Tackling global warming is the only hope for Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

Dive operators are taking action

By James Heffield

Photo by Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Centre for Marine Studies, The University of Queensland

The Great Barrier Reef runs for 1,500 miles along the coast of Queensland, a state in the northeast region of Australia, and is home to spectacularly large corals, colorful tropical fish, and six-feet-long reef sharks that cruise the warm waters enjoying the reef’s delicacies. On any given plunge with dive operators that frequent the inner reef close to Cairns, you can’t avoid bumping into tropical snappers and coral trout or coming face to face with a turtle.

It’s one of the natural wonders of the world and attracts more tourists today than it ever has in the past. The latest figures show that more than 1.8 million domestic visitors and 750,000 international visitors go to North East Queensland every year. Annually, about 160,000 international visitors and 270,000 domestic visitors dive, boat or fish in the Great Barrier Reef, taking advantage of its abundant marine life.

But global warming is changing the reef environment. Since 1980 increasingly hot summers have destroyed large sections of the reef and most experts believe the damage is only going to get worse if world carbon emissions are not reduced. However, for now it’s only those who have been diving the reef for years and know what it once looked like that notice the incremental damage.

Diver Steven Brady, marketing manager for dive educator and operator Pro Dive Cairns, says dive operators, hoteliers and restaurant managers are increasingly concerned about the impact continued damage to the reef could cause to their business. About one in five visitors to Australia travel to North Queensland, mainly because of its “natural beauty,” so businesses are organizing to protect the reef, he says. Dive operators in particular are “unified” in their efforts with many lobbying authorities to make the reef a “green zone” and prevent fishing in the area. Pro Dive tries to reduce their impact on the reef by spreading their tourist dive trips around the 16 sites they are authorised to visit.

Australian Institute of Marine Science research scientist Ray Berkelmans says creating green zones and taking other steps to protect the reef will help, but ultimately the only way to stop it being “devastated” is to tackle the root problem – climate change. If carbon emissions are not reduced to below 1990 levels and climate change continues at the current pace, the reef will not be around for future generations to enjoy, says Berkelmans. “The larger more beautiful corals will be gone and only the small resilient ones will survive. By 2050, if we go on the same trajectory we are on now, the reef will be devastated.”

Climate change is causing coral bleaching in reefs worldwide, and some, such as those in the Florida Keys, face being almost completely wiped out, he says. Coral bleaching changes the coral from their normal brown and olive-green colours to white, which indicates symbiosis has broken down and affects their ability to photosynthesise. Bleaching has become progressively more common since the 1980’s. Berkelmans says that, “Before 1980 we don’t have any cases of bleaching on record.”

Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) climate change group director Paul Marshall says the best weather information available indicates that it is unlikely the Great Barrier Reef will suffer this year from the type of widespread bleaching experienced in 1998 and 2002, the two hottest summers on record. “Australia is now in a La-Niña cycle so we are currently experiencing lower than average ocean temperatures, which are a welcome relief.” The authority regularly monitors the reef for bleaching, and takes steps to regulate and mitigate against other dangers to the reef environment, including over-fishing, and changes in water quality as a result of farm runoff.

GBRMPA spokesperson Sara Trenerry says the authority is investing in research into the impacts of climate change on the reef and has launched community education campaigns, particularly aimed at school children, to inform people of the “simple things” they can do to protect the reef. The number of protected areas in the reef had increased from 5% to 33%, which had been successful in increasing fish numbers, says Ms Trenerry.  Protective measures help the environment and ensure industries that rely on the reef can continue delivering “economic and social benefits to the community,” she says.

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