Murdoch researchers slam gas hub report
A key document examining the potential impact on marine mammals of a proposed liquefied natural gas precinct near Broome has drawn criticism from scientists.
A team from Murdoch University's Cetacean Research Unit says it has very little confidence in the report's scientific integrity and what it calls its "unfounded" conclusions.
The "Strategic Assessment Report", prepared by the Department of State Development, is designed to provide advice to the State and Federal governments on whether to give final approval to the gas hub which would span 3,530 hectares of land and sea at James Price Point, north of Broome.
The document's many findings include a prediction that activities associated with the LNG hub are unlikely to have an impact on dolphins in the area because the animals are likely to exhibit avoidance responses such as faster dive times and high-speed swimming.
The report also found that dugongs are not likely to be affected by a loss of seagrass due to dredging because they will relocate to adjacent areas to look for food.
On the subject of the estimated 13-thousand humpback whales that migrate through the area each year, the report found they successfully cross shipping corridors with little evidence of vessel strikes further south at Port Hedland and Dampier ports.
But, in a scathing submission, four scientists from Murdoch's Cetacean Research Unit have questioned many of the report's findings.
"There has been no targeted effort to identify and quantify the abundance of dolphin species ... this is a glaring omission in the Environmental Impact Assessment," the submission says.
"Thus the conclusion that the activities associated with the development of the precinct port area is unlikely to impact these species (humpback dolphin, snubfin dolphin) is unsubstantiated and based on field efforts that were aimed at quantifying humpback whale and dugong numbers only."
The unit's Amanda Hodgson told the ABC that a Murdoch University research team had recorded multiple groups of snubfin, Indo-Pacfic humpback and bottlenose dolphins just north and south of James Price Point during a boat-based survey in July last year.
"The coastal dolphins that we know occur along the Dampier Peninsula include humpback and snubfin dolphins and both of those species generally have small populations, small home ranges and they rely on very specific habitats ... so they can't just avoid the area if they're disturbed by this development," she said.
"The broad conclusions that they've come to are not necessarily supported by the scientific literature."
The report's assessment of the impact on dugongs has also been questioned by the Murdoch team which cited the case of Hervey Bay in Queensland where they say the widespread loss of seagrass from a cyclone resulted in the death and emigration of many dugongs.
On the subject of humpback whales, the scientists argue many of the findings in the report are "unreliable".
They have described the report's prediction that whales will successfully cross shipping corridors as "inappropriate" because it is based on a study of just three, satellite-tagged whales traversing the Port Hedland and Dampier Port areas in September, 2010.
"We certainly know that humpback whales get hit by boats and are disturbed by boats," Dr Hodgson said.
"There's plenty of literature to suggest that the impact of boat strikes is significant on humpback whales."
The Department of State Development has defended the report, saying it is based on the findings of work by reputable scientists.
The department says it has received more than 11,000 submissions since the report was released for public comment late last year and that draft responses have been prepared for about 1,000 issues raised in the submissions.
The State's Environmental Protection Authority is expected to make a recommendation to the WA Environment Minister, Bill Marmion, on whether the gas hub should go ahead, and under what conditions, in February.
The project also needs to be approved by the Federal Environment Minister, Tony Burke.