Tagged: Great Barrier Reef Foundation

The great broken promise of the Great Barrier Reef

Tourist cities are built on a promise. When you step off the plane into the soupy air of Cairns in Far North Queensland, you cross the tarmac into a long corridor leading to the exit lounge, filled wall-to-wall with images of World Heritage-listed tropical rainforest and, especially, of the state’s crowning glory: The Great Barrier Reef.

They are stills of the postcards and documentaries of our childhoods. A blooming underwater botanic garden, except that the corals are animals, living in hopelessly co-dependent relationships with each other. And everything living there depends on them too: the giant eels lurking in crevices; the anemone fish, now forever known in our imaginations as Nemo.

But what if the promise was broken?

In 2016 and 2017, the northern and central sections of the 2300km-long reef were devastated by coral bleaching caused by heat stress. Nearly a third (30 percent) of the coral died in the 2016 event alone. A confronting new report released by the Climate Council last Thursday claimed that by 2034, the reef could be hit by similar bleaching events every two years.

Around 75 percent of that mortality occurred in the waters from Port Douglas to Torres Strait. Owing to its remoteness, this was previously the most pristine section of the marine park, the least affected by other threats to its health: mainly soil run-off from agricultural communities further south. The additional nutrients in the water smother the inshore reefs and promotes infestations of predatory crown-of-thorns starfish.

During the heatwave, the corals simply cooked. It’s what leads the Climate Council’s acting CEO Martin Rice to describe the federal government’s recent awarding of $444 million to little-known NGO the Great Barrier Reef Foundation – with the immediate aims of improving water quality and culling starfish – as the equivalent of putting “a bandaid on a severed limb”.

“Unless you address the root cause of bleaching and the biggest threat to the reef itself, climate change, then these programs on water quality and so forth are going to have very little impact,” Rice says. “The future of coral reefs around the world depends on how quickly and deeply we can reduce our greenhouse gas emissions in the coming years.”

According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, more than half a billion people around the world depend on coral reefs for food, income (via fisheries and tourism) and coastal protection from cyclones and storm surges. Other estimates place the number at closer to a billion.

The NOAA has also warned that without urgent action, the earth’s coral reefs may be obliterated by 2050.

Until it warms in my wetsuit, the water is unexpectedly cold. I’m on the outer reef offshore from Port Douglas, on the edge of the worst-hit section of the marine park. This is where some of the best of David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II series was filmed in 2015 – before the bleaching – and in it the great broadcaster declared the natural wonder as being in grave danger.

Along with a group of enthusiastic tourists, I follow the guide from the boat across the corals. Near the surface are plate-like structures, which readily absorb sunlight. Lower down are boulders textured like giant brains. The boulders have clearly fared better than the plates, but it’s been close to 30 years since I last visited the reef and I’m not entirely sure what to look for.

Our guide dives to point out a staghorn coated with a thin film of algae, and draws her finger across her throat. Then she points to another and raises her thumb. Some of the staghorns are brilliant blue or purple: a sign of stress. Others have crumbled to the seafloor and are settling upon the sand.

But the picture is not entirely gloomy. She finds us an anemone and sure enough, Nemo appears within its fronds. I can almost hear the sucking in of oxygen from half a dozen snorkels, a collective inhalation of delight. A green turtle flaps past. “Hamish”, a metre-long hump-headed Maori wrasse clearly used to visitors, hangs off the boat.

We tour three locations, all within a couple of nautical miles. In between, another guide gives us a talk which acknowledges the challenges facing the reef. Not all tourist operators do this. She explains the symbiotic relationship between coral and zooxanthellae, single-celled organisms that live within the coral and photosynthesise to produce its nourishment.

Under heat stress, though, this co-dependent relationship turns literally toxic. The corals expel the algae, which have transformed from a food source to a poison, leaving the white calcium carbonate skeleton exposed. Unless the water cools sufficiently quickly for the corals to take the algae back, they starve.

The guide struggles to find a balance between the scale of the struggle taking place below the surface and positivity. She tells us the reef is doing OK, that’s it’s not dead, and that healthy corals are seed-banks, which will spawn and travel to regenerate those that have declined.

But she also tells us about soil run-off, and starfish, and increased cyclones, as well as bleaching. It is, she says, a death of a thousand cuts, but that we shouldn’t fret, and that there’s plenty we can do, including reducing our plastic waste — water bottles, straws, coffee cups, and single-use bags.

Which is all true, but none of these things reduce the cause of bleaching: the rising temperature in the atmosphere and the oceans.

Someone asks her about Adani’s proposed Carmichael coal mine in the Galilee Basin further south. She says it’s hard to answer, but that overall, it’s not a good thing, and that we should be investing in renewables. That many things are reducing the reef’s resilience, and the mine is just another of those thousand cuts.

As we’re coming back to shore, I speak to Doron, who asked about the mine. He’s 50 and here with his family from Melbourne. “I think I had negative expectations, because everyone’s talking about coral bleaching, and I thought I was going to see a lot of dead coral,” he says. “But it exceeded my expectations. It’s probably some of the most beautiful coral I’ve ever seen.”

He describes their day out as “extremely satisfying, so rewarding. I saw sea turtles out there; I saw a shark. How much more exciting can it get?”

Nicole, a middle-aged woman from Florida is also here with her family. She’s previously snorkelled at home and in the Bahamas. Compared to that, she says, the Great Barrier Reef is “just spectacular. It’s in so much better condition that I thought it was going to be, based on all the press, but the variety and amount of coral and different species of fish, I was really pleased.”

Brooke and Dean are a young couple from Texas. They say the reef has been the highlight of their Australian visit. They’d been told to see it while they could.

“My dad was like, ‘The reef is dying! You’ll have to go, see it while you’re out there!’” Brooke says.

“It’s been a pretty extraordinary day,” Dean says. “It was pretty, what we saw … I got to swim with a turtle, and that’s going to stand above, for me.”

“And I got to see Nemo, finally,” Brooke says.

For them, the promise has been kept.

John Rumney, managing director of non-profit organisation Great Barrier Reef Legacy, shakes his head in frustration. “If you go out there and talk with the tourists that come off the boats, they will say, ‘That’s the best thing I’ve ever done!’” he says. “They just don’t know what they’re missing.”

Rumney has been working on and studying the reef for 40 years, operating Eye-To-Eye Marine Encounters with his wife Linda. He’s acutely aware of the necessity to mobilise the tourist industry in support of its own livelihood. “If we say the reef is dead, tourism is dead, then there’s no money for saving anything,” he says.

Let’s be clear, then. The Great Barrier Reef is not dead. But the figures are dire: in 2012 the Australian Institute of Marine Science estimated it had lost 50 percent of its coral cover in the previous 27 years, with 48 percent of the loss attributed to storm damage, 42 percent to predation by crown-of-thorns outbreaks, and 10 percent to bleaching.

That was before the bleaching events of 2016 and 2017, which may have killed off as much as half of what remained. But the figures, as sobering as they are, don’t paint the full kaleidoscopic picture of what you see up close when you’re in the water.

It’s easy to think of the reef, which stretches from the top of Torres Strait to roughly Bundaberg in south central Queensland, as a contiguous mass of coral. It’s not. Rather, it consists of nearly 3,000 individual reefs and hundreds more islands, atolls and cays, ranging from close inshore to mid-shelf, out to the edge of the Coral Sea.

Dr Dean Miller, director of science and media for Great Barrier Reef Legacy, says it’s home to up to around 450 species of corals, 1,500 species of fish, and 4,000 species of mollusc. It also hosts a variety of reptiles, including sea turtles and snakes, and provides breeding and nursery grounds for migrating minke and humpback whales during the winter and spring.

“It’s an extremely complex environment, and we don’t even understand how all those complexities work, so trying to unravel how we can save the reef is quite difficult, because we’re only just learning now the mechanisms of bleaching itself,” Miller says. “We need to maintain that diversity if we are going to save the Great Barrier Reef as we know it.”

Rumney describes the impact of the gradual decline of the reef on those who have spent their lives on it: “We’d have crown-of-thorns [outbreaks], we’d have a cyclone, and it would recover … And then we had the first big bleaching event in 1998, and that was a bit of an alarm bell – wake up! – but we still only had minimal mortality, 5 percent.

“But the 2016 [bleaching] was shocking. You came out here and those reefs that you’d loved and been visiting for all those years were just white … It was incredibly emotional to see something that you’d spent thousands and thousands of hours immersed in changed so radically.

“By 2017, many of us who had been out here for decades … Basically we went through a depression. I don’t know that there’s any comparable thing that people can experience on land, unless it’s a bushfire.

“What’s really important to remember is that there’s still pockets of healthy reef, and if we manage our emissions, then the reef will survive. If we keep putting CO2 into the [atmosphere] and the water temperature keeps rising, then what escaped last time may not escape next time.”

The next day I’m back out on the water with the same tourist operator and one of the same guides, visiting the exact same location. Hamish the wrasse is waiting for us again. This time, though, I’m with Rumney and Miller, as well as the Climate Council’s Martin Rice and professor Lesley Hughes, an ecologist from Macquarie University.

With them, I see things I didn’t notice the first time around. Some of the plate corals have broken off and begun to collapse. There are also things I don’t see: for example, I can’t find a single anemone. Or Nemo.

Broken down to its millions of constituent parts, suddenly the fragility of this enormous living structure is exposed. “Their skeletons stay there for a while, but they gradually become brittle over time, just like people growing older,” Hughes says. “They get much more susceptible to storms and wave action or people hitting them with flippers, and eventually they crumble and fall over.”

Hughes (no relation to the James Cook University professor Terry Hughes, arguably the most prominent scientist to document the bleaching phenomenon) says that this is her third visit to this particular reef in three years, and that “there’s a lot less fish here than I’ve seen in the past”.

“The coral not only provides food for lots of things, it provides a really complex habitat, and within that habitat there are a lot of different niches, and all of those other things – be they sea urchins or sea cucumbers or starfish – you just can’t see any of them,” she says.

The Climate Council’s report says that coral mortality has reduced the availability of habitat for fish. At Lizard Island, further north off Cooktown, there has been a 40 percent decline in juveniles.

She speaks of the ramifications. “That has flow-on effects on tourism obviously, but also on people around the world that gain their protein from reef fish, especially in developing countries, which is a huge part of their diet. So not only is it a tragic loss of environmental amenity, it’s also a loss of human amenity.

We move on to another healthier site, less than 15 minutes away. When we get in the water, it’s like a miracle has been revealed to us. The plate corals are stacked high like enormous piles of dishes. There are hundreds more fish of every discernible hue, munching on the coral. The staghorn forests are healthier, neither white nor fluorescent but filled with the simple greenish-brown of the zooxanthellae inside them. A turtle, seemingly bored by our curiosity, rests idly on the seafloor beneath our reach. It can hold its breath down there for hours.

I ask Miller how there can be such a dramatic difference between two reefs so close together. He points to the crashing waves of the ocean behind us, just beyond the reef’s fringe. “We’ve got a big gap into the Coral Sea, right there,” he says. “I’m guessing as the water floods on an incoming tide, and pushes in here, it cools things down.

“Whereas it misses that other site, so it just sits there and stagnates and cooks. You get some sites that are spared through the biogeography and the physics of the water. So you’ll have some reefs, even parts of reefs, that are in quite good condition and other parts that get absolutely nailed.”

John Edmondson, owner of Wavelength Reef Cruises – the longest-running reef tourism operation in Port Douglas – says the reef’s patchy nature can confuse visitors: “With a cyclone, you can move your mooring maybe 100 metres and the reef in one area has been flattened by waves … Further around the corner it’s just fine.”

He says the tourism industry liaises constantly with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the statutory body tasked with protecting the reef and advising the government about its health, to ensure visitors still have the best chance of experiencing the wonder promised by the postcards and tourist brochures.

But there is intense competition, and only so many sites where operators can moor their boats. “It’s more difficult with bleaching, because the effects might be much more widely spread,” he says. “It’s not yet got to the stage where we we’ve had to sort out people relocating moorings en masse, but that would be really difficult.

“Basically, if you went out to the reef five years ago it would generally be good and you’d find some bad patches. Now it’s generally not very good, but you can find some really good patches. If you had all the different operators wanting to pick a few good areas, it would obviously be really complicated how to manage them.”

The Great Barrier Reef directly employs 64,000 people, contributing $6 billion annually to the Australian economy.

“If you have a site that you have heavy bleaching on and that is your only tourism product, then you’re going to have to move or you’re not going to have a very good product,” Miller says. “If tourism operators are to adapt with the conditions, they’re going to have to get ready for altering what they do.”

The tourism industry is only just beginning to flex its considerable economic muscle over the imminent threat to its livelihood. Up to now, it’s been reluctant. The grim and sometimes inaccurate picture painted by the media has created mistrust. “If you’ve got millions of dollars invested in boats and buses and you need to keep taking people to the reef, then you’re going to be quite hesitant about speaking up,” Miller says.

“And because it is so patchy on a local scale, you can have one operator that has a really badly impacted site and another that doesn’t. So can you talk about a region generically? As tourism operators it’s important that we speak as one voice, and I don’t think there’s anyone out there that doesn’t now agree that we do have a problem on our hands.”

John Rumney puts it in starker terms.

“Imagine you have your favourite forest, just colour it 50 percent dead,” he says. “Or say you go out in your garden and all of a sudden everything’s turned white and 50 percent of it dies – you go, oh, something’s wrong, I’d better call somebody to fix this, I’d better learn something about this.

“We’re on the verge of an ecological system failure. What does that mean for our food security? It’s a major social issue. People are going to be starving, there are going to be refugees.

“That’s why we need the science, but we need the community embracing the science and going, that’s my Barrier Reef, let’s save it, and in so doing we’ll save the reefs of the world. Like, this is the canary in the coal mine.

“We need to wake up, or we’re going to have the collapse of the food chain for a billion people. It symbolises the collapse of our ecosystems, which I hope people wake up and realise. Conservation is longer a luxury, it’s part of our health budget.”

First published in BuzzFeed, 9 July 2018. The Climate Council paid for flights and some costs.

How did the Great Barrier Reef Foundation “win lotto”?

It was a classic piece of public relations. A week before the budget, the federal government announced it was committing half a billion dollars to the ailing Great Barrier Reef, with the immediate aims of enhancing water quality, culling outbreaks of invasive crown-of-thorns starfish and boosting scientific research funds that might aid the reef’s “resilience”.

There was no mention of climate change. That should not be surprising. The Turnbull government remains at war with itself over climate and energy policy, with many of its own members openly derisive of climate science and questioning Australia’s commitment to the Paris Agreement to keep rises in global average temperatures to below 2 degrees Celsius.

That cohort predictably includes former prime minister Tony Abbott and his backers.

Publicly, the government is still supportive of Adani’s Carmichael coal mine, and remains roiled over the future of AGL’s Liddell power station, with pro-coal MPs urging Malcolm Turnbull to change competition laws to force the company to sell the station.

Turnbull and his environment minister, Josh Frydenberg, are walking a tightrope: trying not to poke the bear on the party’s right flank by reassuring regional Queensland of its continuing support of coal, while confronting the dire state of the reef and the many more jobs, and seats, which may be in peril on the basis of current trends.

In the last few days, we’ve found out where the government’s money to aid the reef is being directed. It’s not going to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the statutory body that’s entrusted with the reef’s custodianship and advises the government on its care and protection.

Nor is it going to the Australian Institute of Marine Science, or the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies. Instead, it’s going to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, a body with six full-time staff and five part-time staff, which generated a turnover of less than $8 million last year.

The body is focused on business cooperation. By its own description, the foundation “started with a small group of businessmen chatting at the airport while waiting for their flight, wanting to do something to help the Great Barrier Reef”. When asked, the government was not immediately able to say who these businessmen were.

The move to direct more than $443 million to this small foundation was so left-field it caught even its beneficiaries off guard. The foundation had not applied for the funds. “It’s like we’ve won lotto,” chief executive Anna Marsden told Fairfax’s Peter Hannam. “We’re getting calls from a lot of friends.”

Marsden said the organisation was seeking advice on how to cope with the sudden influx of funds.

In the past few days of Senate estimates hearings, more serious questions have been raised. There was no competitive tender process, and thus no opportunity for the government’s own scientific agencies to apply for the funds.

As Labor senator Kristina Keneally summed up: “I am trying to understand how [the] greatest single contribution from the government to the Great Barrier Reef in Australian history went to one foundation without a tender process, without advertising, without a competitive process and, it would seem, without an invitation from the government to the foundation to apply.”

To that end, Labor has lodged a Freedom of Information request. Others have pointed to the foundation’s links to corporate Australia, including fossil fuel behemoths BHP, Shell and Peabody Energy, as well as key banking figures.

“God help the Barrier Reef,” was the blunt response of the Professor Terry Hughes, director of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, who has been indefatigable in his scorn for untested scientific solutions such as sun-shields, underwater fans and anything that fails to address the core issues of global warming and immediate decarbonising of the economy.

Similarly, acting chief executive of the Climate Council, Dr Martin Rice, described the focus on water quality and culling starfish as “a golden Band-Aid solution, because it’s not really getting to the root cause of the problem with the bleaching, and that’s climate change.

“When you look at emissions, we’ve had three years of emissions rising in Australia, and any true test of effective climate policy comes down to whether our emissions are going up or down. So there is no credible energy or climate policy in Australia … [Our] emission reduction targets of 28 percent are woefully inadequate; they’re not aligned with the science,” he said.

“If the world was to go with Australia’s Paris commitments we would be on target for a three-to-four degree [increase in temperature] and that’s devastating. We’re not going to see our iconic Great Barrier Reef survive that. And that’s not just an environmental issue; it’s an economic one.”

But not everyone is in agreement about the foundation’s ability to deliver. Its website lists the CSIRO, the Smithsonian Institute and many of Australia’s sandstone universities as research collaborators, and its International Scientific Advisory Committee also includes GBRMPA chair Russell Reichelt.

Also on the committee is Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, a professor of marine science and director of the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland. As far back as 1999, Hoegh-Guldberg predicted that the Barrier Reef would lose most of its coral cover by 2040, a claim that caused considerable controversy at the time.

“The shock to me of having predicted in 1999 that the reef was in trouble was to actually live it over the last three years, and it’s not only the reef that we should be worried about,” he says. “It’s the impact that we’re now seeing across ecosystems which we depend on. There’s real questions about food security.”

Ten days before the government’s announcement, the scale of the threat to the Great Barrier Reef – and the calamity it has already experienced – was brutally spelled out in a new paper published by Nature, which The Atlantic described as “a kind of autopsy report for the debacle”.

Terry Hughes was the lead author of a team of 16 international researchers. The paper reported that over the course of the summers of 2016 and 2017, the reef experienced bleaching so severe that one in two of the corals had died. Usually, this happens slowly. When subjected to heat stress, coral species expel the algae which both provides them with their colour and with nourishment. If the algae doesn’t return quickly to recolonise the corals, they starve.

In the waters around and north of Port Douglas, previously the most pristine section of the park, the water was so hot that the corals died almost instantly. “They cooked,” Hughes said.

“You could say it has collapsed. You could say it has degraded. I wouldn’t say that’s wrong,” Hughes told The Atlantic. “A more neutral way of putting it is that it has transformed into a completely new system that looks differently, and behaves differently, and functions differently, than how it was three years ago.”

Hoegh-Guldberg doesn’t disagree with any of that, but he says that such a dire situation calls for outside-the-square thinking. “The downturn in the reef’s health has been rather dramatic, so we’ve got to start to do things differently,” he says. “I think it’s a welcome addition to what we need to do to solve this problem.”

Hoegh-Guldberg has an edge of desperation in his voice when he speaks to me. I put this directly to him. “That’s a very fair reading,” he agrees.

Hoegh-Guldberg is one of Australia’s most respected marine biologists. He is quick to point out that he sits on the Great Barrier Reef Foundation’s advisory committee. But while political questions remain over the funding, and why it was directed to this small body, he argues the urgency of the situation means the reef’s defenders must work with what they have.

“I think it’s wake-up time. This is not some sort of green-washing exercise by industry. I would not be associated with this if it was. People who are not involved may be sniping, and scientists are very good at that, so I think we just have to have a level mind here. This is an unusual time that is needing a very unusual solution.

“What we have to realise is, there’s no way we’re going to solve this problem by not involving industry. We’ve got to turn this ship around by going into the helm and working with all players, and if we have the right governance then I don’t think that the things people are fearful of will eventuate.”

Hoegh-Guldberg is also positive about scientific approaches to anything that could help get the reef through while the climate might be stabilised. “I think there’s some really serious interest in whether or not you can introduce gently, over decades, heat-tolerant corals, and the jury’s out on whether that’s going to work and we need to know whether that can be done.

“The normal way science would go would be, ideas would be bubbling to the surface, then PhDs would be done. Then scientists would eventually write papers and it would be maybe five to 10 years before you had ideas in place to design technical solutions and so on. We don’t have that time.”

Reichelt also looked for a positive angle on the funding. He issued a press release saying it was a “game changer”. Alongside the $443.3 million going to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, his authority is getting the balance of $42.7 million over the next six years for its joint field management program.

“This is a hugely positive outcome for the Great Barrier Reef and comes at a critical time after back-to-back mass coral bleaching triggered by the increasing pressure of global warming,” Reichelt said.

“We’re delighted to continue working with the Great Barrier Reef Foundation as they explore the possibilities this funding provides, including opportunities to seek co-funding from investors to add to this investment.”

Significant questions remain about the Turnbull government’s motivations and its processes. The funding allocation remains deeply curious. Again we see the federal government outsourcing what would normally be the work of a government agency to a private body. It is likely the Great Barrier Reef Foundation will be spending its newfound money before we know why it was chosen to receive it. But for at least some of scientists involved, that may be a good thing.