Subject: NZherald: Natural gas plant threatens Australian sea cows

Saturday August 02, 2003

Natural gas plant threatens Australian sea cows

01.08.2003 - By KATHY MARKS in Darwin

Marine scientists are warning that a colony of rare dugongs is under threat because of a natural gas plant being built on the harbour at Darwin, Australia's northern port city.

The dugong, or sea cow, is an endangered species whose numbers are in sharp decline worldwide. Australia has the world's largest remaining population including a sizeable colony in Darwin Harbour, which is home to abundant marine life including man-eating saltwater crocodiles.

The dugong, a herbivorous marine mammal the size of a small whale, is noted for its shyness and grace of movement. Seafarers used to tell stories of mistaking the creatures for mermaids. Fishermen say they cry piteously, like a baby, when killed.

Environmentalists fear the noise and activity generated by large gas tankers will drive them out of the harbour.

"The dugongs won't last two minutes," said Ray Taylor, a member of Save Darwin Harbour Group, a lobby organisation formed by local residents.

Construction has just begun on the plant, which will process liquefied natural gas piped in from fields below the Timor Sea, 300 miles north of Darwin. The project follows an agreement signed by Australia and East Timor to share the Timor Sea resources.

An additional 48 ships will use the harbour when the plant, constructed by Phillips Petroleum, begins operating in 2006. That number will triple when it reaches full capacity.

Dugong numbers have fallen steeply in recent years, their habitats eroded by coastal development and their food source - seagrass - destroyed by pollution. Many animals are caught accidentally in fishermen's nets. In the Torres Strait, between northern Australia and Papua New Guinea, they are legally hunted by indigenous people for whom they are a traditional food source.

Dr Scott Whiting, a marine biologist at Northern Territory University, believes there will be an exodus from the harbour. "Probably the major impact will be habitat loss," he said. "The dugongs will move away from their habitat because of noise and activity."

Professor Helene Marsh, a dugong expert at Queensland's James Cook University, said a loading jetty was to be built within two miles of a feeding ground.

She said: "Probably what will happen with the development of a plant is that the dugongs will leave that general area."

Darwin residents are also uneasy about possible chemical emissions and about the destruction of mangroves at the construction site. A total of 6,500 people signed a petition against the plant, and 5,000 wrote letters to the Northern Territory government.

Blair Murphy, the Darwin area manager for Phillips Petroleum, said the company believed that the plant's impact on the dugongs would be minimal.

He said they were more likely to be hit by small boats than by slow-moving tankers.

"We will be working with dugong specialists to monitor any impact on habitat," he said.

"There could be some movement from one place to another, but they do move up and down the coast within hundreds of kilometres. We are waiting for more detailed studies."


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