Hot topic: can we save the Great Barrier Reef?

With the ongoing climate crises, the Great Barrier Reef’s outlook has recently been downgraded to ‘very poor’.

By Simon Usborne
Published 6 Oct 2019, 06:00 BST
The Great Barrier Reef, Australia.
The Great Barrier Reef, Australia.
Photograph by Getty Images

What’s happened?

Australia’s natural wonder is in an even worse state than already thought. A new report by the Australian government’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has downgraded the world’s largest reef system’s outlook from ‘poor’ to ‘very poor’. Rising sea temperatures have put the reef in a ‘critical’ stage in its history, Josh Thomas, the group’s CEO, said, while calling for urgent action to tackle threats including coastal development, illegal fishing, agricultural run-off and the climate crisis. Yet while it paints a stark picture, the report discourages fatalism. “It’s important not to lose optimism by thinking the job is too big, or to think that a changed reef is far in the future — actions taken now will matter,” says Thomas.

What’s being done to help?

In 2015, Queensland created the Reef 2050 Plan, a sustainability plan that included aims to improve water quality and tackle the predatory starfish populations that decimate coral. The state government is considering new rules to prevent farmers from allowing nutrients and sediment to run into the sea. But critics of the plan have questioned its achievability given it has little power to tackle the greatest threat to the reef: climate change. Rising sea temperatures have caused an unprecedented run of mass ‘bleaching’ events in recent years, in which even slight rises can turn coral into white carcasses. Scientists are adamant that only a concerted global effort to tackle the climate crisis can save reefs in Queensland and beyond.

Should I stay away?

The reef attracts more than two million visitors a year, supports as many as 70,000 jobs and generates an estimated A$6bn (£3.3bn) a year. And those numbers show no sign of dropping, partly as a result of last-chance tourism. But should we be going at all? Yes, says the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, which issues permits to boat operators in the accessible pockets of the reef (about 7% of the total area). Seeing the reef is important in engaging us in its future, they argue, but the big elephant in the sky: aviation. Visiting Queensland isn’t a short journey for many and emissions from long-haul flights are a significant part of the threat to ecosystems like those on the reef.   

What can I do if I do visit?

There are various ways to limit your environmental footprint, including offsetting the carbon from the flight. Visitors should seek out ethical companies — ideally a certified operator — through Ecotourism Australia. UK-based Responsible Travel has several reef trips including a cruise on a low-emissions boat with a waste treatment plant, recycling facilities and — perhaps most crucially — a marine biologist on board to share the wonders of the world’s greatest reef while being frank about its prospects.

How are other reefs doing?

The Seychelles

The nation almost totally lost its reefs after the 1998 global bleaching event. The reef recovered well until another mass bleaching in 2016. In response to the crisis, the government is creating two huge protected marine parks in return for the writing off of a large chunk of its national debt by countries including the UK and France. 

The Caribbean

Reefs here have suffered some of the same pressures as the Great Barrier Reef. This year a disease identified as stony coral tissue loss disease added to the crisis. Conservationists are desperately trying to halt the outbreak.

Southeast Asia

Public enemy number one throughout the reefs of Southeast Asia is plastic. The growing number of plastics in our oceans is a particular threat to coral reefs. The material can suffocate or puncture corals and block vital sunlight and nutrients. The prevalence of plastics in the region is adding to a crisis also caused by overfishing, which can create debris while also affecting food chains and leaving coral predators such as starfish to populate unchecked.

Published in the October 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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