Great Bar­rier Reef sees record coral deaths this year

Malta Independent - - ENVIRONMENT - Rod McGuirk

Warm­ing oceans this year have caused the largest die-off of corals ever recorded on Aus­tralia’s Great Bar­rier Reef, sci­en­tists said this week.

The worst-af­fected area is a 700kilo­me­ter swath in the north of the World Her­itage-listed 2,300kilo­me­ter chain of reefs off Aus­tralia’s north­east coast, said the Aus­tralian Re­search Coun­cil Cen­tre of Excellence for Coral Reef Stud­ies.

The cen­tre, based at James Cook Uni­ver­sity in Queens­land state, found dur­ing dive sur­veys in Oc­to­ber and Novem­ber that the swath north of Port Dou­glas had lost an av­er­age of 67 per­cent of its shal­low-wa­ter corals in the past nine months.

Far­ther south, over the vast cen­tral and south­ern re­gions that cover most of the reef, sci­en­tists found a much lower death toll.

The cen­tral re­gion lost 6 per­cent of bleached coral and the south­ern re­gion only 1 per­cent.

“The mor­tal­ity we’ve mea­sured along the length of the Great Bar­rier Reef is in­cred­i­bly patchy,” the cen­ter’s di­rec­tor, Terry Hughes, told re­porters. “There’s very se­vere dam­age in the north­ern sec­tion of the reef.”

“The good news is that south of Port Dou­glas, in­clud­ing the ma­jor tourist ar­eas around Cairns and the Whit­sun­days (Whit­sun­day Is­lands), have had rel­a­tively low lev­els of mor­tal­ity,” he added.

The gov­ern­ments of Aus­tralia and Queens­land will up­date the UNESCO World Her­itage Cen­ter this week on progress be­ing made to pro­tect and im­prove the reef, in­clud­ing their re­sponse to coral bleach­ing.

Pro­vid­ing a sta­tus up­date to the World Her­itage Com­mit­tee was re­quired as part of its de­ci­sion in June last year not to list the reef as “in dan­ger.”

Fed­eral Min­is­ter for the En­vi­ron­ment and En­ergy Josh Fry­den­berg said Tues­day that the reef’s coral cover had in­creased by 19 per­cent in re­cent years be­fore it suf­fered a “sig­nif­i­cant bleach­ing event” this year, caused by the El Nino weather ef­fect and cli­mate change.

“What that shows is that the Great Bar­rier Reef is very re­silient and quite strong,” Fry­den­berg’s of­fice said in a state­ment.

The gov­ern­ments plan to spend AUS2 bil­lion over the next decade on im­prov­ing the reef’s health.

Hughes said the coral death rates in the north would likely make the task of keep­ing the reef off the “in dan­ger” list much harder.

“In its on­go­ing di­a­logue with UNESCO, Aus­tralia has said the out­stand­ing uni­ver­sal val­ues of reef are in­tact be­cause of the pris­tine con­di­tion of the north­ern reef. That’s sim­ply no longer the case,” Hughes said.

Re­searcher Andrew Baird said the 2016 coral die-off was “sub­stan­tially worse” than the pre­vi­ous worst-ever event in 1998.

“The pro­por­tion of reefs that were se­verely af­fected was much, much higher,” Baird said, adding that he did not have pre­cise fig­ures im­me­di­ately avail­able.

The 1998 event was re­stricted to in-shore reefs around the Queens­land coastal city of Townsville, while the 2016 de­struc­tion af­fected a much larger area, he said.

Sci­en­tists ex­pect that the north­ern re­gion will take at least 10 to 15 years to re­gain the lost corals. They are con­cerned that an­other bleach­ing event could in­ter­rupt that re­cov­ery.

There have been three ex­treme mass bleach­ing events in 18 years on the reef. In each case, the ar­eas that suf­fered the worst bleach­ing were where the wa­ter was hottest for the long­est pe­riod of time.

Reef tourism op­er­a­tor Craig Stephen did not ex­pect the dead coral would di­min­ish vis­i­tors’ ex­pe­ri­ence of one of Aus­tralia’s big­gest tourist draw­cards.

“The patch­i­ness of the bleach­ing means that we can still pro­vide our cus­tomers with a world-class coral reef ex­pe­ri­ence by tak­ing them to reefs that are still in top con­di­tion,” Stephen said in a state­ment.

Graeme Kelle­her, who headed the Great Bar­rier Reef Marine Park Au­thor­ity for 16 years, said last week that Aus­tralians must not buy the “po­lit­i­cal lie” that they can have the reef as well as ma­jor coal mines nearby.

“We’ve lost 50 per­cent of the coral cover on the Great Bar­rier Reef in the last 30 years and the main cause of that is the burn­ing of fos­sil fuel. I sin­cerely hope UNESCO re­jects the claim that the govern­ment is do­ing enough,” Kelle­her said.

(Dan Peled, AAP Im­age via AP)

In this photo, Aus­tralian sen­a­tor Pauline Han­son lis­tens to marine sci­en­tist Ali­son Jones, left, as she dis­plays a piece of coral on the Great Bar­rier Reef off Great Kep­pel Is­land, Queens­land, Aus­tralia. Aus­tralian sci­en­tists say warm­ing oceans year 2016 have caused the big­gest die-off of corals ever recorded on Aus­tralia’s Great Bar­rier Reef. The Aus­tralian Re­search Coun­cil Cen­tre of Excellence for Coral Reef Stud­ies said this week that the worst-af­fected area was a 700kilo­me­ter swath in the north of the World Her­itage-listed 2,300-kilo­me­ter chain of reefs off Aus­tralia’s north­east coast.

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