Visit the Southern Great Barrier Reef around Lady Musgrave Island, and you’re not likely to realize the problem faced by the largest living thing in the world. The Great Barrier Reef, is slowly edging towards a terminal stage according to the latest coral bleaching data.
Aerial surveys have revealed that there has been increased bleaching affecting about two-thirds of the coral reef system. Overall, an estimated 70% of shallow water corals have been decimated due to bleaching.
Coral bleaching occurs when the specimen turns bone white due to starvation. Corals depend on microscopic algae (Zooxanthellae) to make food through photosynthesis; however, the algae may be expelled from the water if temperatures rise thus leading to the coral’s death.
The surveys carried out earlier this year by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Agency (GBRMPA), the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service and the Australian Institute of Marine Science found that the most affected areas were in the north of Port Douglas.
The ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies report involving slightly over 900 dive surveys showed that coral mortality rates stood at 26% on the Far North (offshore), 67% of the North area, 6% of the Central region and 1% in the South.
Worse still is that bleaching occurrences were spotted in deeper regions, but researchers could not systematically assess the damage caused. Experts predict that there will be the more coral loss in 2017 owing to continued bleaching, coral disease and warming effects caused by the tropical cyclone Debbie.
Three major mass bleaching occurrences have happened over the years i.e. in 1998, 2002 and 2016. The 2016 occurrence is the highest and most severe ever recorded in areas like Lizard Island, Far North Queensland having about 90% coral deaths.
Some scientists remain optimistic that the Great Barrier Reef will recover over time. However, climate change, impacts of coastal development, poor water quality, crown-of-thorns starfish and water pollution threaten this ideal. This is evident from the back-to-back mass bleaching (2016/2017) the reef is currently experiencing giving it no room to recover.
The worsening condition of the Great Barrier Reef has attracted a lot of attention and criticism globally. From falsified reef obituaries to a public outcry calling for accountability of concerned bodies to save this world treasure. The continued deterioration of this 2300 km world wonder might even force the UNESCO World Heritage body to enlist it as “in danger”. Notably, the Paris Agreement was identified as a possible way out of lowering the global warming effects experienced by the reef. The agreement was primarily geared towards curbing fossil fuel use which causes the rise in sea temperatures. The Australian government is the custodian of the reef has been urged to be quick in finding ways to improve water quality in the area.
A long-term sustainability plan called the Reef 2050 Plan was published by the Australian Government in 2015. It outlines the various measures the government will undertake in preserving the reef.
The plan included pledges to fund research geared towards making the reef more climate resilient and measures of lowering carbon emissions. Hopefully, with increased MPA policies, development of coral nurseries, improved monitoring systems, and financial support will help the Reef to recover in the next couple of years.