Wikileaks Spills on Great Barrier Reef Protections

Sep 14, 2011
Outside Magazine

Torres Strait Torres Strait (Courtesy of Google Earth)

Who knew that diplomatic relations over an international shipping law could play out like a Mexican wrestling match? Turns out the latest set of confidential government documents released by WikiLeaks shows that the United States played the role of the masked environmental bully. Leaked embassy cables reveal the United States partnered with Singapore to pressure Australia into submission on a law meant to guard against oil spills near the Great Barrier Reef.

Here's the play-by-play, with facts taken from Wikileaks, The Sydney Morning Herald, and The Age:

On October 6 of 2006, Australia established a law that required pilotage for any ship passing through the Torres Strait—a shallow area at the northern end of the Great Barrier Reef and south of Papua New Guinea. Pilotage is the guidance of a ship through an unfamiliar or hazardous area by a pilot with knowledge of the area. In some cases, a guidance fee may be charged that corresponds to the vessel's tonnage. In November 2006, Singapore told the U.S. that Australia's pilotage law might set a precedent allowing coastal nations to "encroach on the right of free passage as enshrined in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea." The Torres Strait is a choke point for tankers carrying oil and other goods. Singapore is a top shipping nation and the U.S. benefits from the goods carried by their tankers. Roughly 900 to 1,000 ships push through the Torres Strait a year, but Singapore's fear wasn't restrained to one passageway. They worried that other countries would follow suit and they'd be hit with a barrage of restrictions, fees, and delays at chokepoints all over the world. The United States and Singapore applied pressure.

Australia refused to budge, fearing that the political cost of submitting on the pilotage rule would be immense—especially if a foreign tanker spilled oil on the country's prime environmental treasure. Reef industries contribute about $5.4 billion to the country's economy and it's well established that the Torres Strait is one of the riskiest passages around the Great Barrier Reef. According to Australia's assistant secretary in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Adam McCarthy, the same large vessels that would fall under the pilotage rule change—tankers carrying oil not bound for Australia—were the biggest possible threats. "...the problem for Australia is that many of the remaining vessels (132 vessels in 2007) are tankers. These are exactly the vessels that Australia is most worried could be involved in an accident causing environmental damage.'' (From cable on 07/11/2008)

In 2008, the U.S. applied more pressure. Even though Australia begged their law would not set a precedent for international shipping laws, eventually they gave in and worked in secret with the United States to avoid public criticism. In return, the United States agreed not to share any information with Singapore, which was threatening legal action while leaning over the ropes. (At one point, Australia  even turned to Singapore and suggested a partnership to oppose the pilotage law for the much busier Malacca Strait near Indonesia. "Australia would probably be prepared to give that support if Singapore backs off from threats to take international legal action against the TORRES STRAIT regime.") Finally, on April 17th of 2009, Australia cried uncle and loosened its pilotage law. They put out a marine notice at the bottom of an unrelated announcement saying that ships passing through the strait without pilotage would not be subject to punishment—as long as they did not stop or enter an Australian port.

That was the end of things, until Wikileaks unmasked the United States. Now reporters are ready to replay the entire match and its potential consequences.

--Joe Spring



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