Local scientist controversially poisons 'invasive' palm trees in Cape Trib

Friday July 25 2014, 5:48pm

A scientist based at Cape Tribulation has admitted to controversially poisoning palm trees on Myall beach - but for a good cause.

Dr Hugh Spencer at the Australian Tropical Research Foundation (Austrop) and his colleagues poisoned several adult coconut palms on the beach with injections of the herbicide Roundup.

Dr Spencer said he and his colleagues did this in order to limit the effect the palms had on native Australian species. 


“The thing to remember is that coconut aren’t actually a native species to Australia, in fact no-one really knows exactly where or when they originally developed since they are so widespread,” Dr Spencer said. 

“The coconut trees on the beaches here have not arrived by natural methods - the currents and wind both move from south to north and it’s too cold in the southern areas of the country for them to grow, and the floating coconuts will not survive long enough to come across from other continents. 

“The trees on the beach here were planted between the 1930’s and 60s by the original developers of the land.”

Since then, Dr Spencer argues, the palms have out-competed native flora with their rapid growth and damaging leaf fall. 

Palms also do not provide the same ‘shock absorber’ role against wave action that native plants such as the Calophylum tree does, leading to vastly increased erosion during storms. 

He pointed to the difference between Myall Beach, which has a high population of coconut palms on the beach and the ‘littoral’ (up to about 20 metres inland) zone, and beaches on the north side of Cape Tribulation, which do not have the same coconut population due to the sheltering effect of the cape. 

Beaches north of the cape have much thicker natural vegetation, including Calophylum trees, and less erosion. 

Dr Spencer and his colleagues in previous months have targeted the varieties of palms that have a very high fecundity, meaning their coconuts have a high chance of sprouting into viable trees, in an effort to improve the chances of Calophylum trees and other native species. 

His activities soon stirred up a bit of tension both with local tourism operators and the Douglas Shire Council. 

He has since stopped targeting the trees while council conducts its Coconut Palm Management Strategy, which aims to map every coconut palm from Cape Tribulation to Wangetti. 

“Everyone’s gotten a bit emotional and over-excited about the whole issue,” Dr Spencer said. 

“Many of the tour operators believe that if it’s green, that’s enough for the tourists and they want to come here for a palm-tree lined beach - but we actually conducted a study of more than 600 people here, and only 1 per cent of them said they were interested in palm trees on the beach - the rest wanted to see unique Australian plants and wildlife.”

What do you think?

Are Dr Spencer’s actions justified?

Leave a comment below.