On this day: Great Barrier Reef protected

By Campbell Phillips November 7, 2013
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For 36 years, the Great Barrier Reef has been protected under the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975.

AUSTRALIA’S ICONIC Great Barrier Reef boasts the largest coral system in the world and rivals tropical rainforests in terms of the number of species it comprises. However, the legislation that now protects the Reef wasn’t created because of the beauty or uniqueness of the place. Instead, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 was passed as a response to the apparent fragility of the coral system, at a time when it was becoming clear that industry was having a significantly negative impact on the area.

Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, director of the Global Climate Change Institute and Foundation and Professor at the Centre for Marine Studies at the University of Queensland, has been visiting the park in an academic capacity since he was an undergraduate, only a few years after the area was made a regulated marine park.

“From a scientific perspective, when you go snorkelling on the reef you can see all kinds of fish and coral, and this goes to the heart of why it was made a park in the first place,” Ove says. “There is no other place like it on planet Earth.”

The passing of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 was marked a world-first, because never before had there been a move to protect such a large marine habitat. Even today, the 344,000 sq.km park remains the largest of its kind in the world.

A doomed ecosystem

Thanks to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975, potentially damaging activities, such as trawler fishing and shipping, are prohibited around the reefs, however this ecosystem still faces serious environmental threats.

“There have been reports of mass coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef since the early 1980s,” Ove says. “The backdrop to this is the steadily and rapidly increasing water temperatures throughout the Coral Sea.”

Unfortunately, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has very little control over rising sea temperatures. They face a difficult situation whereby the ecosystem they’re working so hard to protect is being affected by wider climate issues.

But there is still time, Ove says. “I think that it is important to realise that we still have time to make the changes to stop this happening, but what that requires is a massive effort from industry and our political leadership.”