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The Facts about Claims by Birdlife Australia and Birdlife International

By Phosphate Resources in Environment

Phosphate Resources Limited is seeking environmental approval for exploration clearing covering a very small area (0.07 km2which is less than 0.07 % of the Island’s 101 km2 of intact vegetation, or 0.05% of the Island). This will involve clearing of predominantly understory vegetation along previously cleared exploration lines, and avoids all areas of high biodiversity or special features.

Birdlife Australia and Birdlife International oppose the Company’s application for low impact exploration activities. They are actively campaigning against the Company based on factually incorrect and misleading “information” to garner support for a petition calling on the Australian Government to end mining on the island.

The petition poses a significant risk to employment and the future economic sustainability of the Island. The Company welcomes informed debate based on facts and science but are shocked Birdlife has sunk to publishing false and misleading information to support their campaign, as well as to solicit financial donations.

The Christmas Island community relies heavily on mining and it is critical to supporting a viable community on the Island. Birdlife Australia and Birdlife International appear to be unconcerned about the future of the local community and fail to acknowledge the challenges of maintaining a remote Island economy. Here are the facts:

Abbotts booby and the Christmas Island Frigatebirds

Birdlife imply that the CI frigatebird is threatened by mining: “Critical rainforest habitat for 2 of the world’s rarest seabirds – the Endangered Abbott’s booby & Critically Endangered Christmas Island Frigatebird – is under threat” and ”The Christmas Frigatebird Fregata andrewsi (Critically Endangered) only breeds in one small area on the Island”

Fact – The Christmas Island frigatebird population breed in three discrete areas, none of which are near the proposed exploration areas or PRL mining areas. This species will be unaffected.

Birdlife claim that the Abbotts Booby population will be devastated by exploration and mining: “new phosphate mining proposals threaten devastation… Clearing for mining has left the Abbott’s Booby with only 25 square kilometres of forest to breed.”

Fact – The 25 km2 figure is a significant underestimate and contradicts their own reference material. Birdlife International’s own factsheet on the species describes it as occupying 80 km2 (Birdlife International, 2018) and describes the species as ‘stable’. It appears Birdlife is using this incorrect figure to create unnecessary fear and public opposition. The 80 km2 figure is consistent with Geoscience Australia’s vegetation mapping of primary rainforest (Geoscience Australia, 2014a), which supports the emergent Syzygium and Planchonella trees which Abbott’s typically nest in (Yorkston & Green, 1997).

Fact – The Abbott’s Booby population primarily nest in the national park. More than 91% of Parks Australia’s Abbott’s booby records are from sites permanently protected within the Christmas Island National Park (Department of National Parks, 2016). The Abbott’s booby recovery plan states that “Clearance of Abbott’s booby breeding habitat has essentially ceased, and almost all habitat is within Christmas Island National Park.” (Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2004)

Fact – Extensive environmental surveys were undertaken by PRL for Abbott’s Booby and this information is being used to avoid all potential impacts on known nesting trees.

Fact – The Company has publicly stated that it will ensure there is no damage to known Abbott’s Booby nesting trees. The application for environmental approval, if granted, will not result in any damage to Abbott’s Booby nest trees.

Fact – Contrary to Birdlife’s claims, Abbott’s booby is not under threat from phosphate mining. This is backed up by both Parks Australia and the Government’s Expert Working Group.

Birdlife claim “The disruption of the primary forest canopy through mining exploration and tracks exposes booby nests to strong winds and creates turbulence which can eject the eggs and chicks.”

Fact – There is no scientific evidence to support claims that the clearing of exploration tracks would cause turbulence and resultant impacts to Abbotts booby. The whole Island was historically gridded out for exploration and this has never been raised as a historical impact. Further, Reville et al (1990) in planning research on turbulence states “It seemed unlikely that clearings less than 50 m wide would generate significant turbulence or increase in wind velocity.” The proposed exploration lines only require removal of understory regrowth and small trees and this will not affect the upper canopy. The tracks are only 5 m wide, so they do not have potential to create turbulence which might impact Abbott’s booby nests high in the tree canopy.

The major threats to biodiversity

Birdlife claim – clearing forests are the greatest threat to wildlife: “The clearing of forests for phosphate mining and the associated impacts of invasive species – introduced by lax quarantine – are the greatest threats to the island’s unique wildlife.”

Fact – Mining and habitat loss is not the greatest threat to the flora and fauna of the Island. An intensive review by the Government’s Expert Working Group confirmed that invasive species are the principal past and future threat to the Island’s biodiversity and urgent action is needed to prevent further biodiversity loss.

“The highest priority for the management of biodiversity on Christmas Island is the preservation of the functional ecology of the island and surrounding seas. This depends on implementing high quality quarantine, and reforming island governance and the funding systems for conservation.” (Beeton, et al., 2010)

Fact – Programs to control cats, rats, yellow crazy ants, wolf snakes and giant centipedes are being undertaken for some species, and urgently needed to be expanded avoid further fauna extinctions.

Fact – Invasive species control programs need financial resources and closing mining will remove vital funds the Company provides to Parks Australia for conservation and rehabilitation purposes.

What is PRL applying for?

Birdlife claim – PRL have applied for new areas to mine: “new phosphate mining proposals threaten devastation.”

Fact – Contrary to Birdlife’s emotive and unsubstantiated statements, PRL have not applied to extend their lease areas and there is no mining application before Government for approval.

Fact – PRL have applied for approval to undertake small-scale, low impact exploration in a few targeted areas to evaluate phosphate resources.

Fact – Detailed environmental assessment documents were published in accordance with the EPBC Act and available for public comment yet only one submission (Birdlife Australia) was opposed to the exploration proposal. The other 25 submissions supported the proposed activity.

Birdlife claim – Exploration will have significant impacts: “approving the exploration will destroy the habitat of a suite of bird species already at high risk through habitat loss.”

Fact – PRL have invested in desktop studies, and flora and fauna field surveys to assess biodiversity values. Through an environmental risk avoidance process, PRL has removed any proposed exploration lines in areas of crown land that were found to have high environmental values or features of significance.

Fact – The exploration application is distant from all Christmas Island frigatebird colonies and contrary to Birdlife’s suggestion, will have zero interaction or impact upon frigatebirds nor will exploration result in any impacts to Abbott’s booby nesting trees.

Fact – The proposed exploration is a small scale, temporary and minor operation which will have low environmental impacts to the fauna and flora of the Island, with rapid natural recovery expected.

The Value of Rehabilitation

Birdlife claim that rehabilitation would do more harm than good: “Even if the intention was to replace the soil, doing so would do more harm than good by introducing further invasive pests.”

Fact – It is difficult to understand why a conservation organisation would be opposed to rehabilitation when this is an accepted conservation strategy recommended by the nation’s conservation experts. It is a formalised strategy in the Abbott’s booby recovery plan, the Christmas Island National Park Management Plan and the DRAFT Christmas Island Biodiversity Conservation Plan (Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2004; Director of National Parks, 2014a; Director of National Parks, 2014b).

“Rapid implementation of the CIRRP [rehabilitation plan] focussing on the priority sites detailed in Table 2 of the Christmas Island National Park Management Plan (Environment Australia 2002) will provide significant long-term benefits to the recovery of Abbott’s booby.” (Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2004)

Mining, Ecotourism and Future Funding for Conservation

Birdlife claim that continued mining threatens future expansion and development of tourism “Mining approval…would deprive its human population of a long-term economic future,” and “Mining directs investment away from this sustainable industry. And, worse, it destroys its main tourism assets.”

Fact – Ecotourism and mining can exist together as most of the Island and the key ecotourism features are permanently protected in National Park. The presence of mining strengthens the viability of the community and supports infrastructure and services essential to a tourism industry.

Fact – Birdlife says it values ecotourism, however, by spreading false fear and innuendo about the iconic ecotourism features and species being ‘devastated’ they only serve to put off future visitors and damage the future potential of ecotourism on the Island.

Fact – As a remote Island there are key challenges and constraints of quickly developing and maintaining a viable and sustainable tourism industry. The closure of mining would have an immediate and dramatic effect on frequency of aviation services, tourism accommodation and restaurant viability, frequency of shipping services, and the general viability of the community, schools and services. The upcoming closure of the Detention Centre will reduce employment on Island and make the presence of the mine even more important for a sustainable local community. This shows that Birdlife have absolutely no understanding of the local challenges for the Christmas Island community.

“Tourism is a small but prospective industry, however, transport costs, island access and accommodation are extremely limiting at present.” (Beeton, et al., 2010)

Fact – Birdlife have failed to acknowledge that stopping mining will cause immediate economic and social impacts, and reduce funds for Island wide environmental programs. The mine is the only source of funds for rainforest rehabilitation on Christmas Island providing a conservation levy to restore Abbotts booby habitat (Director of National Parks, 2014a; Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2004). The conservation levy generated by mining normally provides around $1.5 million per annum to Parks Australia for rehabilitation and conservation programs. The Expert Working Group recommended that the Government “Develop secure and sufficient long-term funding arrangements for biodiversity conservation priorities on Christmas Island” (Beeton, et al., 2010). Stopping mining will only reduce the scarce funds available for conservation which will impact on fauna and habitat recovery efforts.

Fact – PRL contributed $1.35M over five years towards the Island Wide Cat Eradication Program. Cats are one of the biggest threats to bird species on the Island, along with yellow crazy ants and climate change. This funding has contributed to significant increases in nesting success for the Red-Tailed Tropicbird (Algar, et al., 2012) (Algar, et al., 2014), and is believed to be contributing to the stabilisation of the Christmas Island Flying Fox population (ABC, 2015).

Fact – PRL have supported a range of positive environmental projects such as research into environmentally friendly baits for the yellow crazy ant, vegetation mapping, hydrological mapping, and artificial nest boxes to assist the recovery of the Christmas Island Hawk Owl.

References

ABC, 2015. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. [Online] Available at: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-12-04/scientists-scramble-to-save-christmas-island-flying-fox/7003238
[Accessed 23 November 2016].

Algar, D., Hamilton, N., Holdsworth, M. & Robinson, S., 2012. Eradicating Christmas Island of cats and black rats. LANDSCOPE 27(4), p. 43–47.

Algar, D., Hamilton, N. & Pink, C., 2014. Progress in eradicating cats (Felis catus) on Christmas Island to conserve biodiversity. Raffles Bulletin of Zoology Supplement No 30, p. 45–53.

Beeton, B. et al., 2010. Final Report of the Christmas Island Expert Working Group to the Minister for Environment Protection, Heritage and the Arts, Canberra: Director of National Parks.

Birdlife International, 2018. [Online] Available at: http://datazone.birdlife.org/species/factsheet/22696649
[Accessed 18 January 2018].

Department of National Parks, 2016. Abbott’s Locations 2009-2015, s.l.: s.n.

Department of National Parks, 2016. Christmas Island Island Wide Survey and Inkcard Data, s.l.: Unpublished.

Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2004. National Recovery Plan for the Abbott’s Booby Papasula abbotti, Canberra: Department of the Environment and Heritage.

Director of National Parks, 2014a. Christmas Island National Park Management Plan (2014-2024), Canberra: Director of National Parks.

Director of National Parks, 2014b. DRAFT Christmas Island Biodiversity Conservation Plan, Canberra: Department of the Environment.

Geoscience Australia, 2014a. Christmas Island Vegetation and Clearing Map, Canberra: Geoscience Australia.

Hennicke, J. & Weimerskirch, H., 2014. Coping with variable and oligotrophic tropical waters: foraging behaviour and flexibility of the Abbott’s booby Papasula abbotti. Marine Ecology Progress Series, Volume 499, pp. 259-273.

Nelson, J., 1971. The biology of Abbott’s booby Sula Abbotti. The Ibis, 113(4), pp. 430-467.

Nelson, J. & Powell, D., 1986. The breeding ecology of Abbott’s booby. Emu, Issue 86, pp. 33-46.

Raupach, M., Bradley, E. & Gadiri, H., 1987. A wind tunnel investigation into the aerodynamic effect of forest clearings on the nesting of Abbott’s booby on Christmas Island, Canberra: CSIRO Division of Environmental Mechanics.

Reville, B., Tranter, J. & Yorkston, H., 1990. Impact of Forest Clearing on the Endangered Seabird Sula abbotti. Biological Conservation, Volume 51, pp. 23-38.

Yorkston, H. & Green, P., 1997. The breeding distribution and status of Abbott’s booby (Sulidae: Papasula abbotti) on Christmas Island, Indian Ocean. Biological Conservation, Volume 79, pp. 293-301.