The Great Barrier Reef: one of the most exquisite gems that we have on this planet. Home to a diverse array of tropical marine life, over two million people visit this breathtakingly beautiful destination per year. For now, it seems inconceivable to imagine the earth without it, yet recent concerns have brought doubt over the future of the reef.
In November last year, President Obama presented the problem to a global audience, urging the Australian Government to do more to preserve the earth’s natural heritage. He voiced concerns that the reef will otherwise become a destination that his grandchildren will be unable to see – a harrowing thought for us all. The size of the reef has halved in the past 30 years and it is evident that immediate action must be taken; the UNESCO World Heritage Committee has threatened to list the Great Barrier Reef as ‘in danger’, with a decision to be made early this year.
Australian Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, disputed Obama’s claims despite evidence that the Queensland Government is not stepping up to its responsibilities. The Government is subsidising a mine-to-port railway, which would expand the major coal port located adjacent to the reef. An expansion would lead to an increase in dredging and shipping, directly affecting marine life. Shipping traffic is predicted to increase by 480 ships per year, potentially exposing the reef to further pollution and waste, altering the water’s chemistry.
The UNESCO World Heritage Committee has threatened to list the Great Barrier Reef as ‘in danger’, with a decision to be made early this year
Australia’s attitude towards the coal industry in general is a cause for concern. The rise in coal exports will produce destructive carbon emissions whilst also driving down coal prices, encouraging the world to use coal over less damaging renewable fuels. It seems that Australia is behind the times with their practices; many US banks have refused to invest in any further developments within the reef. A further worrying factor is that the organisation in charge of conservation, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, is facing budget cuts meaning the number of people designated to look after the reef is dwindling.
It’s only fair to acknowledge that Australia is taking steps to protect the reef, but it may be a case of too little too late. Debates over the controversial issue of dredging led to a new bill banning the practice within the World Heritage Site for the next 10 years. Dredging can smother marine life and cause coral diseases, so this is a positive move in the right direction.
Water acidification, coral bleaching and rising sea temperatures are problems that we are creating through our behaviour around the world
It’s not only the Government’s actions that are threatening the existence of the reef. The Crown-of-thorns starfish feeds on the reef’s coral and is responsible for half of the corals’ decline in the past 30 years. Tourism is also detrimental, with careless visitors dropping anchors onto the coral and resorts emptying waste into the sea.
The Government has implemented the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan, outlining how they will improve the situation. However, critics have noted that the plan does not focus on climate change at all- the biggest factor destroying the reef. Of course, the problem of climate change is a responsibility worldwide. Water acidification, coral bleaching and rising sea temperatures are problems that we are creating through our behaviour around the world.
Will the reef survive? There is evidence that coral can acclimatise and adapt to more acidic conditions, it’s true that the reef is one of the most resilient tropical marine ecosystems in the world. But this may not be enough; we need to work on a global scale to save this wonderfully unique environment, not push it as far as it can go. The more threats we present, the less resilient it will become.
Image courtesy of Richard Ling via Flickr