As the largest living organism on the planet, the Great Barrier Reef has for centuries been one of the world’s most breathtaking natural icons. Spanning more than 2,500km, its network of colourful corals is home to a stunning array of marine life, from the smallest species of tropical fish on Earth to some of the largest varieties of sharks.
Each year, more than two million tourists flock to the reef’s picturesque tropical islands hoping to catch a glimpse of the enchanting creatures that inhabit their corals. But for the millions more who dream of one day seeing the Great Barrier Reef in all its pristine glory, now might be the time to go: sadly, the reef is currently experiencing a dramatic transformation. Once vibrant corals now glow an eerie pale white, and gone are many of the flourishing marine communities, leaving behind vast expanses of desolate, chalky ruins.
In 2016, the Great Barrier Reef suffered its worst ever coral bleaching event, resulting in the largest loss of corals ever recorded in the reef’s estimated 18 million-year history. The final results of an extensive aerial survey revealed around 93 percent of the site’s 2,900 individual reefs had been affected by the bleaching event to some degree.
For many small Pacific islands, coastal tourism provides more than 90 percent of new economic development
While the extent of the damage varies greatly throughout the reef, the most significant losses have occurred in the uppermost northern sector, in a location widely regarded as the most precious and beautiful part of the Great Barrier Reef. But while we are right to mourn the loss of this exquisite coral, the impact of this bleaching event extends far beyond the realm of the reef’s aesthetic.
The role of reefs
Although coral reefs cover just one percent of the ocean floor, they are one of the world’s most valuable ecosystems. Aside from their enduring appeal as tourism hotspots, coral reefs also provide crucial support to a variety of industries, ranging from shoreline protection to global food security.
In December 2016, the Queensland Tourism Industry Council joined up with the Queensland Farmers’ Federation and WWF Australia to publish a report entitled Investing in the Great Barrier Reef as Economic Infrastructure. The study took an in-depth look at the economic worth of the reef, ultimately placing an asset value of $21bn on the natural structure.
According to Daniel Gschwind, CEO of the Queensland Tourism Industry Council: “Our report highlights how environmental features can be a huge economic asset – one that keeps on giving if you take care to look after it. The Great Barrier Reef allows for sustainable economic activity and steady employment in a range of valuable industries.”
Stretching out over 14 degrees of latitude, the Great Barrier Reef encompasses both shallow, estuarine waters and deep oceanic depths. Throughout this vast aquatic expanse, the reef’s maze of corals supports a dazzling array of creatures, providing a home to 1,625 species of fish, 133 varieties of sharks and rays, and one of the world’s most important populations of dugong.
Incredibly, reef systems across the globe support almost a third of all marine life, providing the foundation for the entire ocean food chain. As a result, coral reefs either directly or indirectly sustain nearly all forms of ocean life, from small, herbivorous fish right up to the sea’s largest predators.
In addition to supplying the basis for the complex ocean food chain, coral reefs also play an important role in supporting our own human diets. Fish and other marine creatures are a primary source of protein for more than one billion people worldwide, and are vital diet staples for those living in coastal regions.
Professor Callum Roberts, a marine conservation biologist at the University of York, explained: “In the Philippines, for example, a very large fraction of animal protein in the diet comes from reef-associated fish and shellfish – we are talking greater than 50 percent. There are several hundred million people worldwide who are directly dependent on reefs as a critical source of animal protein, and that number is only going to increase in the future as the populations of developing countries continue to swell.”
With so many people relying on reef fish as a vital food source, coral reefs directly sustain a highly valuable fishing industry. The ocean fishing industry employs around 38 million people worldwide, with an estimated 162 million people also indirectly involved in the sector. According to a 2013 report commissioned by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, commercial fishing in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area generates annual revenues of around AUD 198m ($150m).
More than 1,500 commercial fishing boats currently operate in fisheries dotted along the Queensland coast, bringing in around 10 percent of the nation’s entire seafood haul. Outside the Great Barrier Reef, the coral-based fishing industry is turning over similarly impressive catches. Southeast Asia’s coral reef fisheries are valued at a staggering $2.4bn a year, while half of all federally managed fisheries in the US depend on coral reefs for their operations. In developing countries, meanwhile, reef-associated fish account for at least one quarter of the total fish catch.
An economic powerhouse
Fishing aside, the world’s corals also support a number of lucrative land-based industries. Reef-based tourism has become an essential driver of the economy in more than 100 tropical nations.
As tourists flock to the Great Barrier Reef in their
millions, human activity can lead
and increased pollutants
in the water
In Australia alone, tourism around the reef employs approximately 70,000 people and generates more than AUD 6bn ($4.5bn) every year. The reef’s colourful splendour attracts millions of international visitors annually, with tourists prepared to travel great distances in order to appreciate the mesmerising natural icon. Thanks to the unparalleled appeal of the Great Barrier Reef, Queensland consistently attracts Australia’s largest share of international visitors, with foreign tourists spending a record AUD 5.1bn ($3.86bn) in the state in 2016.
“What’s important about the reef is that it doesn’t just bring income to Australia’s capital cities, but it also helps regional communities along Queensland’s 2,000km of coastline”, said Gschwind. “It’s of enormous value to local communities in the region.”
Indeed, on the sun-kissed Whitsunday Islands, tourism employs over a third of the active workforce, emerging as the single largest industry in the Tropical North Queensland region. Furthermore, for many small Pacific islands outside Australia, coastal tourism provides more than 90 percent of new economic development. In such locations, islanders don’t depend on coral reefs just for their livelihoods, but also for their homes.
According to Roberts: “In many places throughout the world, everyone is dependent on coral reefs. In island nations like the Maldives or Kiribati, coral reefs generate the islands that people live on. If the reef were to disappear, then the island would too and its people would have to go. In this sense, for some people, coral reefs are absolutely existential.”
Far from these tropical atolls, coral reefs also play a vital role in protecting mainland shorelines from storms and sudden rises in sea levels.
Globally, more than one billion people live in low-lying coastal regions, with 200 million homes positioned at less than five metres above sea level. By the end of the 21st century, the number of people living in these high-risk coastal areas is expected to more than double, placing countless people in real danger of losing their homes and lives in extreme weather events.
While rising sea levels pose a serious threat to coastal residents, coral reefs provide protection from heavy storms, typhoons and even tsunamis by absorbing a significant amount of their energy before they hit the shore. As waves pass over a reef structure, their energy can be reduced by up to 95 percent, lessening their impact when they reach the fragile shore. In this way, coral reefs also help to prevent coastal erosion, flooding and costly damage to human settlements, saving governments around the world billions of dollars a year in reconstruction costs and coastal defence initiatives. In the Florida Keys, for example, the value of coral reef shoreline protection has been valued at $10.7bn.
Reefs at risk
Now, the future of our coral reefs hangs in the balance. As well as being one of our planet’s most valuable natural assets, coral reefs are also one of its most fragile. Corals are extremely sensitive to changes in water temperature, and a slight rise of just two or three degrees can trigger the bleaching phenomenon. During this process, a stressed coral expels the multicoloured algae living in its cells, leaving itself uncharacteristically ashen.
Over the past 20 years, there have been three significant coral bleaching events. Between 1997 and 1998, the El Niño southern oscillation phenomenon caused catastrophic bleaching throughout the world’s corals, before the Great Barrier Reef was again hit hard by bleaching in 2002. As scientists now look to assess the continuing aftermath of last year’s bleaching, it seems the damage from this most recent event far exceeds those of the past.
According to Roberts: “It’s the most severe coral bleaching event to affect the Great Barrier Reef in recorded history. Looking at the Great Barrier Reef, we can see that about five to 10 percent of the coral died as a result of bleaching in 1998. In 2002, another five to 10 percent of the coral died. In 2016, however, an estimated 30 percent of coral has died.”
With forecasts predicting the bleaching phenomenon will carry on long into 2017, it is becoming all too clear that warm waters are wreaking havoc on our corals. As climate change heats up the planet, our oceans are absorbing a large amount of the impact. Since 1995, the ocean has absorbed more than 90 percent of the excess heat trapped by greenhouse gases. This has steadily driven up water temperatures, with the ocean now taking in twice as much heat as just two decades ago.
“To give you some idea of how much extra heat is added to the world’s oceans every year as a result of greenhouse gas emissions trapping heat from the sun, it amounts to 17 times the total energy consumption of everyone on the planet”, explained Roberts. “As more heat is being stored up in the world’s oceans, bleaching is getting more severe. The intervals between mass coral mortality is being reduced, and that’s because more temperatures are rising.”
Caring for our corals
In its long history, the reef has faced a multitude of threats to its health, but these have largely been brought under control through good management policies and the strategic conservation efforts of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.
While tourism in the area is a massive boost to the local economy, it comes at a price: as tourists flock to the Great Barrier Reef in their millions, human activity around the reef can lead to damage and increased pollutants in the water. More than 500 commercial vessels currently transport tourists to the reef, exposing fragile coral communities to boat fuel and other associated pollutants. Chemicals in suntan lotions may even prove harmful in sensitive reef environments, while reef walking and dropped anchors can chip away at corals.
Given the potential risks of irresponsible tourism, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has worked tirelessly to encourage respectful practices among tourism operators and tourists alike. Visitors to the reef are urged to actively participate in data collection through the ongoing Eye on the Reef monitoring programme: by making a note of the different species they see during their trip, visitors are able to interact with the reef in a positive, hands-off way.
Roger Beeden, Director of Tourism and Stewardship at the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, said: “A healthy tourism industry depends on a healthy reef. One way we are able to promote ecotourism is with the Eye on the Reef programme. Visitors collect data on species, coral cover and other impacts that affect reef health, providing real-time data on regularly visited locations.”
people visit the Great Barrier
Reef every year
people are employed by the surrounding tourism industry
is generated in revenue by
the reef every year
Thanks to such sustainable tourism initiatives, tourism management strategies in the Great Barrier Reef have long been recognised as exemplary by UNESCO, with the body describing them as the gold standard that should be replicated elsewhere.
Along with promoting active engagement, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park authority seeks to limit human damage to the reef through its extensive zoning plan. Each zone has different rules for the kind of activities that are allowed in that location, while fishing has been banned in the ‘no take’ areas that account for 33 percent of the reef. Since the zoning strategy was introduced in 2003, it has had a positive impact on the reef’s biodiversity, and has been internationally recognised as a global benchmark in marine conservation.
Beeden explained: “More and bigger fish are being found in ‘no take’ areas, which produces a spill-over effect of fish into areas of the park that are open for fishing.”
Back on dry land, the reef’s national education centre welcomed 140,000 visitors through its doors last year. At the Reef HQ Great Barrier Reef Aquarium, the reef becomes an education tool, teaching tourists about the role of ecosystems in the broader global environment. Sick and injured turtles are nursed back to health at the Reef HQ turtle hospital, while solar panels generate at least half of the building’s total energy.
However, while these conservation efforts should no doubt be applauded, little is being done to tackle the biggest threat to the reef: climate change. Last year’s coral bleaching event serves as an uncomfortable reminder of what warming waters mean for our earth’s corals. A recent study by the University of Miami predicts rising ocean temperatures will cause annual bleaching for reefs around the world by 2043.
According to Roberts, the Paris Agreement’s aspirational target of limiting the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees is a step in the right direction, but isn’t ambitious enough to save coral reefs: “Even if we were to implement all of the promised cuts, it wouldn’t be enough – it would just save us 10 years before the point at which coral reefs would experience annual severe bleaching.”
As global warming takes its toll on the Great Barrier Reef’s precious corals, the Australian Government’s climate change policy has come under intense scrutiny from concerned reef experts and conservationists alike. Last year, the Queensland state government granted Indian mining giant Adani permission to build a multimillion-dollar coalmine in the state’s Galilee Basin. With construction set to begin this year, the Carmichael site will become Australia’s largest coalmine, ensuring huge exports of coal to India.
Australia is home to the world’s third largest untapped coal reserves, with only Russia and the US reporting more plentiful sources. If the nation were to fully exploit these untapped reserves – as it now appears to be intent on doing – then the ensuing emissions would push the earth’s temperature target well above the recommended rise of 1.5 degrees.
Scientists have long warned human activity is pushing us towards a sixth mass-extinction event, and below the ocean’s surface, the vast, milky expanses of bleached corals suggest such an event may already be underway. As we now fight for the future of the reef, the once-vibrant corals serve as a stark reminder of the urgent work that needs to be done to combat climate change – before it’s too late.