Great Barrier Reef: is there still time to save this national treasure?

By Karen McGhee | February 16, 2018

Is the planet’s worst environmental catastrophe already underway in the waters off the Queensland coast? Australian Geographic’s Karen McGhee investigates.

IT’S ALMOST TWO hours of spectacular viewing from our Cessna Caravan winging northwards, first tracing the stunning coastline, then heading eastwards over the blue expanse of the Coral Sea.

Conditions are so good we fly low enough to be able to count dugongs in Moreton Bay, off Brisbane. Then we spy several huge humpback mothers with calves in the waters north of Fraser Island and the Great Sandy Strait’s crazed network of sandbanks, mangroves, salt marshes, seagrass beds and mud islands. As we finally drop down onto Lady Elliot Island’s truncated landing strip, we even glimpse a green turtle rising for a breath.

As lovely as it is, the flight reinforces a major impediment to bringing the realities of what’s happening at the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) to everyday Australians. Much of it is neither easy nor cheap to get to.

Any visit to Lady Elliot begins with a safety briefing, mostly about the runway that extends down the middle of this tiny coral cay (and via which up to five Cessna-loads of tourists, seeking a quintessential reef experience, arrive or leave daily). Then for us it’s into scuba gear and straight into the water off the island’s southern tip.

Plunging into the Coral Sea to drop down onto the reef these days inevitably comes with a sense of trepidation. There’s been so much talk about its demise that as soon as you roll on your wetsuit you mentally prepare for the possibility that an environmental horror show awaits. And enthusiasm to enter the ocean is tempered by the knowledge that many of the world’s esteemed marine scientists have been shedding tears of anguish over what they’ve recently witnessed on the reef.

I’ve done most of my GBR diving at the northern end, and that was before terms such as ‘mass bleaching’ became well known. Lady Elliot is new to me, so I’m not sure what to expect, but surveys of the damage have suggested this is the ‘good’ end of the reef and tour operators claim things are still in attractive shape. I’m still a little sceptical, however, because some parts of the tourism industry are said to have been playing down the extent of damage to the GBR.

But my first 45 minutes 15m or so down are extraordinary and I emerge speechless at the sheer beauty of the experience. It’s not the same dense forest of reef I remember from the north, but the waters here ripple with the colour, vitality and movement of healthy life. The situation is reported to be similar at Heron Island, about 110km north, and for much of the GBR’s southern third. Yes, the reef at this end looks to be relatively healthy and still spectacular. But, sadly, that’s not presently the case further north…

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Aerial surveys conducted along the entire length of the reef revealed back-to-back bleaching events. (Image Credit: Ed Roberts)

ANOTHER 60 MINUTEs on a small plane, this time to Lizard Island, 260km north of Cairns at the reef’s northern end, highlights the immense scale of the GBR. Larger than any other reef system in the world, it extends for more than 2600km and covers almost 350,000sq.km – about the same area as Italy.

Because many corals rely on sunlight to survive, much of the reef is in the top 30m of the ocean and can be seen from  an aircraft as a broad but broken strip of indistinct shapes. From the air, however, it’s not possible to tell how damaged or healthy any of it might be. But by flying very low during the recent mass bleaching events marine scientists were able to monitor and identify when vast areas were bleaching, a reaction that’s capable of leaving large tracts of corals dead.

Lizard Island’s coralscapes have long been regarded as the brightest jewels in the GBR crown, among the premier diving and snorkelling locations in the reef’s north. On the island the Australian Museum operates the Lizard Island Research Station, one of the world’s leading marine science field facilities. Also here, on the same side of the island, is the Lizard Island Resort, an exclusive and secluded holiday destination frequented by both royalty and movie stars.

Again, it’s into a wetsuit shortly after touching down. And again, after coming up out of the water, I’m lost for words – although this time it’s because of shock. I recall reefs up this way having the frenetic structure of submerged forests, and that’s exactly how the vast expanse of coral that stretches south-west from Lizard appears. But this looks like a forest that’s been napalmed and left to rot. It’s ugly and surreal.

Much of the coral is dead and furred with a layer of dark algae. There are no bright colours and no gaudy fluttering clouds of fast-moving butterfly fish, damselfish or other small fishes you’d normally see sheltering within and feeding on coral polyps in tropical reefs. There are fish, but not in the numbers you’d expect. And they’re mostly mid- to large-sized – the fish that fed upon the huge numbers of smaller reef fish thought to have succumbed here after the coral died.

They cruise the debris like cleaners contracted to clear up after a crime. So, this is what becomes of a reef after bleaching. It bears little resemblance to the usual colourful chaos of life in these tropical habitats. The devastation is sobering – and I now understand the tears.

The Lizard Island Research Station opened in 1973 and its activities have been overseen since 1990 by resident directors and marine scientists Dr Lyle Vail and Dr Anne Hoggett. They are understandably heartbroken about the current state of their Coral Sea front yard. “It was beautiful up here until early 2014,” Anne says. “What’s happened since then is tragic. It’s just awful.”

In April 2014 and then March 2015 the area suffered two category four cyclones – first Ita and then Nathan – which uprooted and smashed vast swathes of coral. Although two category fours hitting in quick succession is unusual and the damage was bad, life is used to cyclones here and Anne and Lyle believed enough coral survived to re-seed and slowly recover, and that the reef’s diverse assemblage of life would return. But then from February to May 2016, tropical waters worldwide warmed to such an extent that corals – including those around Lizard Island – began to bleach en masse. Across the Coral Sea, the GBR Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) estimated, almost a third of shallow-water coral was lost.

But there was worse to come. Above-average sea surface temperatures continued through winter that year and by the beginning of the 2016–17 summer another mass bleaching was underway. “The cyclones didn’t matter in the scheme of things, because after them we still had healthy coral left,” Anne says. “But the bleaching just got everything. Nowhere was safe – it was just horrible.”

Anne and Lyle have since moved beyond grief and, like so many marine scientists, are beginning to express anger at what the damage here represents. They have no doubt the underlying cause of bleaching is climate change, and that one of the most comprehensive answers to ensuring the GBR’s ongoing survival is to stop burning coal for energy. And it’s hard to find a scientist, marine or otherwise, who doesn’t agree.

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Protest at Abbot Point, near the Great Barrier Reef. (Image Credit: AAP/Greenpeace)

“I don’t see any hope for reefs if we keep on like we’re going,” Anne laments. “This is two years of back-to-back bleaching that we’ve had: this was predicted to happen in the middle of the century, but it’s happened…30-plus years ahead of time.

“We may go 10 years now without having another major bleaching event. That would be wonderful, but unlikely if things don’t change. People ask me that all the time, ‘What can we do?’ and I haven’t got any good answers other than to say lobby your politicians.”

Different corals seem to have differing levels of susceptibility to elevated temperatures. Sadly, it’s the prettiest and most characteristic tropical reef corals that seem most vulnerable.

“When anyone goes out onto a beautiful healthy reef the ones they’ll notice are Acropora corals,” Lyle explains. “Those are the branching corals, the staghorn corals, the plate corals: we lost about 95 per cent of those [around Lizard], and all big Acropora colonies in water shallower than 20m.”

But there are corals that survive and many of those seem to be the slow-growing species, largely of the genus Porites, that form massive boulder-like colonies, which may be very old and are major reef-builders. As tragic as reef life in the waters throughout the northern GBR currently seems, there is hope.

MARINE BIOLOGIST Dr Andy Lewis is cautiously optimistic about the capabilities of devastated reefs around Lizard and elsewhere in the northern GBR for recovery, although his observations come with caveats. He’s visited Lizard Island annually for two decades, accompanying students on school excursions. His PhD in the 1990s looked at the recovery of damaged reefs in the northern GBR and he’s since studied disturbed reefs throughout the Asia-Pacific.

“I swim around [Lizard’s] reefs now as a biologist in a state of incredible interest because it’s not often you get to see a major ecological event like this roll through and can get to watch how the system responds,” Andy says, explaining that the GBR, like all tropical reefs, is a dynamic environment perpetually exposed to natural disturbances, from cyclones to tsunamis and floods. He subscribes to the theory that high reef biodiversity is promoted by such regular disturbances, which open up space and allow for many different species to coexist. There is, however, a difference between pushing and pushing too far.

“What has happened here two years in a row, there’s no doubt is a significant event: it’s reduced living coral cover over a vast area of the northern section of the GBR,” Andy says. “But it’s not something the reef can’t recover from…given a number of years where it doesn’t get significantly disturbed.”

And that’s the kicker. These habitats need time to come back. A bit of a battering seems to be a good thing and tropical reefs are ecologically designed to recover from that. Too much, however, could have dire long-term consequences and thwart that response. The good news is that the recovery at Lizard is already underway, with Andy’s recent research showing hundreds of juvenile Acropora corals settled and growing back at several sites on the sheltered leeward side of the island. Yes, Andy agrees, the GBR could be “cooked” in five years. “And that really would be a cause for mourning,” he says, “but we’re not there yet, and we need to make sure tomorrow is not that day.”

There’s wide consensus among reef scientists and managers that the only sure-fire way to ensure that is to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and do it fast. And while the crisis is certainly now motivating a lot more scientists into action, it’s also mobilising a response from an extraordinary network of people with an interest in the reef’s future, ranging from managers and tour operators, right through to school kids. Citizen science projects, provided by groups such as the Queensland University-based CoralWatch, are now attracting a lot of interest globally from people interested in helping scientists save the reef.

Greening Australia’s new Reef Aid project is another good example of the strong multifaceted approach now being taken to rescue the reef. It’s working with scientists, farmers and traditional owners on projects to reduce sediment and pollution running into the reef from the land and is doing it by using a mix of funding from government, corporate and philanthropic sources along with public donations.

Dr Eva Abal, a water-quality scientist with the Brisbane-based International Water Centre, and part of the scientific team advising on Reef Aid, sums up the sentiment of what the project is trying to achieve. “We know it’s not the reef it was 10 years ago,” she acknowledges, “but we do still have the opportunity to have a functional GBR.” So, what reef managers, scientists and tourism operators are now talking about, she says, is building the “resilience” of the GBR, so that it’s in the best possible shape to handle the menace of climate change. And that means limiting other threats facing it, while the world waits for politicians to commit to reducing emissions and ensure those levels are achieved.

Andy agrees. We need to ensure farmers aren’t clear-felling trees, and stop nutrients and fertilisers from agricultural land, sewage farms and cities reaching the reef’s waters, he says. “And we really don’t need massive new coal ports dredged along the coast,” he adds, pointing to infrastructure for the contentious Adani coalmine being considered for central Queensland.

Professor Justin Marshall agrees it’s too early to write off the reef. He too has faith in the resilience of nature to respond to the crisis, and supports a multi-pronged response. As a neurophysiologist at the Queensland Brain Institute he has long been interested in what reef animals tell us about the development of the senses, particularly colour vision. And after diving on the GBR for decades he’s developed a strong connection to its coral and the weird and wonderful creatures that depend on it. He’s also chief investigator and project leader with CoralWatch and agrees that reducing nutrient and sediment run-off in river catchments flowing into the GBR is critical.

“But I’ve got two takes on what’s happening scientifically,” Justin says. “Sure, I think as much money as possible should be thrown at the reef, and any possible positive action that’s being taken should be done. So, let’s genetically engineer it, let’s transplant it, let’s shade it… But none of that is going to fix the problem if we continue to have the bleaching we’ve had. If that isn’t stopped, the reef will be dead in 50 years and that’s very clear.” His money is on putting efforts into renewable energy and losing the coal industry: “Australia, as caretaker of the world’s biggest area of reef, needs to step up and take a lead on the world stage about this.”

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White eggs discovered inside the Acropora coral. (Image Credit: AIMS)

DESPITE ALL THE talk of science and politics, Peter Gash feels that the power to save the GBR rests with ordinary people the world over. Peter is the owner-operator of the tourist facilities on Lady Elliot Island, which he’s set up as an exemplar of a reef-saving lifestyle. It runs almost entirely on renewable energy and any waste that can’t be recycled is reduced to a minimum. Peter recalls his days as a cash-strapped kid in the 1980s when he first fell in love with the reef. Now a successful businessman with an ever-watchful eye on company finances, he says it made clear economic sense to run Lady Elliot sustainably. Peter is also now a member of the tourism reef advisory committee that advises GBRMPA and was involved in the Managing for Resilience Reef Summit held by scientists and managers in Townsville in May 2017. His love and enthusiasm for the GBR is infectious, and he sees himself as one of many privileged caretakers of a global asset, which is how he believes all Australians should feel about the reef. While he’s not a scientist, his perspective does draw on a lifetime of experience and observations to provide an insightful, accessible overview of a complex crisis; an overview that’s becoming increasingly sought after.

Starting more than a century ago, “We were doing things here that we shouldn’t have been, although we didn’t know any better,” Peter says, explaining that agricultural, urban and industrial developments within the catchments of the rivers leading into the reef have all played a role. These have been the “death of a thousand cuts – farming, roads, buildings, cities, developments, ploughing up land, cutting down mangroves,” he says. “It’s not one person’s fault or one thing. It was not one killer punch that led the Barrier Reef to where it is now.”

He used to say we need a thousand Band-Aids to fix it. Now he’s calling for a global response and “a million green actions”. He means that every personal contribution – whether it’s switching off a light, taking a bus instead of driving a car, or picking up litter on a beach – will make a difference.

“Your influence is there; mine is there,” Peter says. “It all matters, and it will all contribute to saving the reef.