The Not-So-Great Barrier Reef
Every day I walk to the end of my street, turn a corner and there it is, the Coral Sea, with crocodiles in the mangroves by the beaches and sharks, dugongs and dolphins a little further out. It is one of the seven wonders of the natural world. White sandy beaches and a warm ocean and within the Coral Sea lies the coral reef. The Great Barrier Reef is located off the North East shores of Australia in the Coral Sea. It is quite literally in my backyard. What exactly is coral? It is a sedentary coelenterate that lives in colonies creating what we know to be a reef. (A coelenterate is a marine animal with a hard exoskeleton). As it is said on many a website, the Great Barrier Reef is larger than the Great Wall of China and is the only living thing on earth visible from space. It stretches over 2300 kilometres and covers an area of 344,440 km squared. It’s bigger than the United Kingdom, Switzerland and the Netherlands combined. Imagine the reef to be a huge garden made up of coral, (more than 400 different types), sponges, mollusks and dolphins; rays and more than 15,000 species of tropical fish, more than 200 types of birds and around 20 types of reptiles including turtles and giant clams believed to be over 210 years old. UNESCO listed the Great Barrier Reef as a World Heritage Site in 1981. It sounds amazing, doesn’t it? A place for adventure, sailing, scuba diving and snorkeling.
I hate to break the magical spell of anticipation but there is a new truth. It is dying. I am a scuba diver and I have dived on virgin coral in the Marshall Islands that takes your breath away. However, when I dived on the Great Barrier Reef, I didn’t see colour. I saw bleaching and brown, dead coral. I had to travel quite far out in a boat to find living coral. The reef as a collective of marine life is dying and it’s not simply a case of a slow cycle of rebirth and renewal. It is death. What has caused two thirds of it to expire? A collection of situations is to blame. Don’t mean to bash the Australian government because they are not solely responsible for climate change (especially considering their commitment to the fossil fuel industry). Due to climate change, the temperatures are rising which is ‘bleaching’ huge stretches of coral. Because the Australian Government’s policy/stance is that it does NOT BELIEVE in climate change and does not accord the reef any importance for protection and maintenance of one of the greatest beauties on the planet. As I’ve already mentioned, the government stands by its commitment to the mining and use of fossil fuels which only exacerbate the conditions of climate change.
The government pays lip service to those who hear the death knell. There may be a commitment of $500 million to protect the reef (no more than a drop in our ocean and given to an ineffective group with no infrastructure or research facilities who cannot put this money to use), it is comparable to the government giving permission for the bulldozing of nearly 2,000 hectares of forest at Cape York and other coastal areas in Australia. The removal of the tree canopy in Far North Queensland, for example, causes the soil to erode when under direct rainfall and because the tree roots are also destroyed, there is nothing to hold the soil together. When the rains come, and in North Queensland they REALLY COME, runoff comes from the land. Agricultural land leaks pesticides, phosphates and fertilisers which can seriously affect marine life. Then there’s dredging. This is where the bed of the port or harbour is cleared by scooping out mud, weeds etc. The clearing adds to the sediment load in the water. Channels are filled in and the tidal flow can be affected, again altering the natural balance of the marine environment.
If you have too much sediment … you get less sunlight travelling through the water to seagrass and corals, which lowers their ability to photosynthesis and grow Dr Frederieke Kroon, a coastal ecologist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS).
Being too long without sunlight causes coral and seagrass to die which is food for marine life who in turn starve.
Now this is bad enough, but the Great Barrier Reef Authority itself has approved millions of tonnes of dredge spoil to be disposed of in a marine park – part of the great barrier reef caused through a loophole in the law. The Great Barrier Reef Authority!!!! It is beyond belief that the pressure from government can affect this International Heritage Site. The authority has agreed to ten years of dumping of sludge within the marine park’s boundaries. In truth, the Federal government banned the disposal of dredge spoil near the reef in 2015 but the ban was only applied to capital dredging. There is in fact little difference between capital dredging and maintenance dredging. 75% of the reef, which is said to be a conservative estimate, has died from bleaching due to both human activity and natural causes (climate change).
Problems extend and it’s not just shipping dredging that causes problems. Although the government has passed an Act which bans drilling for oil on the reef, shipping accidents (there have been over 300 oils spills since 1987) have caused additional damage that can take the reef 10 to 20 years to recover which is too long considering the current rate of destruction.
Humankind has more blame to own. Ocean acidification is happening. This is when there is a decrease in the pH of the ocean due to the carbon dioxide emissions from e.g. burning fossil fuels. The oceans absorb half of the carbon dioxide produced by fossil fuels but when the carbon dioxide is absorbed, the water becomes more acidic which directly affects crustaceans, coral and coralline algae to make their exoskeletons, thus leaving them open to endangerment.
Finally, nature brings its own drama. There is a natural predator which is gaining momentum in the reef. This is a starfish called Crown of Thorns. Not your average sweet starfish but as it feeds on the polyps of coral, it releases a neurotoxin that destroys the coral’s tissue. In groups they cause an ‘outbreak’ and they destroy great portions of the coral. Scuba divers and reef specialists try to kill Crown of Thorns starfish but they are losing the battle.
If the money given to the management of the Great Barrier Reef is not in the correct place, where should money be put to help the reef? Research into the effects of climate change on marine life should be of the utmost importance. Developments to repopulate the reef with more hardy coral which can manage the increased temperatures and not dumping dredge spoil in the coral sea should be made into a priority. Together with the government, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), an independent Australian government agency responsible for scientific research, have come up with a Reef 2050 Long Term Sustainability Plan but it’s too late and too little. Even David Attenborough has pleaded with the Government for change.
There may be papers written and some action taken to repopulate small areas of reef, but as long as climate change raises the temperatures and Australia continues to dredge and use fossil fuels, the days of one of the most beautiful natural phenomena are numbered.
Photo credits: Map: Nbdayun.Me