Is it time for the Great Southern Reef?

By Shea Patey | September 29, 2015

Scientists call for a name for Australia’s southern temperate reef system.

EVER HEARD OF the Great Southern Reef? Don’t feel bad if you haven’t, it’s never officially been named. The epithet has been proposed by a team of marine scientists from across the nation, who are seeking to give the temperate reefs fringing Australia’s southern coastline a stronger identity. 

“The Great Southern Reef does not stand out in people’s minds as something connected, magnificent, unique or valuable in the same way as other iconic ecosystems, such as the Murray-Darling or the Great Barrier Reef,” says Dr Thomas Wernberg, one of the lead scientists behind the proposal at the University of Western Australia.

“Identity is a first and essential step in establishing a presence that people can relate to and care about” he says.

As detailed in a paper in the journal Marine Freshwater Research, this giant reef system stretches from Kalbarri in Western Australia, all the way around the south of the continent, to northern New South Wales, encompassing 8100km of coastline.

Protecting the Great Southern Reef’s kelp communities

Unlike the coral-dominated Great Barrier Reef, in the tropical waters of northern Queensland, the Great Southern Reef contains rocky reefs dominated by forests of kelp – large brown-green seaweeds that prefer cooler waters and protect entire ecosystems shaded by their canopies.

These kelp forests are a haven for other seaweeds, sponges, crustaceans, molluscs and some of Australia’s most beautiful creatures, like the weedy seadragon – and they still have tens of thousands of species which are yet to be described.

Currently they are faced with a number of challenges, with evidence suggesting that rising sea temperatures are slowly pushing temperate seaweed communities further south, and putting one-quarter of them at threat of extinction. 

They are also among the most productive ecosystems on the planet, exceeding that of the most intensively managed agricultural systems. Because of this they provide ample fodder for research into alternative energy production, among other things.

The Great Southern Reef also represents an important asset for the Australian economy, generating at least $10 billion annually. “To our knowledge this is the first time anyone has attempted to estimate the value of the Great Southern Reef,” Thomas says. “Perhaps this is a consequence of the lack of an identity.”

The Great Southern Reefs identitiy crisis

Unlike the Great Barrier Reef, the various ecosystems that would make up the Great Southern Reef are currently managed at state level.

“Many of the strongest pressures on the Great Southern Reef are broad-scale in nature, and know no state boundaries,” Thomas adds. “An identity will promote thinking and management of the system as a whole, which is particularly important when recognising the extent of oceanographic, ecological and evolutionary connectedness across the reef”.

Not everyone is convinced, however. While acknowledging the magnificence and importance of our southern kelp forests conservation director for the World Wildlife Fund Australia, Gilly Llewellyn, believes that the name may need some more thought. “In the public mind, the term “reef” applies to tropical ecosystems dominated by coral,” she says.

However, this view is no surprise to Thomas, “public perception of what constitutes a reef, is indeed part of the problem” he says, “our research shows that up to 99% of all reef-related media coverage is focused on coral reefs, even in states hundreds of kilometres away from them. But, [to scientists] ‘reefs’ are more broadly defined and also include rocks at temperate or polar latitudes”.