Committee Established for Adelaide Dolphin Sanctuary Inquiry

In Parliament, Motions

Adjourned debate on motion of Hon. T.A. Franks:

That the Environment, Resources and Development Committee inquire into and report on further legislative and policy measures to better protect the dolphins in the Adelaide Dolphin Sanctuary and the Port River, with particular consideration to be given to:

1. Limiting dredging;

2. Banning heavy gauge fishing practices and the use of large hooks, live bait and trawling;

3. Larger fines for industry discharge into the Port River;

4. Further speed restrictions on the Port River;

5. Increasing marine safety officers and park rangers;

6. Installation of shellfish reefs;

7. Regular and increased water quality monitoring; and

8. The impact of the die-off of mangroves and saltmarsh at St Kilda on the Port River dolphins.

(Continued from 18 May 2022.)

The Hon. N.J. CENTOFANTI (Leader of the Opposition) (16:52): On behalf of the Hon. Rob Simms, I move to amend the motion as follows:

Leave out all words after ‘That’ and insert the following:

1. A select committee of the Legislative Council be established to inquire into and report on further legislative and policy measures to better protect the dolphins in the Adelaide Dolphin Sanctuary and the Port River, with particular consideration to be given to:

(a) limiting dredging;

(b) banning heavy gauge fishing practices and the use of large hooks, live bait and trawling;

(c) larger fines for industry discharge into the Port River;

(d) further speed restrictions on the Port River;

(e) increasing marine safety officers and park rangers;

(f) installation of shellfish reefs;

(g) regular and increased water quality monitoring; and

(h) the impact of the die-off of mangroves and saltmarsh at St Kilda on the Port River dolphins.

2. The committee consist of four members and that the quorum of members necessary to be present at all meetings of the committee to be fixed at three members.

3. This council permits the select committee to authorise the disclosure or publication, as it sees fit, of any evidence or documents presented to the committee prior to such evidence being presented to the council.

The opposition is supportive of the motion proposed by the Hon. Ms Franks and the amendment I have just moved on behalf of the Hon. Mr Simms that will see a select committee conduct an inquiry into the Adelaide Dolphin Sanctuary, including whether policies or strategies can be implemented that serve to protect the resident dolphin population in the Adelaide Dolphin Sanctuary.

At the request of the previous Minister for Environment, the member for Black, the Department for Environment and Water commenced an investigation on 21 August 2021 into the potential causes of recent dolphin deaths in the Adelaide Dolphin Sanctuary. This investigation included an evaluation of historical data and necropsy results from recent dolphin deaths.

During the term of the Marshall Liberal government, the current Minister for Environment, the Hon. Susan Close MP, repeatedly lobbied the government to release information as to the cause of death of multiple dolphins; however, since assuming responsibility for management of the Adelaide Dolphin Sanctuary, very limited information was provided to the community about the dolphin population in the Adelaide Dolphin Sanctuary until a media article was published last weekend on 11 June 2022 and there was a corresponding update to the Department for Environment and Water’s website on 12 June 2022.

In these circumstances, the opposition is pleased to support the Hon. Ms Franks’ motion and the amendment that I have moved on behalf of the Hon. Mr Simms.

The Hon. E.S. BOURKE (16:56): I rise on behalf of the government. We were happy to support this in its original form, and we are happy to support it in its amended form that has been put forward by the Hon. Robert Simms. The dolphins in the Port River and in the Adelaide Dolphin Sanctuary are of significant value to South Australia not only for their importance as an animal with extraordinary significance to the local ecology but also for their ability to draw people’s attention to the plight of our local ecosystem.

Dolphins are often described as a flagship species, the animal most noticeable to the observer, and their health can often provide clues to the health of our environment. Unfortunately, recently we have seen our resident population of dolphins face enormous pressures, and there have been multiple deaths in a short space of time. Since 2020, 10 resident dolphins in the Adelaide Dolphin Sanctuary have died or gone missing and are presumed to have died, with three unexplained deaths occurring in short succession last year.

In light of this alarming trend, the Department for Environment and Water initiated an investigation into these deaths in the Port River and the Adelaide Dolphin Sanctuary. The investigation’s goal was to identify what could be impacting the health of the dolphins by evaluating historical data, extensive testing and autopsy results from the recent dolphin deaths. Released last week, the report was disappointingly unable to determine a definitive cause of death, though stress and toxins have been identified as potential contributors. Further analysis of toxicology results is underway, along with other lines of inquiry.

In addition, other long-term studies are being undertaken in partnership with Flinders and Adelaide universities, the SA Museum and the EPA to explore potential food chain and water quality factors. The department investigation team will hold two further workshops to review all available data and key findings before finalising its report and recommendations to the Minister for Environment, which is due in the coming months.

The Labor Party has a proud history of working hard to provide protections for the dolphins of the Port River. The Adelaide Dolphin Sanctuary was declared in 2005 under the Adelaide Dolphin Sanctuary Act 2005 under a Labor government. In 2010, again under a Labor leadership, the marine mammal regulations were introduced, providing further protection for dolphins living in the sanctuary and allowing rangers to enforce legal approach distances for those engaged in dolphin watching. These regulations also provide for management of commercial tour operators.

I know she is very humble about her past achievements, but the Minister for Climate, Environment and Water has a long personal connection with the effort to protect these magnificent creatures, having been involved in the closure of Marineland in 1988 and an integral player in the creation of the sanctuary.

It is clear, however, that we need to do more to protect the dolphins in the Port River and the Adelaide Dolphin Sanctuary. The government takes this issue seriously, and that is why we are more than happy to support this motion. Bringing together experts, local knowledge and other government departments through this inquiry process can help guide our response to this alarming issue, and we support the motion in front of us today.

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS (16:59): I would like to thank those members who have contributed to this debate and/or indicated their interest in participating in the inquiry. The threats faced by our beloved Port River dolphins are an issue I have spoken about in this place a great many times at this point, but which I hope I will need to speak about less now that this parliament is taking this action through the formation of this select committee.

I have high hopes that the select committee will help tackle the issue. When our disagreements across parties are set aside, parliament is indeed of course meant to be a place where we can collectively work towards improving our state for all who reside in it, including these animals. These particular dolphins have often been placed in tragic situations, and have had their health and safety jeopardised, often largely due to our own impacts on their natural home. It is our responsibility to protect the animals in our state who are suffering and dying, and the Port River dolphins specifically and urgently need that protection, and I am glad to see this council agree.

The pollution in the Port River has been an issue for a long time, and as is the case when these issues go without being adequately addressed, we are seeing the consequences of that. The dolphins who inhabit the river have become susceptible to illnesses, which in turn pave the way for early deaths, for the afflicted dolphins. A recent SARDI report concluded that the deceased Port River dolphins suffered from ‘stress, a level of immune suppression, and compounding factors including…diseases…that cause deterioration in condition and organ function, with subsequent starvation’.

We have seen dolphins with infected skin lesions, damaged lungs, ulcers, inflamed organs, depleted white blood cells, and ear infections. The parasites and toxins these dolphins are exposed to suppress their immune system, impact their hearing and reduce their capacity to hold their breath. They seem to be consistently malnourished, and not only are these dolphins suffering from illness, but the effects of such illnesses make them more susceptible to fall victim to accidents, such as being struck by boats.

We know of all of these health issues, and we know that the dolphins keep dying, but we still cannot say with complete certainty what the ultimate cause of death for these dolphins has been due to a lack of enough research and monitoring. That is why a select committee into these Port River dolphins is so important, and it is clear that these dolphins are suffering, that they are dying, and that we humans are not innocent in the pollution of the Port River that is proving to be so harmful to them.

We desperately need to identify the precise cause of death, and we need to ensure that everything that can be done is being done to better treat and care for the dolphins who are currently suffering in the Port River. I am hopeful that this committee will help usher in some real answers and solutions for these dolphins, and that we can act on those answers before more dolphins lose their life.

I note that there was some confusion with regard to the amendment that has been put to the motion before us. The amendment that was originally tabled in the name of the Hon. Robert Simms, but then moved—and I thank the Hon. Nicola Centofanti for her assistance there—simply changes this committee from a referral to the ERD Committee to a select committee of this Legislative Council. It does not change any of the wording of the terms of reference and it provides that that select committee be of four members of this place, and I thank all members who have put their hands up to be on this committee. With that, I commend the motion and the amendment.

Amendment carried; motion as amended carried.

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS: I move:

That the select committee consist of the Hon. S.L. Game, the Hon. J.M.A. Lensink, the Hon. R.B. Martin and the mover.

Motion carried.

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS: I move:

That the select committee have the power to send for persons, papers and records, to adjourn from place to place and that it report on 30 November 2022.

Motion carried.