Half the Great Barrier Reef has Disappeared

Crown of Thorns Starfish. Image: AIMSDid you hear the depressing news this week that the Great Barrier Reef is declining faster than ever? A study by the Australian Institute of Marine Science found that the GBR has lost half its coral in only 27 years, and the rate of decline has worsened since 2006.  It is now at a coral cover level of 13.8%, and scientists predict we may only have 5% coral cover by 2022.

Whilst nearly half the damage since 1985 was caused by cyclones, 42% was caused by the destructive activity of the coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish, and 10% by spikes in sea temperature causing widespread bleaching.  Importantly, coral cover could have increased if not for the starfish problem, but outbreaks of them have become ever more common, likely increased by fertiliser and pesticide run-off.

The study says that the reef could recover if the crown-of-thorns starfish numbers were reduced… and climatic conditions were stabilised.  Since the reef is also threatened by ocean acidification (which reduces the ability of coral to form its calcareous skeleton), trying to stabilise at least the local climate could make a huge difference.

Unfortunately, that’s not the only problem facing the Great Barrier Reef.  The ever-expanding coal and LNG industry along the Queensland coast threatens to turn this once pristine environment into a shipping highway, with all the associated risks of pollution, run-off, and oil spills.  UNESCO recently criticised the Australian government for failing to adequately protect the reef, warning that coastal development offered “serious concerns over its long-term conservation”.  The listing of the GBR as a World Heritage Site could be changed to ‘World Heritage Site in danger’ in a matter of months if steps aren’t taken to better protect it.  But the QLD government says they won’t jeopardise the economic future of the state.

Queensland and federal governments have since launched a review to determine how they can better manage the Great Barrier Reef alongside increasing urban and industry development.

Meanwhile, scientists are working on novel ways to protect the reef, and say that improved water quality is certainly key.

Queensland MP Bob Katter wants to put a bounty on the crown-of-thorns starfish… But the Environment Minister says that research and government-assisted culling is the way to go.  (The starfish’s spines are poisonous by the way… I know I wouldn’t dive for them!)

Green groups such as Greenpeace, the Australian Marine Conservation Society, WWF, the Australian Conservation Foundation and many others have ongoing campaigns aimed at raising awareness of the reef’s plight, trying to stop the destructive development plans along the coast, and improving water quality.  If you are concerned or want to learn more, I suggest heading over to their websites to sign up your support.

It would be Australia’s greatest shame to lose the Great Barrier Reef.  But if we don’t act now, that day is fast approaching.




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