Conservationist Bob Irwin joins battle to save the Great Barrier Reef from mega-port development

Max Newlands talks to crocodile hunter and conservationist, Steve Irwin’s father Bob, who carries on the family fight to save the Great Barrier Reef from industrial level destruction

Steve Irwin died on the Great Barrier Reef filming a documentary for his daughter Bindi’s television series. Bob Irwin is philosophical about his son’s death, “Steve died doing something he absolutely loved doing. Over the years playing with sharks and playing with crocodiles both of us have pushed the envelope many many times”. 

Fronting the ‘Fight for the Reef’ campaign, Bob, is working in collaboration with the World Wildlife Foundation- Australia (WWF-Australia) and the Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS). Its report “Tide for Turning” shows expansion plans of the largest port, Abbott Point Port, will harm local wetlands and marine life. 

Nearby Caley Valley Wetland is home to the threatened Little Tern and Painted Snipe, and supports a range of habitats from freshwater streams and marshes to estuarine wetlands and hyper-saline saltpans. Dumping of dredge materials from port expansions can spread fine sediment up to six miles into the reef, damaging sea grass beds and coral gardens. Sea grass is a dietary staple for the Dugongs and Turtles living on the reef. 

Irwin is calling on Australian politicians, as custodians of the Barrier Reef to restrict heavy industrialisation; “The Great Barrier Reef doesn’t belong to the Government, this belongs to everybody.  Leading up to this next election is a perfect time to be able to get some true and honest answers out of our politicians, and that’s what I’m hoping for”. 

‘Fight for the Reef’ are asking everybody concerned to contact their own MP’s, Queensland politicians, Australian Ministers, and take grassroots action. “I couldn’t think of anything better than letters of support coming from overseas to help us to protect something special for us” added Irwin. 

‘Fight for the Reef’ is one of many campaigns challenging port expansion and increased shipping. Septuagenarian and veteran environmental campaigner June Norman is walking the nearly 750 mile length of the reef, from Cairns to Gladstone Port for Footprints for Peace, to raise awareness of the “increase of exports via the Great Barrier Reef”. This means the reef becomes “collateral damage”.   

June adds, “This short term gain may see Australia lose its UNESCO World Heritage listing”. UNESCO has postponed placing the reef on the ‘in danger’ list for another year, giving campaigners’ time to pressure the Queensland Government and newly appointed Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. 

Former Environment Minister and Midnight Oil front man Peter Garrett vows to challenge the “recklessness and disregard for our environment that washes through that Queensland Government”. Garrett, in his valedictorian speech, pledged to “make sure that those natural heritage and natural environment gains that have been hard won by the community and then by the parliament are kept in place”.

For Bob, this reef campaign continues his son’s commitment: “Steve is always here spiritually with me and he died knowing that he was doing what was really important for the World - he’d be a happy boy”. 

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Maxine Newlands is a freelance journalist and academic researching environmental politics and the media.  

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