Off the coast of Queensland in North-Eastern Australia
2,300km-long ecosystem comprises thousands of reefs and hundreds of islands made of over 600 types of hard and soft coral
At risk from environmental damage and tourism
Shimmering just offshore of North-Eastern Australia lies the single largest structure made by living organisms in the world—the Great Barrier Reef. Serving as home to thousands of species found nowhere else in the world, the Great Barrier Reef stretches for more than 2,600 km and is actually comprised of around 3,000 individual reefs and 900 islands. Altogether, this unique ecosystem covers an area larger than Great Britain.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are recognised as the "traditional owners of the Great Barrier Reef," as both Indigenous groups express strong cultural and spiritual ties to the reef and predate the arrival of European colonisers by thousands of years. The Great Barrier Reef is older than that, though—the living reef structure is estimated to be between 6,000 and 8,000-years-old, and those are built upon dead coral beds dating back half a million years.
Today, the Great Barrier Reef is one of Australia's most important commodities, and the linchpin behind its bustling tourist trade. According to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority's Outlook Report 2014, the area attracted almost 1.9 million tourists in 2013 and contributed $5.2 billion to the Australian Economy in the 2011-12 financial year.
WHY IS IT AT RISK?
Our oceans are beset by dangers on all sides—the Great Barrier Reef is no exception. In fact, coral cover on surveyed reefs has declined by about 50% in the last thirty years alone, according to research by the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS). Even more sobering is the data that two-thirds of that decline has occurred quite recently, since 1998.
The primary threats facing this reef system are climate change, pollution, illegal fishing, and outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish. Other factors, such as extreme weather, oil spills, and marine debris, also play a significant role in the declining reefs.
Climate change is the primary culprit behind a phenomenon known as "mass coral bleaching," which occurs when the ocean water warms unnaturally, compelling the coral to expel the algae living within its branches. The algae represent the coral's primary food source, so while coral can sometimes recover from a bleaching event, many die, especially if mass coral bleaching is recurrent. The Great Barrier Reef has suffered mass coral bleachings in 1998, 2002, and 2006, and some predict that it may become an annual occurrence.
While coral bleaching is deemed responsible for 10% of coral loss since 1985, a whopping 42% is pinned on crown-of-thorns starfish. While helpful in small numbers, the population of these coral-eating invertebrates has exploded in the last 30 years. The reason? Pollutants and declining water quality.
According to AIMS, over 90% of reef pollution is caused by inland runoff of soils, fertilisers, and pesticides from agricultural and coastal development. The chemicals present in these sediments have adversely affected the health and biodiversity of the reefs, while simultaneously stoking crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks.
Finally, we must always consider the human element. While the tourism industry has been a boon for Australia by-and-large, the general public has expressed concern that the tourism industry may prove harmful for the Great Barrier Reef. To combat this, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority continues to invest in ecotourism options. Their 2014 report reveals that 64% of tourists chose ECO tourism certified options when visiting the Great Barrier Reef in 2013—a number that climbs every year.
Comparisons of historical photographs provide an illustration of the changes in inshore coral reefs over the last century. This series of photographs can be accurately compared using the skyline in the background. The changes largely took place before monitoring programmes commenced.
Although the condition on the reef has been fairly stable for the past 20 years or so, it cannot be assumed to be in a natural or healthy condition – in fact, the reef has degraded and its current, stable condition is a shifted baseline.
- Visit the CRC Reef Research Centre for a list of Responsible Reef Practises.
- Choose tourism operations with Ecotourism Australia's ECO certification.
- Do not break off pieces of living coral.
- Pay close attention to all training and briefing provided by professional divers.
- Do not dispose of any litter or hazardous materials in the ocean.
- Great Barrier Reef Travel Guide - fodors.com
- Great Barrier Reef - journeysinternational.com
- GBRMPA Release Outlook Report 2014 - ecotourism.org.au
- The 27-year decline of coral cover on the GBR - pnas.org
- Threats to the Reef - gbrmpa.gov.au
- Coral bleaching - gbrmpa.gov.au
- Great Barrier Reef has 'lost half its coral since 1985' - independent.co.uk
- Responsible Reef Practices - gbrmpa.gov.au