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An open letter to the Chairman of Australia's Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority
Friday, 16 April 2010 13:45

FROM: Walter Starck, PhD

TO: Dr Russell Reichelt, Chairman of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA)


The recent report by McCook et al. on adaptive management of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) poses a number of matters of serious concern with respect to both scientific propriety as well as the factual validity of claims made.

Several matters of ethical concern have been exacerbated by publication in a prestigious journal (PNAS) which has strict requirements for authors.

These include:

  • A requirement that authors declare no conflict of interest; yet, all 21 of them are employed by or have benefited from substantial funding through GBRMPA and any other research they do on the reef must also be approved by GBRMPA. To maintain that this situation entails no conflict of interest is simply not credible
  • There is also a requirement that authors must declare sources of funding; yet, this cannot be found in the report
  • It is further required that authors acknowledge and address any conflicting evidence. Not only was this not done in regard to a number of key claims, the conflicting evidence is clear, convincing and, most extraordinary of all, authored by some of the same researchers as those in the report

Important matters of factual discrepancy include:

- A major claim of a doubling of fish on protected reefs which appears to rest on a single example (Fig. 1, McCook et al.). This is inconsistent with abundant other evidence including that which is presented in the report itself in the very same figure. Only one reef area of the eight featured in the figure showed a two-fold increase in numbers and that area had the lowest level to start and lowest difference between fished and unfished reefs, both of which show a similar increase. In five of the eight reef areas featured, the protected reefs actually showed a decline in fish numbers. On fished reefs, three areas showed increases in biomass while five showed declines.  This is hardly the “extraordinary” two-fold increase in protected areas being bannered in both the report as well as news releases.

- McCook et al. also states that, "The economic value of a healthy GBR to Australia is enormous, currently estimated to be about A$5.5 billion (US$5.12 billion) annually".   

"Relative to the revenue generated by reef tourism, current expenditure on protection is minor… Tourism accounts for the vast majority of reef-based income and employment. Income from tourism is estimated to be about 36 times greater than commercial fishing."

Aerial view of the Great Barrier Reef, Australia

These claims are highly misleading. The economic value cited includes the total value for all tourism in the region when half of all tourists do not even visit the reef. For those who do, the reef component of the large majority is a one day, one time participation in a reef tour. The value of such tours is in fact similar to the value of commercial fishing. If one also considers the economic value of recreational fishing, retail fish sales and seafood meals in restaurants, the total value of fishing is closer to twice that of reef tours. In addition, the reef tour industry regularly uses only about two dozen out of the 2,500 reefs of the GBR and, on those which are used, the actual area visited by tourists would only be about one percent of the area of even those reefs.

Unfished reefs to optimise scenic value for tourism could easily coexist with an order of magnitude greater fishing effort, and have no detriment at all to tourism. The attribution of total tourism value to the reef is no more justifiable than attributing it to the similar numbers who visit the rainforest or who eat seafood meals while visiting the region.

Such claims have been repeatedly made by GBRMPA. If used by a business, such claims would constitute violations of advertising and corporate laws. To see this done repeatedly and now included in a report in a leading scientific journal is a sad indictment of GBRMPA sponsored science as well as basic honesty.

- Babcock et al., 2010 (in another study published in PNAS on the same day as McCook et al.) also examined the ecological effects of marine protected areas. However, this report is much more widely based geographically and longer term. Although the observed effects were generally positive, they were decidedly less large, rapid, extensive, and uniformly positive than those reported for the GBR.

All of them also involved areas subject to much greater fishing pressure than the GBR. One might reasonably expect that increased protection for the least impacted areas would result in a less marked beneficial effect rather than the much more widespread rapid and dramatic benefits claimed by McCook et al.

For example, Babcock et al.,  “…found that the time to initial detection of direct effects on target species … was 5.13 ± 1.9 years….”  Note that this was the time to initial detection, not the even longer time required to reach a doubling of population. When compared to the much greater effects claimed for the GBR over only two years, the latter do indeed appear to be not just “extraordinary” but indeed difficult to believe.

In reading over McCook et al., some 40 such discrepancies were noted and more detailed examination would surely reveal more. The serious and irrefutable breaches of propriety alone cannot be credibly explained away. The additional matter of directly conflicting evidence and conclusions by the same authors is also unequivocal as can be seen in my attached report.

Coming at a time when public credibility in science has been seriously damaged by ongoing revelations of malpractice in what everyone had been repeatedly assured were irrefutable facts and settled science regarding climate change, these “extraordinary” (McCook et al.’s own description) claims regarding the GBR have already become referred to as “Reefgate”.  

If this study is not withdrawn it will amount to a tacit endorsement of scientific misconduct and can only become an even more severe discredit to GBRMPA along with the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.

In a recent article in the Cairns Post on this subject, Dr Terry Hughes was quoted as stating I am not a marine biologist and have never published anything on the GBR. Although this is provably false on both counts it is also revealing as well as irrelevant. Such ad hominem attacks are invariably resorted to only when there is no effective defence for the real issue. It demeans the attacker more than the target. The real issue here is not a schoolboy pissing contest over credentials. It matters not if I were a garbo. In fact it could well be argued that such might even better qualify me to handle this matter.

This involves a serious matter of scientific impropriety and any attempt to ignore, deny or obfuscate it will only compound the ultimate discredit. I bring it to your attention as Chairman of GBRMPA in the hope and expectation that you will promptly and properly address it.

In closing I would like to note that PNAS authors must also, “…make materials, data, and associated protocols available to readers.” McCook et al. state that, “Another important observation emerging from this review is the extent of relevant data that are not published or readily accessible. A full picture of the effects and effectiveness of zoning on the GBR has required extensive use of gray literature, previously unpublished data, and collation of separate data sources.”  

As it appears the data referred to for this review has thus been assembled, I would like to formally request that all of it be made available for independent examination via download from the internet. This should include all of the numerous unpublished coral trout, crown-of-thorns and coral bleaching survey reports conducted for GBRMPA and paid for with public money.

Editor's note: Click here to continue reading the subsequent discourse between Dr Starck and Dr Reichelt.  

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avatar Brian Poole
Impressive letter but who is Walter Starck? Perhaps he could start by practicing what he teaches and declare his interests.
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avatar Paua
Walter Starck's details are not hard to find, try here: for a primer.
However, it really doesn't matter who or what he is, or even what his interests are. The academic misconduct he has pointed out is in serious contravention of PNAS' own guidelines, not to mention accepted scientific practice, and needs to be dealt with accordingly. The same letter would be just as relevant if the staff cleaner had written it, perhaps even more so.
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