Just when you thought that all the ‘gates’ had rusted off their hinges, another one has blown open!
Welcome to “Reef Gate” as created by diving enthusiast Walter A Starck who has taken issue with GBRMPA scientist, Lawrence McCook, and 20 other leading marine scientists. Dr. McCook and his colleagues published a scientific review of the impact of marine protected areas within the Great Barrier Reef which shows “major, rapid benefits of no-take areas for targeted fish and sharks, in both reef and non-reef habitats, with potential benefits for fisheries as well as biodiversity conservation.”
As background, Dr Walter Starck has spent a good deal of time diving on the Great Barrier Reef and regularly contributes to the highly compromised Institute of Public Affairs claiming that the Great Barrier Reef is in good shape and that concerns of scientists and reef managers otherwise are sensationalised and overblown. While he has not published in a peer-reviewed scientific paper for over 30 years, Dr. Starck is a regular contributor to popular magazines including one, the Golden Dolphin, which he edits and funds himself.
Starck also does not believe in anthropogenic climate change (see under his signature under “Science and Technology Experts Well Qualified in Climate Science” on an open letter UN Secretary General His Excellency Ban Ki Moon BUT DOES BELIEVE in ‘crop circles’ which many enthusiasts of his ilk believe are caused by extraterrestrials.
Walter Starck began the exchange on April 16 by addressing an open letter to Prof Russell Reichelt, Chairman of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. In his letter, Starck complained to Prof Reichelt that McCook et al. 2010 had not declared serious conflicts of interest arising from their employment and funding by GBRMPA. He also suggested that McCook et al. paper was slim on evidence and deliberately missed key evidence that would otherwise have told a different story about marine protected areas. Curiously, he did not reveal these other papers and data sets.
Not giving Prof Reichelt much time to reply, Dr Starck wrote two weeks later to Hon Min Peter Garrett to complain about GBRMPA’s failure to deal with the allegations. This prompted a careful response in the form of a GBRMPA press release and letter of reply from Prof Russell Reichelt.
In his letter, Prof Reichelt carefully addresses each of Dr. Stark’s claims and makes a number of important points which lead to quite different conclusions to those of Dr Starck:
For example, Prof Reichelt points out that the paper by McCook et al has been reviewed and accepted by a prestigious international scientific journal. As with any publication in a leading journal, the McCook et al. paper would have had to go through rigorous and independent review. As part of this process, the paper’s data sources, methodologies and conclusions would have been scrutinized by 2-4 independent and anonymous expert reviewers. Given that GBRMPA had no control over the journal’s quality assurance process (the journal being no less than the Proceedings of the US Academy of Sciences!), the idea that GBRMPA would have been able to influence the paper such that it would erroneously support GBRMPA’s desired position without the burden of evidence is, simply, far-fetched.
The second major point is that, contrary to Starck’s claims, McCook et al. 2010 did list their sources of support for the study. Among those listed were GBRMPA and the Pew Foundation. Given that all authors had also clearly indicated their address and association with their employers, it doesn’t look like much of a cover-up! At this point, the claim of ‘serious misconduct’ seems a bit of a stretch at best!
The third major point that Prof Reichelt makes is that McCook et al is actually a review paper not a research report and hence builds on the results, methodologies and conclusions of many other papers (all listed at the back of the paper). That is, the claim by Dr Starck that McCook et al precariously rests on the conclusions of a single figure or data set is at odds with the actual contents of the paper.
In a reply to Prof Reichelt’s letter, Walter Starck tries unsuccessfully to keep the issue alive. Further unsubstantiated accusations of cherry-picking and of misconduct follow – as well as claims that there was he was being prevented from accessing the data. Again this is curious given that Dr. Starck makes this claim without having ever asked anyone for access to the data. As far as I understand, no one has any problem with him accessing the data.
Perhaps the greatest irony here is that Dr. Starck is well known for making claims about how great the health of the Great Barrier Reef is without a single shred of scientifically published evidence. It seems that he has one standard for reef science and another one for the basis of his own conclusions about the Reef and, dare I say it, crop circles. Perhaps if Dr Starck wishes his concerns to be taken seriously, he should publish his ideas through the peer-reviewed scientific literature rather than proffer unsubstantiated opinions and allegations that do little to further the otherwise careful science that has and is being done to understand and preserve our Great Barrier Reef.