It’s Time: Action on the Great Barrier Reef is needed now

PhD student Steve Doo explains why we can’t sit back and allow bleaching of the Reef to continue

Faded Glory

These have all been words used to describe the current bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). Often referred to the as the “crown jewel” of Australia, the GBR is in the midst of a mass bleaching event caused by high ocean temperatures.

The structure of coral reefs is built from corals, and provide crucial habitat to organisms such as fish, molluscs and crustaceans. It is this diversity of life that generates over $6 billion income per annum from tourism in the GBR, providing over 63,000 full time jobs in Queensland.

Bleached to the Bone

Corals are unique organisms, which produce calcium carbonate skeletons and host marine algae symbionts called Symbiodinium. These marine algae provide ~90% of the nutrients the coral needs through photosynthesis.  The marine algae also give corals the bright colours that we all associate with coral reefs. When a coral is stressed, it will often release its symbionts in a last-ditch attempt to conserve resources, making it translucent. The white color of bleached corals is their skeleton showing through.

Denial of Facts

A recent survey conducted by Prof Terry Hughes from the Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies in Townsville, Queensland, found 95% of reefs exhibited major signs of bleaching in the northern portions of the GBR.

However, when Environment Minister Greg Hunt visited these same reefs, he maintained a tone of optimism, stating, “The bottom three quarters of the reef is in strong condition, but as we head north of Lizard Island it becomes increasingly prone to bleaching.”

There are two problems with this statement:

  1. Bleaching of corals is a “worse case scenario,” and the bottom three quarters of the reef that Minister Hunt refers to as in “strong condition” have been dealing with high temperatures throughout the summer, and are likely to be heavily affected as well already.
  2. The northern third of the GBR contains over 65% of reefs along the GBR. If these reefs are lost, so is about two-thirds of the GBR (Juan Ortiz, UQ).

Scientists have long been concerned about how human impacts will affect the GBR, and their reactions are starkly similar:

  • “The new bleaching event is a wake up call that Australia must act on climate change before our national icon the GBR is lost,” says Australian Coral Reef Society President, Prof. David Booth (UTS)
  • “It’s hard to say what proportion of bleached corals will recover but even if it’s high, say 50 or 60%, this event will have a significant effect on the look and certainly function of our coral reefs into the future,” Director of One Tree Island in the GBR and Assoc. Prof. William Figueira (USYD) said.
  • “I am especially saddened to see one of the seven wonders of the world fade away before my eyes and in our time. It is important to acknowledge that it is the worst bleaching event ever recorded in the GBR and that it is also severely affecting subtropical reefs in Eastern Australia, like in the Solitary Islands Region, so the subtropics might not be able to provide the hypothesized refuge that we all hope for,” said Postdoctoral Fellow Dr. Renata Ferrari (USYD).

SEI Co-Director Prof. Iain McCalman and GBR historian, who has written extensively about the history of the reef noted “The response of both the Abbott and Turnbull governments to the threats faced by the Great Barrier Reef have gone straight to the periphery of the matter. Most of them are little more than window dressing, which, along with their campaigns to bribe support within UNESCO, are designed to avoid the Reef having its World Heritage listing shifted to ‘endangered’.  The two biggest threats to the survival of the Reef are coral bleaching caused by sustained water warming and oceanic acidification, both caused by mounting levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases.  The Minister, Greg Hunt, and his government resolutely avoid mentioning these problems because to admit them would interfere with their determination to intensify Australian coal production. In short, the most urgent and potentially fatal challenges to the survival of the Great Barrier Reef derive not from neglect but from deliberate obfuscation.” 

The Only Way Forward

Assoc. Prof William Figueira notes “While there may be some role for mitigation strategies for conservation of coral reefs, the path to prevention of these wide spread and devastating events is clear, we must reduce global emissions to curb the current warming trend. We’ve known this for ages and it’s quite frustrating to watch our government representative tasked with looking after the environment attempt to sweep this under the carpet.”

It is that sense of urgency that is prevalent within the coral reef community; that action is needed now.

Just last Sunday, the Queensland Government approved the mining leases for the Carmichael coal project. This was seen as the last major hurdle before the Indian company Adani could commence coal mining in the Galilee Basin. Coral reef experts have long been adamantly against mining in Galilee Basin, but considering the increased pressure the GBR is facing from ocean warming, acidification, agricultural runoff and increased extreme weather events, protecting the GBR and building Australia’s biggest coal mine simply cannot coexist.

A defeated attitude is easy to have, but as Dr. Renata Ferarri states, “simple ways of making a positive change would be to limit personal use of greenhouse gasses, support coral reef conservation research, and writing to your local member to demand better climate targets for Australia.”

In the words of former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, whose government in 1975 championed the creation of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, “It’s Time”.

Steve Doo is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney studying the impacts of changing climates on animals in the Great Barrier Reef. His research centers around a group of important, but vastly understudied organisms named large benthic Foraminifera (LBFs), and their role in sand production. Steve’s fieldwork is mostly based at One Tree Island, the tropical marine station owned by the University of Sydney, and involves many hours walking around the intertidal reef flats sampling. His previous research endeavors have lead me to places around the world including Taiwan, Japan, French Polynesia, and Puerto Rico. Steve is a California native and completed his undergraduate studies in Biology and Music Performance at the University of California, Davis and masters in Marine Biology at Northeastern University with the Three Seas Program.


Photo: Prof. Justin Marshall and Wen-Sung Chung /coralwatch.org