Overall Outlook for the Great Barrier Reef Poor, ‘in Worst State Since Records Began’Catch of the Week
The Great Barrier Reef is in the worst state it’s been in and will be “pretty ugly” within 40 years as complex coral structures gradually disappear, Australian scientists said recently.
A Senate committee is investigating how the Australian and Queensland governments have managed the reef, with UNESCO to decide whether to list it as a world heritage site in danger.
According to a news report in The Guardian, scientists have told the committee the reef is facing threats from coastal development, such as a massive port-related dredging project at Abbot Point, farm runoff and poor water quality. The reef cannot rejuvenate after times of stress as it once did, the scientists say.
The Australian Coral Reef Society – the oldest organization in the world that studies coral reefs – says coral cover has halved since the 1980s, when the reef was listed as a world heritage asset.
By 2050 there will be fewer fish and large swaths of seaweed where complex coral structures once thrived, society president Peter Mumby said.
“It will be really pretty ugly,” Mumby told the committee. “And the ability to earn a livelihood will be vastly diminished.
“The reef is in the worse state it’s ever been in since records began. There is so much scope to improve governance.”
The committee was told funding for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority had been cut, and the commonwealth was set to devolve its environmental approval powers to the states, meaning big projects would only be assessed once.
The latest Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report, published by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, stated that: “Even with the recent management initiatives to reduce threats and improve resilience, the overall outlook for the Great Barrier Reef is poor, has worsened since 2009 and is expected to further deteriorate.”
The report, published every five years, is required under Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 (section 54) and aims to provide a regular and reliable means of assessing reef health and management in an accountable and transparent way. For the first time, the report specifically considers the Great Barrier Reef Region’s heritage values, including Indigenous heritage, historic heritage and the area’s world heritage values.
Responding to the report, WWF-Australia CEO Dermot O’Gorman said that “Australians are deeply concerned that our national icon is dying on our watch. Governments must be prepared to commit billions to deliver major reductions in water pollution.
“We need to get the Reef in the best shape possible so that it can better handle climate change. The only way to build Reef resilience is to minimise impacts from catchment pollution, coastal development and fishing,” Mr O’Gorman said.
“The report confirms that port activity, including the dumping of dredge spoil in Reef waters, is contributing to the water pollution problems afflicting this already fragile ecosystem.”
“One concrete step governments can take to reduce pressure on the Reef is to prohibit dumping of dredge spoil in the World Heritage Area.”
The Australian and Queensland Governments also released their final Strategic Assessments which propose actions to restore the Reef’s health.
The director of the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland, Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, said current efforts to help the reef were inadequate.
“The threats are escalating,” he told the hearing. “It is time for a rethink. We are living in a fantasy land.”
In a related story in the Guardian, The Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) has warned that the government has downplayed the declining health of the Great Barrier Reef and there is “clear potential for conflicts of interest” in development decisions.
John Gunn, chief executive of Aims, said that while the federal and state governments should be praised for putting together comprehensive reviews of the reef, the assessments lacked international scientific findings on reef systems.
Developers, such as those building ports or dredging the seabed, commission consultants to assess the potential impact of work.
This report is then handed to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, which is responsible for safeguarding the health of the reef.
AIMS has conducted research that shows that coral cover on the Great Barrier Reef has halved in the past 30 years. Pollution, cyclones and a plague of coral-eating starfish have been blamed for the decline.
The development of ports to ship resources such as coal has also been cited as a concern, with critics claiming that dredged sediment, pollution and potential shipping accidents would hasten the reef’s decline. Meanwhile, warming oceans could cause a large amount of coral to bleach and even die off.
UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee is due to decide next year whether to list the Great Barrier Reef as “in danger”. In an assessment handed down in June, UNESCO said it was “premature” to hand responsibility for the reef to the Queensland government and that it was concerned about a plan to dump dredged sediment within the reef’s marine park.
(Story and photo courtesy of WWF-Australia)