

“Mackay is a good example on the east coast where the level of the mining industry brought a boom to Mackay, and rather than keeping people there it was driving people away because housing prices became so outrageously high, rentals became so outrageously high … The children of the families that lived there and had lived there for ages couldn’t afford to live anywhere and so they go elsewhere.

“This kind of short-sighted view about, ‘Anything with the oil and gas industry is good because there’s lots of money involved’, needs to be looked at really carefully.”

In response to Western Independent questions about how many jobs the proposals could potentially bring to Ningaloo, if the company had an environmental offset plan in place, and what their response plan would be in a case of unexpected damage to marine life, Subsea 7 provided no answers.

Snorkelers observing the wildlife as a part of Ningaloo’s ecotourism.
Photo: Jess Hadden, @jesshaddenphoto.

Author Tim Winton supports Protect Ningaloo. In an article published The Monthly he said, “if we allow Exmouth Gulf to be degraded, if we lose Ningaloo’s nursery, the biodiversity of the reef will decline and, with the entire tourism economy depending on a vibrant coral reef, recreational fishing catches will fall, dive charters will go to the wall and associated businesses in accommodation and hospitality will collapse.”

Tager says this proposal is just the beginning. “It is no longer just about Subsea 7. In our view, Subsea 7 is just the door opener to a whole industrialisation of the gulf, which would be a disaster.”

In 2002, over 100,000 Australians spoke up for the protection of the Ningaloo Reef, to preserve this place for themselves and for generations to come. Nine years later, Ningaloo Reef would be added to the World Heritage List.

On Wednesday June 5, 2019 the Environmental Protection Authority announced that Subsea 7’s proposal would be assessed at the highest level of Public Environmental Review by Australia’s environmental watchdog. This decision came after receiving 2498 submissions during the 7-day public comment period, of which 2359 (94 per cent) called for high-level assessment. Preparation of the Environmental Scoping Document the EPA will use to oversee the review is the next step in the assessment process.

The determined local defenders who make up Protect Ningaloo are calling for help. They say it’s time to do it all again, to stand up against big oil and gas and save our coral coastline. “Don’t let this chance to make a difference slip away,” they say in a Facebook post. “Together, we can stop this clunker of a project and save Exmouth Gulf.”