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‘Environmental data can’t tell its stories sitting in spreadsheets.’

Diane Tarte is a name well known to many concerned with the changing state of the Great Barrier Reef and the coastal and catchment areas that affect its future.

A campaigner for greater data- and science-based decision making for Queensland’s reefs and wetlands in the pre-digital 70s, Di was a founding force behind the Australian Marine Conservation Society, helped develop the first Great Barrier Reef Inventory database in the 80s, and was at the table to build Australia’s first national biodiversity strategy in the 90s.

She has also been influential in the evolution of waterway health report cards, starting in south-east Queensland in the 2000s, and later, for the five catchment regions of the Great Barrier Reef.

From 2019 to 2022 Di was the founding Chair for our own Dry Tropics Partnership for Healthy Waters — the youngest of the Reef report card bodies.

“It’s a well-worn truism that if you want to manage something, you have to measure it,” she says.  

“But you have to also look for what the measurements are trying to tell you.”

Many agencies are collecting environmental data in Queensland now, Di says, and standards of data collection, quality, and management have come a long way. Di herself is Chair of the Technical Working Group that ensures the technical veracity of our annual Report Card and the data behind it.

“But if data just sits in somebody’s spreadsheet and is in no way analysed, compared, investigated, or communicated — then its value hasn’t been unlocked. That is what makes the report cards so important.”

Our report cards are unique in the world

“The fact that there are six regional report cards in Queensland is unique and pioneering,” Di says. “This sort of data collation and reporting over such a vast landscape is not commonly used elsewhere in the country; or internationally.”

The report cards take a transect ‘hilltop to ocean (H2O)’ approach to check the health of each region’s freshwater waterways, estuaries, and the inshore and offshore coastal marine areas.

“This is simply what we need,” Di says. “Without this view we can’t see the bigger picture.”

Above: An excerpt from the Dry Tropics Technical Report 2020-2021. Map shows monitoring sites within the Black estuarine zone. Estuarine zone map layer provided by Department of Environment and Science, Queensland.

The challenges of wrangling big data and big weather cycles

“We’re covering very (very) large catchments in these reports, and although the Partnerships bring together as many government, research, industry and non-profit data supplies as possible, collectively we can only afford so much monitoring,” Di says. “More high-quality data is always needed to fill gaps.”

“And we have very high standards for every stage of the data collection, analysis and reporting process,” she adds. “At the point of sample collection there must be well-trained, accredited personnel using properly calibrated equipment. Analysis of the samples must be done in laboratories that are accredited, and it must then stand up against our own Quality Assurance and Control methods.”

“We’re also working in extremely complex environments that can be affected by our changing climate and cycles of weather — long and shorter-term cycles can cause big variations in data.”

There’s a significant difference for example, between a freshwater system’s water quality during a drought year and a wet year, Di explains. During the dry, its condition will tend to be poor. Conversely, dry years tend to be good for inshore and offshore water quality — because there hasn’t been a flush of land pollutants for these coastal areas to contend with.

“That’s one of the bigger challenges with our report cards, and where we have to scrutinise the data as closely as we can,” she says. “We have to look at both the whole-of-system stories and the fine-scale stories of local zones to understand the full story.”

Technical Working Group

Although she has stepped down as Chair of the Dry Tropics Partnership, Di continues to lead the Technical Working Group (TWG) that oversees the data science and reporting methodology of report cards for the three most northern regions: Dry Tropics, Wet Tropics, and Mackay-Whitsunday-Isaac.

The group ensures Report Card Technical Officers have access to relevant scientific experts and offers a ‘ground-truthing’ of sorts wherein regional advisors familiar with each of their backyards can offer insights on local conditions, trends, and histories.

“We are incredibly fortunate to have Di’s deep knowledge on tap for our work through the TWG,” says Dry Tropics Partnership Executive Officer Kara-Mae Coulter-Atkins.

“Anyone working in marine, coastal and catchment data in this country owes her a debt for laying the foundation for our current capability.”

“Today’s expectation that environmental decision-making and policy should be informed by robust data is thanks to decades of work by champions such as Di. We’re very grateful to have her ongoing guidance.”

Learn more about our Report Cards here.