As the world’s largest coral reef ecosystem, with over 2,500 individual reefs across 348,000 sq km, the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is undoubtedly an iconic landmark – even ambassador – for Australia. It has immense biodiversity, and is home to over 1,500 species of fish, 400 species of coral, 4,000 species of mollusc, and 240 species of birds.
But, of course, it is threatened. A 2012 report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the reef had lost over half of its coral cover since 1985 – falling from 28 to 13.5 per cent – and is forecast to lose half again by 2022. The damage is predominantly being caused by both storms and outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish, with coral bleaching also to blame for around one tenth of the damage.
Additionally, a 2014 report by the GBR Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) found that the reef ‘continues to be at serious risk and the threats likely to affect it in the future are increasing and compounding’.
The report identified forty-one ‘risks’ – revolving around climate change, coastal development, land-based nutrient run-off, and direct damage (such as illegal fishing) – which are threatening the recovery and future prospects of the GBR.
Therefore, in June the UNESCO World Heritage Committee will meet in Bonn, Germany, to decide whether or not to officially classify the GBR as ‘in danger’. The reef was first listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1981.
The Australian government is, perhaps understandably, not keen to have the reef classified in this way, and has therefore instructed Australian ambassadors around the world to lobby countries involved in making the final decisions – such as India, Japan, and Portugal – to influence the UNESCO decision.
Peter Varghese, secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, came out fighting. ‘There is currently a campaign to list the Great Barrier Reef as ‘in danger’; we are doing all that we can to ensure the campaign does not succeed,’ he said recently. ‘We think there are a number of assertions about the management of the Great Barrier Reef and its vulnerability which are not grounded in fact and which need to be rebutted.’
Contrary to this viewpoint, in March Prime Minister Tony Abbott unveiled the government’s Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan, which set out a number of targets for the reef, including managing direct human engagement with the GBR, protecting and increasing the GBR’s natural biodiversity, and significantly reducing pollution caused by nutrient and sediment run-off. Abbott claimed the country was ‘utterly committed’ to the long-term preservation of the reef.
However, the plan fails to impress. Professor Terry Hughes, from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University, expressed his disappointment to Geographical.
‘Many scientists feel that the final plan is a big disappointment because it overlooks the growing impact of global warming and ocean acidification,’ he says. ‘Like the draft plan released earlier for public comment, the final plan virtually ignores climate change, dismissing it as a global challenge.’
Hughes emphasises the role which exporting minerals and fossil fuels via shipping – crucially, through the GBR – has played in creating the current situation with the reef.
‘The plan will be financed from income arising from new coal mines and the expansion of some of the world’s largest coal and coal seam gas ports along the Queensland coast adjoining the Great Barrier Reef,’ he explains. ‘Australia has to make up its mind about whether to build and operate the world’s largest coalmines over the next 60 years, or to reduce the threats to the Great Barrier Reef from climate change, pollution and overfishing in order to save it. We can’t develop massive new mines and ports without destroying the reef. The plan pretends that the reef will be intact for future generations even if Australia presses ahead with unprecedented expansion of fossil fuels, which is simply not scientifically credible.’
Hughes and his colleagues have now laid out their vision for the reef, and specifically, how the doom and gloom surrounding its future could potentially be replaced by a cautious optimism. In a report for the journal Nature Climate Change, they outline a six-point plan to restore the GBR.
- Returning focus to the conservation and protection of the GBR
- Australia transitioning away from fossil fuels to help fight climate change
- A permanent ban on the dumping of dredge spoil within the World Heritage area (as promised recently by Environment Minister Greg Hunt)
- Overhauling the environmental impact assessment process for new developments
- Reinstating the GBRMPA as the agency responsible for all aspects of the GBR – including fishing and ports
- Developing a 50-year plan, with adequate funding, for the use of the catchment, designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and agricultural run-off
‘It’s certainly not too late to turn around the slow decline of the GBR,’ Hughes emphasises to Geographical. ‘The challenge is to recognise that current levels of stressors need to be reduced; fishing pressure, coastal development, dredging, etc. Business as usual will only see the decline of the reef continuing, because it is already struggling.’
The UN climate change conference in Paris offers an opportunity for Australia to update its current five per cent reduction target to a more responsible level, considered ‘meagre’ by Hughes. ‘It’s time for Australia to abandon plans for developing new thermal coal mines in outback Queensland, and to embrace the global transition to renewable energy such as solar,’ he says. ‘It’s not as if there’s a shortage of sunshine in Queensland. We can either have huge new coalmines, or a healthy GBR, but not both.’
The next chapter in this story is likely to unfold at the UNESCO meeting in June, and will determine whether the GBR officially becomes Australia’s first entry on UNESCO’s ‘in danger’ World Heritage list, joining the 46 sites already on there.
Whether it does or not, many people will hope that this is the beginning of a new story for the Great Barrier Reef.