Are our reefs repairable?

Errol Kerr writes his eulogy to the Great Barrier Reef but explains how the end may not necessarily be the end

31st October 2016

The world went into hysterics when Outside Magazine published an obituary for the Great Barrier Reef on the 11th of October. In May, surveys revealed that in the northernmost section of the reef, about 35% of coral has been killed off after environmental impacts have left the reef unable to thrive.

Claiming “The Great Barrier Reef of Australia passed away in 2016 after a long illness,” the article sparked off a notable, and heated, argument between environmentalists who claim the Reef is beyond repair, and scientists who feel there is still a chance for recovery.

The Reef itself is an extraordinary part of the natural world. One of the largest living structures on the planet, the expansive coral system is home to more than 1500 species of fish, 125 species of sharks and rays and near 5000 mollusc species, amongst many more. The islands surrounding the reef are again home to over 200 species of birds, and the Reef is used as a mass breeding ground for mammalian, avian and aquatic life.

Since 1985, however, the reef itself has lost more than half of its cover of coral, leading to increasing concerns in regards to the survival of not only the reef itself, but the life within it. Climate change is recorded as the most significant threat to the Great Barrier Reef, but there are other environmental impacts that are threatening the life within it. As the water temperature gradually increases, a phenomenon known as coral bleaching occurs. The algae on which coral feeds on, and which provides the colour of the reef, produces higher amounts of oxygen in warmer climes, which is toxic to the coral. In their ejection of the algae, the reef loses its colour, and whilst the coral may save itself from oxygen toxicity, instead their death is slow as they starve to death in months. A report by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation predict that a temperature increase of 3 degrees Celsius would bleach 97% of the reef within years.

To further complicate the situation, water quality, an issue first recognised in 1989, has worsened in the years since it was identified. With human agricultural development occurring nearby rivers that run into the Great Barrier Reef’s waters, the decline in water quality has dropped with the increased deposits of fertiliser, farming byproducts and industrial and mining pollutants such as nitrate-heavy waste water and copper. Copper, in particular, damages coral growth, and leaves it unable to grow further, or repair after damage. Whilst the acidic content of waste being deposited into the water further increases water temperature and weakens the coral itself. Intense weather such as tropical storms and hurricanes themselves may damage or disturb the reef itself, and with this on the increase, it may only be a matter of time.

“The expansive coral system is home to more than 1500 species of fish, 125 species of sharks and rays and near 5000 mollusc species”

But is the Great Barrier Reef dead? No. Whilst it’s all currently doom and gloom from mainstream news, the obituary has succeeded in one thing, at least: drawing attention to the reef itself. Several groups and campaigns have been working far harder towards conservation of the reef itself in the past few years, and their efforts have doubled since the article was published. The reef itself is incredibly durable, and there is always the option for recovery. Members of the public are getting involved: learning how to count fish and capture images of bleached coral in order to document the impact of bleaching across the Reef. This helps assess the current situation much better than a magazine obituary can. In May, whilst we realised the extent of environmental damage, Australian political parties started heated debates as to the extent of their protection of the reef. Mildly bleached coral is recoverable, and algae can return to it should efforts to repair damage be focused.

Should efforts not truly focus on recovery of the reef … we may see a genuinely accurate obituary of the full Great Barrier Reef within our lifetime.”

To announce the death of the Great Barrier Reef at this point is an incredibly sensationalist point to make, and its publishing is incorrect at best, but should efforts not truly focus on recovery of the reef, and some eventual halting of the rising temperatures of the ocean, we may see a genuinely accurate obituary of the full Great Barrier Reef within our lifetime.

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