The Black-Throated Finch and The Great Barrier Reef: A Common Enemy

Poephila cincta. The Black-throated finch. The parson finch. Whichever name you are familiar with or whichever name you choose, it doesn’t really matter, because all three refer to the same small bird. For the sake of this article and in order not to confuse ourselves, let’s call him the black-throated finch. Of course, the black-throated finch is not familiar to our shores, as he is in fact an estrildid finch. Ah! Of course! Ok, so you would be more than forgiven for not being familiar with the terminology, but all this means is that this species is a passerine that can only be found in the ‘Old World’ tropics of Australasia. When it comes to the black-throated finch, he is found predominantly in the grassy woodland habitats of north-east Australia. As a highly sociable species, the black-throated finch is usually found in flocks, which generally number around 30 birds. Primarily a seed eater, feeding on different species of grass, this bird also preys on spiders and ants and during the wet season, is known to hunt flying termites.

So, now we’ve been introduced, what is it about the black-throated finch that we need to know? Well, unfortunately, all is not well for this little bird, as over the last few decades, the population of this species has been in decline. Indeed, it is now totally absent from 80% of its previous habitat range. In fact, the situation is so dire that a southern subspecies of this finch is now classed as ‘threatened’ in New South Wales and ‘vulnerable’ in Queensland. So, do we know the reasons for such dramatic declines? Well, as usual, there are several factors which are working together and working against this handsome bird. Pastoralism, increased populations of native woody weeds in grassland habitats and changes in fire regimes are all thought to be playing a significant role in the finches decline. Management plans have been developed in order to protect the finch, but now it would seem that a more insidious threat is coming to fruition. Coalmines.

The Adani Carmichael project is one of the major coal mines planned and this project alone will cover an area 6 times the size of Sydney harbour! The mines are set to be located in Queensland, but whereabouts? You’ve guessed it! They will sit smack bang on top of an area where the best habitat for these finches remains and consequently, where the majority of the species survive. But surely, this would not be allowed? Surely, if this is a habitat where a threatened and declining species is surviving, the plans would be stopped? Unfortunately not. The coal mines have already been approved. The project has of course claimed that it will compensate for the impact it will have on the environment through ‘biodiversity offsetting’. This theory is centred around improving or creating a lost or damaged habitat in another area. However, best intentions aside, a study at James Cook University has claimed that this ‘biodiversity offsetting’ would not be possible, as the only other remaining habitats will be destroyed by other mines.

Due to all of this controversy, the black-throated finch now finds himself embroiled in a federal case. The Australian Conservation Foundation vs Greg Hunt, aka the environment minister for Australia. The basis for the case is perhaps obvious; that the minister has failed in his duty to consider advice concerning the conservation of the finch before approving the project. The counter argument is predictable and rather disappointingly so, as the minister has of course claimed that there would be no significant impacts on the finch as they would be ‘avoided, mitigated or compensated for.’ Feel better for that? Not sure the black-throated finch does. Scientists at James Cook University have rubbished the argument of Mr Hunt, as the planned Carmichael mine will sit right on top of a finch hotspot, with the chances of the finch surviving being classed as ‘very low.’

However, the controversy doesn’t stop there. In fact, the Australian Conservation Foundations case is two-fold, as it is also challenging the approval of the mine due to the impacts it may also have on a very valuable and very fragile ecosystem. The Great Barrier Reef.

Covering an area of Germany and stretching 1,400 miles along the Queensland coast, The Great Barrier Reef is already in poor health. So, what impact will the coal mines have on the Reef? Well, first we consider the waste mud and earth that will be dug from the coal mines and dumped into waterways, along with any toxins and pollutants, and eventually find themselves right in the centre of the reef habitat. Now, although some suggest that this waste sediment will not drift far enough to damage the reef, nobody can be absolutely sure. Russian roulette anyone? In addition, the mining of the coal itself will produce fragments, dust and ash that will likely find their way into the ocean and if enough of this accumulates in the reef area, the coral will be at the very real threat of suffocation. Furthermore, there is the danger of increased ship activity in the reef area, with the ever present threat of ships running aground on the coral.

The impacts that the mine could have on the reef is huge and explained in rather simple terms here. The effect the mines will have on the finch are quite clear : reduced populations and possible extinction. Though the mine has its approval, it still awaits its mining lease. In addition, the Adani corporation has temporarily frozen its investment into the mines. Are they suddenly environmentally minded? Come to their senses? Apparently not. In fact, they are simply waiting for global coal prices to recover.

There are many questions surrounding this development. Why, when we consider the possible environmental impacts has it been approved? Why has it not had more global publicity? And why, especially when considering the potential impacts on the Great Barrier Reef, an ecosystem that is considered a global asset, has this decision been left to Australia’s environment minister?



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Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard
I have been a bird enthusiast since I was a child and have just completed my MSc at Newcastle University on 'Biodiversity Conservation and Ecosystem Management.'
Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard

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