Clash over Great Bar­rier Reef

Com­pet­ing in­ter­ests seen in bat­tle be­tween science, tourism

China Daily (Latin America Weekly) - - Holiday - AGENCE FRANCE- PRESSE

SYD­NEY — A row is rag­ing over Aus­tralia’s warm­ing­dam­aged Great Bar­rier Reef, with firms wor­ried that sci­en­tists’ apoc­a­lyp­tic warn­ings are scar­ing vis­i­tors out of the wa­ter.

Ev­ery year, more than two mil­lion snorkel-wield­ing tourists head to Aus­tralia’s famed coral ecosys­tem, gen­er­at­ing rev­enues of $4.3 bil­lion and sup­port­ing 64,000 lo­cal jobs.

But dam­age done by higher tem­per­a­tures — which turn patches of the reef ashen white — has threat­ened to put a break on the num­ber of tourists will­ing to wres­tle their way into a wet suit.

There was sur­prise then, when the Reef and Rain­for­est Re­search Cen­ter re­cently pub­lished a markedly more op­ti­mistic re­port, herald­ing “sig­nif­i­cant signs of re­cov­ery” at ma­jor dive sites around Cairns and prompt­ing a flurry of up­beat news cov­er­age.

If the re­port’s find­ings seemed out of kil­ter with other stud­ies about the reef, that was by de­sign.

It was part of an ef­fort to show that not all of the Great Bar­rier Reef is an aquatic waste­land, ac­cord­ing to Col McKen­zie of tourism in­dus­try lobby group AMPTO, which helped carry out the re­search.

“Over­all, are we see­ing a drop in visi­ta­tion be­cause of the neg­a­tive press, ab­so­lutely we are, there’s no doubt about that,” McKen­zie said.

He sug­gested vis­i­tor num­bers to the reef and nearby is­lands had dropped by 10 per­cent in 2017, and were on track to plunge by a fur­ther 15 per­cent this year.

Although govern­ment data shows that the num­ber of visim­porter itors to the broader re­gion has ac­tu­ally in­creased, those fig­ures are older and don’t in­clude coral-view­ing ac­tiv­i­ties.

McKen­zie said it was vi­tal to get the mes­sage out that some ar­eas of the mas­sive ecosys­tem are still teem­ing with color and life.

“What peo­ple miss with our reef sys­tem is ... it’s a mas­sive struc­ture,” he said.

His com­ments are the lat­est salvo in a bat­tle be­tween ecol­o­gists and the tourism in­dus­try, as they strug­gle to come to terms with com­pet­ing in­ter­ests and new re­al­i­ties on the reef.

Con­flict­ing in­ter­ests

Pro­fes­sor Terry Hughes of James Cook Univer­sity, who leads the sur­veys of bleached corals, cau­tioned that while some dam­aged coral re­gain their color within sev­eral months, more badly dam­aged reefs can take a decade to re­cover.

“Ba­si­cally we are in year one in the mid­dle of the reef, or year two in the north­ern reefs, in the decade-long process of re­cov­ery,” he said.

Even within the Aus­tralian govern­ment, there are con­flict­ing in­ter­ests at play, as well as rolling de­bates about how best to re­spond.

Can­berra has — so far suc­cess­fully — urged UN­ESCO to hold off list­ing the reef as an en­dan­gered World Her­itage site, fear­ing it would have an ad­verse eco­nomic im­pact and lead to tougher re­stric­tions on lo­cal in­dus­try.

Aus­tralians also ap­pear di­vided on dam­age done to the reef.

Only half of the coun­try thinks that cli­mate change is al­ready caus­ing the de­struc­tion of reef, ac­cord­ing to an an­nual Ip­sos poll on en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues.

Whichever way the po­lit­i­cal winds blow, sci­en­tists like Hughes are de­ter­mined to doc­u­ment changes to one of the world’s most bio­di­verse re­gions.

“The un­known, of course, is whether we’ll get an­other bleach­ing event, which po­ten­tially could come as soon as early next year if we get a heat wave,” he said.


An aerial view of the Heart Reef, a coral reef in the Great Bar­rier Reef.

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