Is there hope for the Great Barrier Reef?

Photo by Francesco Ungaro on

This week I was fortunate enough to go snorkelling on  the Great Barrier Reef – a place that has been on my radar for a long time for more than one reason.

Climate change is the single greatest threat to the Reef. The Australian Institute of Marine Science, a government agency, began monitoring Earth’s largest reef system 36 years ago. Rising temperatures causing underwater heat waves have triggered coral grave bleaching events.

Last year UNESCO threatened last year to add the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) to a the “in danger” list. The Reef Snapshot of summer 2021-22 shows that extreme temperatures have contributed to the sixth mass coral bleaching event on the GBR since 1998, with 91% of the Reef between Cape Tribulation and the Whitsundays bleached (but still alive).

The state of the Reef has been cause for concern for several decades now. I was feeling a little melancholic about what I might encounter on the boat over to the Frankland Islands.

We visited Normanby Island and the reef off this particular Island is quite healthy. In fact, the last coral bleaching event on Frankland Island for reef wide coral cover was in 2015, and since, in these parts reef recovery is doing well. Therein lies hope!

The guides are doing a lot for education of the Reef, the effects of climate change, other sources of pollution and bleaching like agriculture and nearby industry, and highlighting the importance of seeing what a healthy reef looks like and how we can protect it. Frankland Islands involves visitors in scientific research data collection on marine species, reef damage, debris overall health via an app Eye on the Reef and Rapid Monitoring Surveys.

Of course, there is a lot more that can be done like substantive widespread global action on climate change to mitigate warming beyond the Reef’s limits, limiting tourist numbers further, addressing water quality, swapping out for more ecologically sound transport options, and much more. While the Reef that I experienced was particularly healthy, this was just one reef of over 2,300km of marine park. The GBR system is so large that it can be spotted from space.

The GBR needs to be added to the list of world heritage sites “in danger”. We need urgent radical action on climate, and we also cannot underestimate  the impact of education and awareness.

The fact is, the GBR needs to be added to the list of world heritage sites “in danger”. When a site is listed as “in danger” the host nation receives assistance to deal with conditions that threaten the values of the site. In return the country (in the case Australia) has a responsibility to adopt all reasonable measures to mitigate threats. This is where we are stuck given Australia’s lack of climate commitment.

In May the Albanese government pledged $1.2 billion in reef preservation and restoration by 2030. It’s a start, but it needs to be coupled with greater emissions reductions. Opening up new extractive coal and gas projects will undo any positive action.

As individuals we can also play our part in more generalised ways such as taking action on climate change, but also in ways specific to Reef tourism. Being in contact with nature is one of the best ways to drive a sense of responsibility for it. So, visiting the GBR is an important tool in understanding the impacts the climate and human activity is having on it. In doing so we can avoid overtourism and parts of the Reef that have been blatantly commercialised without regard for the negative environmental consequences, and support tourism that helps regenerate the Reef through research, conservation and monitoring.

I believe conservation starts with education and awareness, but like all action on sustainability and climate change, it requires the cooperation of all.