Great Barrier Grief

Green Lifestyle Magazine

Recent concern from UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee about the impact of gas and coal processing on the Great Barrier Reef is cause for national concern. So what can you do to help?

Reef in danger

A message painted by Greenpeace on a coal ship in Gladstone in 2012.

Credit: Greenpeace

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Clichés abound in the tourism industry, but the one stating that the Great Barrier Reef is a national treasure is certainly fact rather than exaggerated advertising catchcry. Stretching 2,300 km along the Queensland coast, the Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef system.

The UNESCO World Heritage-listed marine park is home to a whopping 1,500 species of fish, 411 types of coral and 134 species of sharks and rays. It’s so special that more than two million people visit the reef each year.

But the Great Barrier Reef is in trouble, with new research indicating coral cover could be as low as five per cent by 2022, meaning our snorkelling days may be limited.

A 2012 study by the Australian Institute of Marine Sciences (AIMS) reports that coral cover on the reef has halved to just 14 per cent over the last 27 years. The rate of loss is on the up and AIMS predicts that as little as five to 10 per cent of the reef may be covered in 10 years’ time.

The study shows that the reef’s ill health is caused by three factors: tropical cyclones and coral bleaching, which will worsen as the ocean temperature rises, and outbreaks of crown of thorns starfish, fed by water pollution.

The effects of overfishing, including untargeted bycatch and damage to the seafloor, plants and animals, is also a major threat to the reef, says World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Australia.

Richard Leck, the Great Barrier Reef campaign manager for WWF Australia, points out that the byproducts of many onshore activities that take place adjacent to the reef are also having a detrimental effect on the coral.

“We’ve got big problems in terms of pollution from farming, but we’ve also got problems that have been caused by the boom in development along the reef. We’ve got major industrialisation around some of the ports and that’s putting significant pressure on the reef,” he says.

Last year, an alarming UNESCO report criticised management of the Great Barrier Reef and warned that the site could be downgraded to a World Heritage site ‘in danger’ unless the government changes its supervision of the reef.

In particular, the development of gas processing facilities in Gladstone Harbour and on Curtis Island, and the coal terminal at Abbot Point are of major concern.

UNESCO asked the federal government to conduct an independent review into damage being done to the reef by February this year, and environment groups such as Greenpeace and GetUp! are concerned that continued coal expansion will lead UNESCO to declare the reef ‘in danger’.

“Short-term profits will cause permanent destruction to the reef unless we can turn this around,” says Paul Oosting, campaigns director for GetUp! “Governments come and go, but the reef must be protected for future generations.”

The World Heritage Committee will meet in Cambodia in June to decide whether to re-classify the Great Barrier Reef. If the ‘in danger’ label sticks, there will be substantial ramifications for the tourism industry and for ongoing efforts to preserve the reef. Additionally, the dent to the national psyche is likely to be severe.

Leck says there are two important strategies that will help to protect the reef. “The number one recommendation that came from the World Heritage Committee is to recommit to reducing pollution from farming practices, basically from land [that drains] into the Great Barrier Reef marine park. The second is we really need to give the reef a breather in terms of coastal development.”

The reef can recover but it needs time to regenerate. If you’re keen to pledge your support to eco-friendly reef practices, get in touch with WWF Australia, Greenpeace and GetUp! For further information, go to www.fightforthereef.org.au