SAVE THE GREAT BAR­RIER REEF?

Is the planet’s worst en­vi­ron­men­tal catas­tro­phe al­ready un­der­way in the wa­ters off the Queens­land coast? Or can we still

Australian Geographic - - Change for the sea - Story by Karen McGhee

It’s al­most two hours of spec­tac­u­lar view­ing from our Cessna Car­a­van wing­ing north­wards, first trac­ing the stun­ning coast­line, then head­ing east­wards over the blue ex­panse of the Co­ral Sea.

Con­di­tions are so good we f ly low enough to be able to count dugongs in More­ton Bay, off Bris­bane. Then we spy sev­eral huge hump­back moth­ers with calves in the wa­ters north of Fraser Is­land and the Great Sandy Strait’s crazed net­work of sand­banks, man­groves, salt marshes, sea­grass beds and mud is­lands. As we f in­ally drop down onto Lady El­liot Is­land’s trun­cated land­ing strip, we even glimpse a green tur­tle ris­ing for a breath.

As lovely as it is, the f light re­in­forces a ma­jor im­ped­i­ment to bring­ing the re­al­i­ties of what’s hap­pen­ing at the Great Bar­rier Reef (GBR) to ev­ery­day Aus­tralians. Much of it is nei­ther easy nor cheap to get to.

Any visit to Lady El­liot be­gins with a safety brief ing, mostly about the run­way that ex­tends down the mid­dle of this tiny co­ral cay (and via which up to f ive Cessna-loads of tourists, seek­ing a quin­tes­sen­tial reef ex­pe­ri­ence, ar­rive or leave daily). Then for us it’s into scuba gear and straight into the wa­ter off the is­land’s south­ern tip.

Plung­ing into the Co­ral Sea to drop down onto the reef these days in­evitably comes with a sense of trep­i­da­tion. There’s been so much talk about its demise that as soon as you roll on your wet­suit you men­tally pre­pare for the pos­si­bil­ity that an en­vi­ron­men­tal hor­ror show awaits. And en­thu­si­asm to en­ter the ocean is tem­pered by the knowl­edge that many of the world’s es­teemed ma­rine sci­en­tists have been shed­ding tears of an­guish over what they’ve re­cently wit­nessed on the reef.

I’ve done most of my GBR div­ing at the north­ern end, and that was be­fore terms such as ‘mass bleach­ing’ (see page 61) be­came well known. Lady El­liot is new to me, so I’m not sure what to ex­pect, but sur­veys of the dam­age have sug­gested this is the ‘good’ end of the reef and tour op­er­a­tors claim things are still in at­trac­tive shape. I’m still a lit­tle scep­ti­cal, how­ever, be­cause some parts of the tourism in­dus­try are said to have been play­ing down the ex­tent of dam­age to the GBR.

But my first 45 min­utes 15m or so down are ex­tra­or­di­nary and I emerge speech­less at the sheer beauty of the ex­pe­ri­ence. It’s not the same dense for­est of reef I re­mem­ber from the north, but the wa­ters here rip­ple with the colour, vi­tal­ity and move­ment of healthy life. (See page 64 and the re­mark­able im­agery of spe­cial­ist AG un­der­wa­ter pho­tog­ra­pher Dar­ren Jew.) The sit­u­a­tion is re­ported to be sim­i­lar at Heron Is­land, about 110km north, and for much of the GBR’s south­ern third. Yes, the reef at this end looks to be rel­a­tively healthy and still spec­tac­u­lar. But, sadly, that’s not presently the case fur­ther north…

AN­OTHER 60 MIN­UTES on a small plane, this time to Lizard Is­land, 260km north of Cairns at the reef ’s north­ern end, high­lights the im­mense scale of the GBR. Larger than any other reef sys­tem in the world, it ex­tends for more than 2600km and cov­ers al­most 350,000sq.km – about the same area as Italy.

Be­cause many corals rely on sun­light to sur­vive, much of the reef is in the top 30m of the ocean and can be seen from an air­craft as a broad but bro­ken strip of in­dis­tinct shapes. From the air, how­ever, it’s not pos­si­ble to tell how dam­aged or healthy any of it might be. But by f ly­ing very low dur­ing the re­cent mass bleach­ing events ma­rine sci­en­tists were able to mon­i­tor and iden­tify when vast ar­eas were bleach­ing, a re­ac­tion that’s ca­pa­ble of leav­ing large tracts of corals dead (see page 61).

Lizard Is­land’s coralscape­s have long been re­garded as the bright­est jew­els in the GBR crown, among the premier div­ing and snorkellin­g lo­ca­tions in the reef ’s north. On the is­land the Aus­tralian Mu­seum op­er­ates the Lizard Is­land Re­search Sta­tion, one of the world’s lead­ing ma­rine sci­ence f ield fa­cil­i­ties. Also here, on the same side of the is­land, is the Lizard Is­land Re­sort, an ex­clu­sive and se­cluded hol­i­day desti­na­tion fre­quented by both roy­alty and movie stars.

Again, it’s into a wet­suit shortly af­ter touch­ing down. And again, af­ter com­ing up out of the wa­ter, I’m lost for words

On a clear, calm, mid­win­ter morn­ing, our flight from the Gold Coast to Lady El­liot Is­land – near the south­ern limit of the Great Bar­rier Reef – is like a pas­sage to par­adise.

– al­though this time it’s be­cause of shock. I re­call reefs up this way hav­ing the fre­netic struc­ture of sub­merged forests, and that’s ex­actly how the vast ex­panse of co­ral that stretches south­west from Lizard ap­pears. But this looks like a for­est that’s been na­palmed and left to rot. It’s ugly and sur­real.

Much of the co­ral is dead and furred with a layer of dark al­gae. There are no bright colours and no gaudy f lut­ter­ing clouds of fast-mov­ing but­terf ly f ish, dam­self ish or other small fishes you’d nor­mally see shel­ter­ing within and feed­ing on co­ral polyps in trop­i­cal reefs. There are f ish, but not in the num­bers you’d ex­pect. And they’re mostly mid- to large-sized – the f ish that fed upon the huge num­bers of smaller reef fish thought to have suc­cumbed here af­ter the co­ral died.

They cruise the de­bris like clean­ers con­tracted to clear up af­ter a crime. So, this is what be­comes of a reef af­ter bleach­ing. It bears lit­tle re­sem­blance to the usual colour­ful chaos of life in these trop­i­cal habi­tats. The dev­as­ta­tion is sober­ing – and I now un­der­stand the tears.

The Lizard Is­land Re­search Sta­tion opened in 1973 and its ac­tiv­i­ties have been over­seen since 1990 by res­i­dent di­rec­tors and ma­rine sci­en­tists Dr Lyle Vail and Dr Anne Hoggett. They are un­der­stand­ably heart­bro­ken about the cur­rent state of their Co­ral Sea front yard. “It was beau­ti­ful up here un­til early 2014,” Anne says. “What’s hap­pened since then is tragic. It’s just aw­ful.”

In April 2014 and then March 2015 the area suf­fered two cat­e­gory four cy­clones – f irst Ita and then Nathan – which up­rooted and smashed vast swathes of co­ral. Al­though two cat­e­gory fours hit­ting in quick succession is un­usual and the dam­age was bad, life is used to cy­clones here and Anne and Lyle be­lieved enough co­ral sur­vived to re-seed and slowly re­cover, and that the reef ’s di­verse assem­blage of life would re­turn. But then from February to May 2016, trop­i­cal wa­ters world­wide warmed to such an ex­tent that corals – in­clud­ing those around Lizard Is­land – be­gan to bleach en masse. Across the Co­ral Sea, the GBR Ma­rine Park Au­thor­ity (GBRMPA) es­ti­mated, al­most a third of shal­low-wa­ter co­ral was lost.

But there was worse to come. Above-av­er­age sea sur­face tem­per­a­tures con­tin­ued through win­ter that year and by the be­gin­ning of the 2016–17 sum­mer an­other mass bleach­ing was un­der­way. “The cy­clones didn’t mat­ter in the scheme of things, be­cause af­ter them we still had healthy co­ral left,” Anne says. “But the bleach­ing just got ev­ery­thing. Nowhere was safe – it was just hor­ri­ble.”

Anne and Lyle have since moved be­yond grief and, like so many ma­rine sci­en­tists, are be­gin­ning to ex­press anger at what the dam­age here rep­re­sents. They have no doubt the un­der­ly­ing cause of bleach­ing is cli­mate change, and that one of the most com­pre­hen­sive an­swers to en­sur­ing the GBR’s on­go­ing sur­vival is to stop burning coal for en­ergy. And it’s hard to find a sci­en­tist, ma­rine or oth­er­wise, who doesn’t agree.

“It was beau­ti­ful up here un­til early 2014. What’s hap­pened since then is tragic. It’s just aw­ful.”

“I don’t see any hope for reefs if we keep on like we’re go­ing,” Anne laments. “This is two years of back-to-back bleach­ing that we’ve had: this was pre­dicted to hap­pen in the mid­dle of the cen­tury, but it’s hap­pened…30-plus years ahead of time.

“We may go 10 years now with­out hav­ing an­other ma­jor bleach­ing event. That would be won­der­ful, but un­likely if things don’t change. Peo­ple ask me that all the time, ‘What can we do?’ and I haven’t got any good an­swers other than to say lobby your politi­cians.”

Dif­fer­ent corals seem to have dif­fer­ing lev­els of sus­cep­ti­bil­ity to el­e­vated tem­per­a­tures. Sadly, it’s the pret­ti­est and most char­ac­ter­is­tic trop­i­cal reef corals that seem most vul­ner­a­ble.

“When any­one goes out onto a beau­ti­ful healthy reef the ones they’ll no­tice are Acro­p­ora corals,” Lyle ex­plains. “Those are the branch­ing corals, the staghorn corals, the plate corals: we lost about 95 per cent of those [around Lizard], and all big Acro­p­ora colonies in wa­ter shal­lower than 20m.”

But there are corals that sur­vive and many of those seem to be the slow-grow­ing species, largely of the genus Porites, that form mas­sive boul­der-like colonies, which may be very old and are ma­jor reef-builders. As tragic as reef life in the wa­ters through­out the north­ern GBR cur­rently seems, there is hope.

MA­RINE BI­OL­O­GIST Dr Andy Lewis is cau­tiously op­ti­mistic about the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of dev­as­tated reefs around Lizard and else­where in the north­ern GBR for re­cov­ery, al­though his ob­ser­va­tions come with caveats. He’s vis­ited Lizard Is­land an­nu­ally for two decades, ac­com­pa­ny­ing stu­dents on school ex­cur­sions. His PhD in the 1990s looked at the re­cov­ery of dam­aged reefs in the north­ern GBR and he’s since stud­ied dis­turbed reefs through­out the Asia-Pa­cific.

“I swim around [Lizard’s] reefs now as a bi­ol­o­gist in a state of in­cred­i­ble in­ter­est be­cause it’s not of­ten you get to see a ma­jor eco­log­i­cal event like this roll through and can get to watch how the sys­tem re­sponds,” Andy says, ex­plain­ing that the GBR, like all trop­i­cal reefs, is a dy­namic en­vi­ron­ment per­pet­u­ally ex­posed to nat­u­ral dis­tur­bances, from cy­clones to tsunamis and f loods. He sub­scribes to the the­ory that high reef bio­di­ver­sity is pro­moted by such reg­u­lar dis­tur­bances, which open up space and al­low for many dif­fer­ent species to co­ex­ist. There is, how­ever, a dif­fer­ence be­tween push­ing and push­ing too far.

“What has hap­pened here two years in a row, there’s no doubt is a sig­nif icant event: it’s re­duced liv­ing co­ral cover over a vast area of the north­ern sec­tion of the GBR,” Andy says. “But it’s not some­thing the reef can’t re­cover from…given a num­ber of years where it doesn’t get sig­nif icantly dis­turbed.”

And that’s the kicker. These habi­tats need time to come back. A bit of a bat­ter­ing seems to be a good thing and trop­i­cal reefs

are eco­log­i­cally de­signed to re­cover from that. Too much, how­ever, could have dire long-term con­se­quences and thwart that re­sponse. The good news is that the re­cov­ery at Lizard is al­ready un­der­way, with Andy’s re­cent re­search show­ing hun­dreds of ju­ve­nile Acro­p­ora corals set­tled and grow­ing back at sev­eral sites on the shel­tered lee­ward side of the is­land. Yes, Andy agrees, the GBR could be “cooked” in f ive years. “And that re­ally would be a cause for mourn­ing,” he says, “but we’re not there yet, and we need to make sure to­mor­row is not that day.”

There’s wide con­sen­sus among reef sci­en­tists and man­agers that the only sure-f ire way to en­sure that is to re­duce global green­house gas emis­sions and do it fast. And while the cri­sis is cer­tainly now mo­ti­vat­ing a lot more sci­en­tists into ac­tion, it’s also mo­bil­is­ing a re­sponse from an ex­tra­or­di­nary net­work of peo­ple with an in­ter­est in the reef ’s fu­ture, rang­ing from man­agers and tour op­er­a­tors, right through to school kids. Ci­ti­zen sci­ence projects, pro­vided by groups such as the Queens­land Univer­sity-based CoralWatch, are now at­tract­ing a lot of in­ter­est glob­ally from peo­ple in­ter­ested in help­ing sci­en­tists save the reef.

Green­ing Australia’s new Reef Aid project is an­other good ex­am­ple of the strong mul­ti­fac­eted ap­proach now be­ing taken to res­cue the reef. It’s working with sci­en­tists, farm­ers and traditiona­l own­ers on projects to re­duce sed­i­ment and pol­lu­tion run­ning into the reef from the land and is do­ing it by us­ing a mix of fund­ing from gov­ern­ment, cor­po­rate and phil­an­thropic sources along with pub­lic do­na­tions.

Dr Eva Abal, a wa­ter-qual­ity sci­en­tist with the Bris­bane-based In­ter­na­tional Wa­ter Cen­tre, and part of the sci­en­tif ic team ad­vis­ing on Reef Aid, sums up the sen­ti­ment of what the project is try­ing to achieve. “We know it’s not the reef it was 10 years ago,” she ac­knowl­edges, “but we do still have the op­por­tu­nity to have a func­tional GBR.” So, what reef man­agers, sci­en­tists and tourism op­er­a­tors are now talk­ing about, she says, is build­ing the “re­silience” of the GBR, so that it’s in the best pos­si­ble shape to han­dle the men­ace of cli­mate change. And that means lim­it­ing other threats fac­ing it, while the world waits for politi­cians to com­mit to re­duc­ing emis­sions and en­sure those lev­els are achieved.

Andy agrees. We need to en­sure farm­ers aren’t clear-felling trees, and stop nu­tri­ents and fer­tilis­ers from agri­cul­tural land, sewage farms and cities reach­ing the reef ’s wa­ters, he says. “And we re­ally don’t need mas­sive new coal ports dredged along the coast,” he adds, point­ing to in­fra­struc­ture for the con­tentious Adani coalmine be­ing con­sid­ered for cen­tral Queens­land.

Pro­fes­sor Justin Mar­shall agrees it’s too early to write off the reef. He too has faith in the re­silience of na­ture to re­spond to the cri­sis, and sup­ports a multi-pronged re­sponse. As a neu­ro­phys­i­ol­o­gist at the Queens­land Brain In­sti­tute he has long been

“Australia, as care­taker of the world’s big­gest area of reef, needs to step up and take a lead on the world stage.”

in­ter­ested in what reef an­i­mals tell us about the de­vel­op­ment of the senses, par­tic­u­larly colour vi­sion. And af­ter div­ing on the GBR for decades he’s de­vel­oped a strong con­nec­tion to its co­ral and the weird and won­der­ful crea­tures that de­pend on it. He’s also chief in­ves­ti­ga­tor and project leader with CoralWatch and agrees that re­duc­ing nu­tri­ent and sed­i­ment run-off in river catch­ments f low­ing into the GBR is crit­i­cal.

“But I’ve got two takes on what’s hap­pen­ing sci­en­tif ically,” Justin says. “Sure, I think as much money as pos­si­ble should be thrown at the reef, and any pos­si­ble pos­i­tive ac­tion that’s be­ing taken should be done. So, let’s ge­net­i­cally en­gi­neer it, let’s trans­plant it, let’s shade it… But none of that is go­ing to f ix the prob­lem if we con­tinue to have the bleach­ing we’ve had. If that isn’t stopped, the reef will be dead in 50 years and that’s very clear.” His money is on putting ef­forts into re­new­able en­ergy and los­ing the coal in­dus­try: “Australia, as care­taker of the world’s big­gest area of reef, needs to step up and take a lead on the world stage about this.”

Dtalk of sci­ence and pol­i­tics, Peter Gash feels that the power to save the GBR rests with or­di­nary peo­ple the world over. Peter is the owner­op­er­a­tor of the tourist fa­cil­i­ties on Lady El­liot Is­land, which he’s set up as an ex­em­plar of a reef-sav­ing life­style. It runs al­most en­tirely on re­new­able en­ergy and any waste that can’t be re­cy­cled is re­duced to a min­i­mum. Peter re­calls his days as a cash­strapped kid in the 1980s when he f irst fell in love with the reef. Now a suc­cess­ful busi­ness­man with an ever-watch­ful eye on com­pany fi­nances, he says it made clear eco­nomic sense to run Lady El­liot sus­tain­ably. Peter is also now a mem­ber of the tourism reef ad­vi­sory com­mit­tee that ad­vises GBRMPA and was in­volved in the Man­ag­ing for Re­silience Reef Sum­mit held by sci­en­tists and man­agers in Townsville in May 2017. His love and en­thu­si­asm for the GBR is in­fec­tious, and he sees him­self as one of many priv­i­leged care­tak­ers of a global as­set, which is how he be­lieves all Aus­tralians should feel about the reef. While he’s not a sci­en­tist, his per­spec­tive does draw on a life­time of ex­pe­ri­ence and ob­ser­va­tions to pro­vide an in­sight­ful, ac­ces­si­ble over­view of a com­plex cri­sis; an over­view that’s be­com­ing in­creas­ingly sought af­ter.

Start­ing more than a cen­tury ago, “We were do­ing things here that we shouldn’t have been, al­though we didn’t know any bet­ter,” Peter says, ex­plain­ing that agri­cul­tural, ur­ban and in­dus­trial de­vel­op­ments within the catch­ments of the rivers lead­ing into the reef have all played a role. These have been the “death of a thou­sand cuts – farm­ing, roads, build­ings, cities, de­vel­op­ments, plough­ing up land, cutting down man­groves,” he says. “It’s not one per­son’s fault or one thing. It was not one killer punch that led the Bar­rier Reef to where it is now.”

He used to say we need a thou­sand Band-Aids to fix it. Now he’s call­ing for a global re­sponse and “a mil­lion green ac­tions”. He means that ev­ery per­sonal con­tri­bu­tion – whether it’s switch­ing off a light, tak­ing a bus in­stead of driv­ing a car, or pick­ing up lit­ter on a beach – will make a dif­fer­ence.

“Your inf lu­ence is there; mine is there,” Peter says. “It all matters, and it will all con­trib­ute to sav­ing the reef.”

Ma­rine sci­en­tist Wen-Sung Chung photograph­s bleach­ing corals on the outer GBR near the famed dive site of Cod Hole, east of Cairns, dur­ing the 2016 bleach­ing event.

Justin Mar­shall, a neu­ro­phys­i­ol­o­gist with the Bris­bane-based Queens­land Brain In­sti­tute who has been study­ing what reef an­i­mals can tell us about the de­vel­op­ment of colour vi­sion, in­spects bleach­ing co­ral dur­ing a dive off Vla­soff Cay north-east of...

The beauty of co­ral is mag­ni­fied mo­men­tar­ily with the on­set of a mass bleach­ing event when the del­i­cate pink, pur­ple and blue colours of co­ral polyps show through af­ter the screen of green-brown zoox­an­thel­lae is re­moved.

Dr Andy Lewis has been doc­u­ment­ing the re­turn of co­ral to the wa­ters around Lizard Is­land and pho­tographed a large num­ber of ju­ve­nile corals in a wide range of species. It’s heart­en­ing, he says, that “the corals were in sev­eral clear size classes,...

Mas­sive Porites corals, such as this, which can live for many hun­dreds of years and grow as big as cars, usu­ally sur­vive bleach­ing, al­though this one in the north­ern GBR was hit dur­ing the 2016 event.

Ma­rine sci­en­tists Lyle Vail and Anne Hoggett have been dev­as­tated by the im­pact of back-to­back bleach­ing events on corals in the wa­ters around Lizard Is­land in the north­ern GBR.

Peter Gash, one of the own­ers of the tourist fa­cil­i­ties on Lady El­liot Is­land, has been mesmerised by the GBR since the 1980s.

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