What happens next? The impact of coronavirus on Australia’s endangered coral reefs

Last year, we reported on the intersection of tourism and conservation at Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. But what’s been the impact of Covid-19? We continue our conversation with the eco trailblazers at Queensland's Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort.

Friday, August 28, 2020,
By Tamsin Wressell
The Great Barrier Reef stretches for over 1,400 miles. It has around 900 islands, more than ...

The Great Barrier Reef stretches for over 1,400 miles. It has around 900 islands, more than 2,900 individual reefs, and provides a home for in excess of 1,500 species of fish. It’s the only living organism you can see from outer space. Nearly three million people visit the reef each year, although tourism isn’t the main issue: climate change and rising sea temperatures are putting the coral under stress.

Photograph by Getty Images

In 2018, following two years of unprecedented mass coral-bleaching across Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, I travelled to Queensland to talk to experts about how tourism is both helping and hindering conservation efforts there and what we can all do to help preserve the world’s largest coral reef system for future generations.

Read more about how we can save the Great Barrier Reef in our May 2019 report

I spent much of my time on Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort, which covers 112 acres on the southernmost coral cay of the Great Barrier Reef, 53 miles north east of the town of Bundaberg. The island was obtained 15 years ago by Peter Gash, a trailblazer in sustainability and coral reef conservation. With his team, Peter (now the managing director of the island) planted a forest to create an ecosystem that would supply nutrients to the beleaguered reef: the trees would bring birds, their droppings would soak into the ground, and their nutrients would be dispersed by rainfall and washed out with the tide onto the corals.

With coronavirus bringing tourism on the island to a halt, I caught up with Peter to gauge the impact this has had on the resort and the delicate coral reef that surrounds it. Here's what he had to say. 

A diver and a turtle at Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort, which covers 112 acres on the southernmost coral cay of the Great Barrier Reef.

Photograph by Getty Images

“Tourism protects the Great Barrier Reef; it pays people to help protect the environment.”

by Peter Gash, general manager, Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort

Ask how the reef has been doing lately and you’ll get a different response based on who you talk to. In January, we had a big bleaching event here. It was some of the worst I’ve seen in the lagoon; it really worried me. The tide was low and the sun was high — at this point, the water gets really hot and the coral expels the algae living in its tissues, turning it white. I’d have said there was going to be coral mortality; the coral was clearly under stress. But we monitored it and couldn’t believe how quickly it recovered within a month. After two, I couldn’t find any evidence of where it had happened. A lot of the images of coral bleaching in the media are shocking bird’s-eye views, but they don’t show that it’s sometimes only the tips that are bleached.

I’m a firm believer that we need to be honest about how it’s doing so people don’t give up on it. You definitely can’t take your eye off the ball; there’s an awful lot of negative climate change still happening. But I think the reef is now doing better than we all thought it was going to do back in January, by a long stretch.

Tourism protects the Great Barrier Reef; it pays people to help protect the environment. We put out on social media that we were temporarily closing the resort due to Covid-19 and within days a whole bunch of boats came in for illegal fishing, much like how poaching has increased in African safari destinations without tourists there to inject money into the local economy and keep an eye on the ground. We had to call the police and get helicopters out. Now, we do patrols at night every hour on the shores with bright lights to show people that they can’t fish here. It’s wrong for the ecosystem.

If it wasn't for the tourist dollar, I wouldn't have the financial resources to do the work I'm doing. There are far more fish here today than there were 20 years ago because income from tourists allows us to protect the reef and revegetate to support the island’s natural ecosystem.

Recently, whales have been coming in so close to the island that guests have been able to ethically swim with them. There was also a great white shark spotted; four metres long, so a big one. One of our guests was out on the water and filmed the whole thing — it’s only the second sighting we’ve had of a great white close to the island in 25 years. The animal was just chill — they're inquisitive and they're intelligent. And if you keep your eye on them and you don't panic and splash around, they just look and then they swim away again. We decided to put it up on our social media channels and show how there can be positive encounters with sharks, and we hope that others will follow suit. I’m aware of other places that will pay guests a lot not to share photos of sharks on social media, but that’s not real or honest. Wildlife population growth brings in more apex predators and more activity on the reef, which is great — but it’s still under threat from rising temperatures and climate change.

Climate change is still real — the pandemic hasn’t taken it away. The loss of air travel has only taken away 3% of carbon emissions, at most. We’re testing out some electric engines at the moment; we’re hoping to have electric airplanes running for our resort in the next five or six years. We shut down for a total of 77 days when Coronavirus was at its peak. We had 100 staff here and no guests, so used that time to work on conservation and renovation — planting trees, building eco cabins, whatever we can do to keep the battle against climate change going. The vegetation is looking fantastic.

I’ve been asked a lot about whether Covid-19 has had an impact on the ecosystem. I don't see any negative impacts on the environment or on the wildlife. And I can't see any evidence of a positive impact because of less people travelling. We still have boats going out for whale-watching in Hervey Bay and people are still going out onto the reef. We usually get about 50% of our guests internationally, the other half locally. Where we’ve closed our borders here in Queensland, we’re getting local guests at the moment — they normally try to book but find it difficult to find space. it’s incredible to give them that opportunity. I’ve restricted our capacity, however, because we’re doing some work and because of the pandemic.

“If it wasn't for the tourist dollar, I wouldn't have the financial resources to do the work I'm doing.”

by Peter Gash, general manager, Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort

“I feel that the pandemic is making people reassess their lives and what they’re doing for the planet. I think they know that the planet is kicking back. We’re realising we were all workaholics and want to have more down time. We’re wanting to get back to nature, which is fantastic because that's where we belong.

I’ve reassessed here, too, and am looking into keeping the scaled-back guest numbers as a permanent fixture — to be kinder to the environment, and to reduce the amount of sunscreen washing into the water.

People are starting to really celebrate what we’re doing here and become appreciative of our efforts. There’ll always be a few people who disregard climate change, but the hope is that more and more voices will join together calling for a better world. I think we’ve got to persist with education and mentorships. The best thing we can all do at the moment is set examples and create a success story; to show how conservation can work. We need to not just leave a legacy but lead a legacy.

A lot of people have said the reef is dead. It's not dead. The reef is under a lot of stress, but so too is every natural thing on the planet. Right now, we need to be highlighting the facts, and it’s in a much better condition than some might have us believe, but it doesn’t mean we should drop the ball. For the time being, there'll be no international visitation into Australia. We should be using this time to raise awareness of the reef’s state to people and encouraging them to look forward to coming back to visit one day.

I'm a believer that nature and humans will survive. Climate change is the biggest test we've ever faced. And the pandemic's just a part of it. This whole story has been written by something bigger than all of us. We’re going to have to go through this pain and learn and grow from it to get to a better place. As a kid, I was taught how to fight. One of the things I was taught was you're not beaten if you keep getting back up. That’s how I feel about the pandemic, but also about protecting the reef. Think of all the positive things you've achieved. You've been blessed. You're still alive. Today's another day. There's another mission.

Visit ladyelliot.com.au for more information 

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