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Port Development Could Scuttle Giant Cuttlefish


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Port development could scuttle giant cuttlefish

A VULNERABLE and genetically distinct population of giant cuttlefish stands in the way of the mining industry's bid for a deep-sea port in South Australia's Spencer Gulf.

The shallows off Port Bonython, 25km northeast of the steel city of Whyalla, are the world's largest breeding ground for the giant Australian cuttlefish, which, at up to 1.5m long, are the largest of their kind.

But the mining industry is eyeing this spot for a deep-sea port to take its billions of dollars of uranium, copper, gold and other minerals to the world.

The state Government has shown its hand by buying land for "future developments" at the site, putting mining wealth and conservation on a collision course in this narrow stretch of water 220km north of Adelaide. Marine biologists, fishers and environment groups are gravely concerned for the cuttlefish's future if Port Bonython is expanded.

Spearheaded by the Olympic Dam uranium, copper and gold mine expansion, South Australia's coming mining boom totals $12billion worth of development.

The state's Chamber of Mines and Energy is lobbying Premier Mike Rann and senior ministers to develop Port Bonython because it is close to rail links. If the bid is successful, about 20 large ships a week will dock at the port compared with two at present and a 3km jetty would be built to handle the extra traffic.

The expansion and associated dredging could kill off the cuttlefish, which, according to Adelaide University marine biologist Bronwyn Gillanders, is a species all of its own.

Associate professor Gillanders has recently completed a study that showed the local cuttlefish - a "master of camouflage" with its ability to change colour - is a separate species that evolved "in the very recent past".

After being nearly fished out 10years ago, a moratorium has allowed stocks to recover - but the cuttlefish faces an uncertain future as it breeds only once in its one-to-two-year lifetime, so any change in its environment could be fatal.

"If they don't breed in that first year, the population will reduce quite dramatically," Professor Gillanders said.

And if the expanded port did not kill off the species, a planned desalination plant - also for the mining industry and also for Port Bonython - would, Professor Gillanders said.

Briny water from the plant pumped into the gulf could push salinity levels well past its present level of about 40 parts per thousand: "At 50 parts per thousand there's mortality," she said. "There's a number of people that are concerned about, not just the idea of the port, but also the desalination plant."

The Australian Conservation Foundation and Wilderness Society are opposed to the port development and the desalination plant.

"People are hoping that the cuttlefish issue will go away and it will if this goes ahead - permanently," Wilderness Society state campaign manager Peter Owen said. "Putting this infrastructure adjacent to the known breeding grounds of a unique and potentially endangered species is fairly short-sighted."

Chris Fewster - a former commercial fisherman who dives in the area about once a week - is not against progress and welcomes the mining boom, but "not at the expense of what's already here".

He fears the extra ships will bring pests such as starfish or algae that will "decimate our local environment".

'If they have dirty hulls there could be any number of species that fall off," Mr Fewster said.

Locals are also concerned about how the developments would affect the fishing industry.

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