What the Great Barrier Reef Does for Us

Stretching some 2,300 kilometres over 14 degrees of latitude, the Great Barrier Reef lying off Australia’s east coast is the largest reef system in existence.  Hugely complex, the Reef supports among others some 3,000 species of mollusc, 1,625 species of fish, 600 soft and hard corals, 133 species of sharks and rays, and more than 30 species of whales and dolphins.  The Reef is also used by people, originally by Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders for food and materials, then by Europeans for both its resources and tourism.  In response to a political row over mining rights on the Reef, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act was introduced in 1975, its primary objective “to provide for the long-term protection and conservation of the environment, biodiversity and heritage values of the Great Barrier Reef Region”.  The introduction of the park was heralded a success, an exemplar of marine protection that allowed well-managed human use of such a complex and delicate ecosystem.  In 1981 it received UNESCO World Heritage status for its “outstanding universal value”. 

It was the first reef ecosystem to receive World Heritage status, but times have changed for the Reef. In 2012 Dr Glenn De’ath, principal research scientist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, lead a damming piece of research.  Between 1985 and 2012, 50.7% of the Reefs initial hard coral cover had declined, primarily as a result of tropical cyclone activity (48% of the mortality), outbreaks of the carnivorous crown-of-thorns starfish (Acanthaster planci) (42% of the mortality), and bleaching (where the corals lose their symbiotic zooxanthellae, 10% of the mortality).  Crown-of-thorns outbreaks are closely linked to poor water quality and high nutrient loads in the Reef, resulting from the clearing, farming, and urbanization of water catchments, and increasing variability in rainfall associated with climate change.  Warming waters increases bleaching events, and ocean acidification reduces coral growth rates. Last year researchers Dr Hampus Eriksson and Dr Maria Byrne from Stockholm University and University of Sydney respectively reported serial depletion of holothurian (sea cucumbers) species taken for the Queensland East Coast beche-de-mer fishery, demonstrating that some of the fisheries allowed in the Park may not be as well-managed as we may hope.  More recently talks of dumping dredge spoil near the Reef, and the development of a series of mega-ports in Queensland, including associated shipping developments and routes through the Reef has garnered public outrage.  Next year UNESCO will decide if they will list the Reef as ‘in danger’.

The Australian/Queensland Government’s draft ‘Reef 2050 long-term sustainability plan’ has been debased by the Australian Academy of Science, noting that “while the draft plan acknowledges the greatest risks to the Reef are ‘climate change, poor water quality from land-based run off, impacts from coastal development and some fishing activities’, it fails to effectively address any of these pressures”.  “The science is clear”, Professor Terry Hughes, Director of the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, “the Reef is degraded and its condition is worsening. This is a plan that won’t restore the Reef, it won’t even maintain it in its already diminished state”.  But does it matter?  Sure, the Reef has intrinsic value, but what has the Reef ever done for us?

The full article was published in – and can be read in – The Marine Professional, a publication of the Institute of Marine Engineering, Science & Technology (IMarEST).

Image: Scuba In The Great Barrier Reef, Michaelmas Cay. Credit The.Rohit/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)