Channel Deepening Project

The health of Port Phillip Bay is a key factor in the high livability rating of Melbourne and Victoria. The Bay is one of Victoria's natural assets and we, the people, need to respect the myriad of small to large creatures and life support systems that sustain its vitality. Now and into the future, we need to be wiser about our environment's water; wiser than we have been in the past.

The Democrats believe that all water use projects in Australia now need to be vigorously assessed in terms of long term sustainability. Economic and environmental sustainability are interdependent for the people of Victoria. The proposed channel-deepening project appears to conflict with long term sustainability and, hence, in the interests of the people of Victoria, cannot be supported by the Australian Democrats.

The project aims to increase the depth of the channel from its current 12.6m to 14m to allow the new generation of larger ships to transit Port Phillip Bay to the Port of Melbourne. However, this will only be a short-term fix expected to have a life expectancy of 25 years after which, it is expected that the size of ships will have increased to make the channel again too shallow for safe transit. Therefore, we believe that alternatives need to be sought that will provide more effective, yet less disruptive planning to commercial shipping needs for Victoria.

Economic Issues

The Project will cost an estimated $545 million with projected benefits of $1.3 billion. However, the benefits to Australia are only projected to be $890 million with the remainder of the benefits going to the shipping companies and international trading partners. Even if all the Australian benefits remained in Victoria (which is unlikely) this results in benefits of less than $350 million. This must then be balanced by the temporary to permanent loss to other industries, based around fishing, tourism, diving, and general enjoyment of the diverse localities of the Bay.

Instead of spending public money on a project with a limited lifespan and uncertain economic benefits, on destruction of working ecosystems and uncertain environmental restoration, we should consider other avenues for investment, addressing the needs of our State, as a whole, beyond 2030. We need to consider, for example, an investment focus on the Port of Portland, including the infrastructure required to make these alternatives commercially viable. Moving the large shipping ports away from Melbourne would decentralise industry, provide employment to regional communities and relieve the energy impasse that threatens all cities that grow beyond an optimum - when more energy is needed to move goods and people through distance in a given time than is economic and efficient.

Environmental Issues

There are significant environmental concerns involved in the project. The overall water quality in our bay is dependant on the benthic ecosystem. It remains unclear what effect the dredging will have on this population. The increased turbidity is likely to have long-term effects on the benthos of the Bay. Similarly, the Bay is relatively shallow over most of its area, which allows marine plants and sea-grasses to utilise photosynthesis for energy. Many seagrass beds are close to proposed dredging regions and the increased water turbidity will result in restricted access to photosynthesis. The outcomes of these effects are unclear but a worst-case scenario could result in eutrophication of the bay.

It is known that the seagrasses close to the dredging areas are home to several threatened marine species including seahorses and seadragons. In addition, the seagrass beds are essential for the regeneration of fish stocks. In turn, this could affect the sustainability of the larger marine animals resident in the Bay including bottlenose dolphins, principally in the southern part of the bay; the penguin colony at St. Kilda; and the seal population which are dependent on fish as their major food source. The Channel deepening project has the potential to wipe out most of the Philip Island Little Penguin Colony, arguably one of the biggest tourist attractions in Victoria. This then decreases the viability of the eco-tourism industries, commercial and recreational fishing. The EES states that these environmental effects are all short term in nature, but there is no definition of what is short term. If animals do not have food they either move away or die, and their reintroduction will be unpredictable.

Action Plan

The Australian Democrats oppose the channel deepening project and propose the following recommendations: