Image credit: Flickr, Kyle Taylor.
Who Cares about the Great Barrier Reef?
Just in case the title wasn’t obviously rhetorical, we at Save the Earth do!
As the news reports that the Great Barrier Reef has experienced the biggest coral death to date, two thirds of a 700km (435m) stretch in just nine months according to The Telegraph, we look at why this is something we should all be concerned by, what’s threatening the Reef and what we can do to help.
Why should I care?
WWF, describes the Great Barrier Reef as: “Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is one of the world’s seven natural wonders … a prized World Heritage Area, the largest reef system and the biggest living structure on the planet. It sprawls over a jaw-dropping 344,400 square kilometres – an area so large that it can be seen from space.” And if that doesn’t make you think it’s something worth protecting, how about that it’s home to hundreds, if not thousands, of marine plant and animal life including some that we haven’t even discovered yet.
It’s hard to imagine a world without the Great Barrier Reef, the ecological loss would be devastating, as would the loss of an estimated 69,000 Australian jobs that the reef and the fishing industry around it supports.
And just in case you were still unsure about why you should care, how about that it’s a natural World Heritage Site, protects the coast from storms and sustains food for over half a billion people. Oh, and it’s beautiful!
(However, the person filming this may have inadvertently caused damage in doing so!)
Why is it under threat?
Sadly, there are many threats to the Reef, some man-made, some natural. Here are just a few of the main ones:
- Climate change: Global warming has caused coral bleaching, where the algae which gives the coral its vibrant colour is killed off by the warmer waters. In turn, this kills off the creatures which feed on the algae, which kills off the larger creatures which feed on the smaller creatures and so on until the reef is effectively void of life and the coral itself dies. A water temperature rise of just 2-3% may put a whopping 97% of the Reef in danger of coral bleaching every year.
- Shipping and oil spills: It will come as no surprise that oil spills will have tremendous ecological consequences and there have been over 280 spills in the waters surrounding the Reef since 1987. However, what is less known is the damage caused by ships hulls which are coated in Tributylin (TBT) to preserve them but is toxic to marine life when released in water. Due to the large number of vessels drawn by the Reef and visits to the surrounding area, this can have a devastating effect on the very thing that has attracted them.
- Farming pollution and crown of thorn starfish outbreaks: Run off from farming smothers the coral blocking essential sunlight and making it more vulnerable to coral bleaching, while nitrogen run off causes algal blooms which causes overpopulation of crown of thorn starfish which suck the coral backbone dry and are considered one of the greatest threats to the Reef.
- Over-fishing: Although the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has placed limits on where and what can be fished, both commercially and for leisure, trawling with nets is still permitted. Not only do protected species get caught up in the nets, these nets drag along the sea floor damaging the habitat and its inhabitants. Not to mention the additional pollution due to the high number of fishing vessels.
- Tourism: Every year there are millions of visitors to the Reef, bringing with them unintended consequences that may be having a negative impact such as the run-off from sunscreen, using submersibles and reef-walking.
- Industrialisation: There are several new port developments and an expansion of the Carmichael Coal Mine planned along the coastline which would increase the stresses already felt by the Reef through dredging of the sea floor and increased pollution and ocean traffic in the area. Unfortunately, despite lobbying by scientists and local businesses, the Queensland Government has agreed to go ahead with the planned expansion of the coal mine.
Image Credit: Flickr, Nathan Hughes Hamilton.
Okay, so what can I do?
The Great Barrier Reef is home to a diverse ecology which is under threat from natural and man-made stresses and we’re at risk of losing it for good if we don’t do something to preserve it now.
The good news is that bleached coral can recover. But it takes time, a lot of time – at least 15 years after the threats have subsided, although some of the larger coral, which provide important shelter for larger fish, takes hundreds of years to grow.
As individuals there may be little we can do, but together we can apply pressure to the Australian Government to take preservation of the Great Barrier Reef seriously, restrict industrialised developments in the area and support those organisations that are lobbying them to do just that. Here are links to campaigns and petitions to start you on your journey to save the Reef.
- Sign up to the WWF Fight for the Reef Campaign
- Join the Greenpeace Save the Reef Campaign
- Add your name to the Australian Marine Conservation Society’s petition to stop the Carmichael coal mine development.
- Keep an eye on Nasa’s Coral Reef Airborne Laboratory’s project to map the Reef from the air to show the impact from climate change.