The Great Barrier Reef is culturally, environmentally and economically vital to Australia. We look at some of the threats facing this World Heritage Site, and the efforts underway to conserve it.
With a coral reef so large it’s visible from space, and a wealth of marine life that occurs nowhere else in the world, it’s no wonder many people in Australia take the subject of marine conservation very seriously indeed.
A variety of fish, sharks, dolphins, whales and other sea creatures have homes, breeding grounds and migration routes in this region. Over two thousand species of plant life thrive on the sea bed and amongst the coral reefs. Scuba divers are likely to find things sighted in few if any other parts of the world, like giant clams big enough to pin a man’s arm, saltwater crocodiles, and clown fish nesting in the tentacles of anemones. Of the seven species of sea turtle known in the world, six of them occupy this region, alongside dolphins, fish and plant life completely unique to Australian waters.
— Karen Maskall (@kar3n2) July 23, 2012
The Great Barrier Reef in particular is like an Amazon rainforest of the ocean, housing a rich and diverse ecosystem within thousands of kilometres worth of interconnected coral reefs. It forms the world’s largest structure composed entirely of living organisms. Disappearance from the Great Barrier Reef for many of its species would mean vanishing from the world entirely, since around 80% of Australasia’s aquatic creatures are unique to Australasia alone (amcs.org.au).
Excessive fishing and hunting, pollution and climate change are all a significant concern for those tasked with protecting Australia’s marine environment.
Sharks are hunted for their fins, and sea lions for their fur. Whaling continues to be a problem more than two decades after it was banned by the International Whaling Commission (IWC), with countries such as Japan, South Korea, Iceland and Norway continuing in blatant defiance of the ban. The profitability of commercialized fishing in the Great Barrier Reef leads to increased fishing activity, which poses no problem if correctly monitored but causes unnecessary environmental hazards if not. Equipment, such as hooks used to catch fish, ends up painfully lodged in the mouths of sharks, while nets used to catch sharks end up entangling and strangling dolphins. Industrialization of fishing methods means a greater intake by fishing vessels than the environment can realistically support.
Unrestrained human activity poses a threat not just to the denizens of the coral reef but to the coral itself, the foundation of the ecosystem.
Human pollution raises water temperatures, leading to a process known as “Coral Bleaching” where corals placed under undue stress expel their algae and subsequently deteriorate. Climate change also contributes to this by causing fluctuating water temperatures.
The crown-of-thorns starfish is an example of human activity disrupting the balance of the ecosystem in unforeseen ways. Like many of the reef’s denizens they feed on coral, but do so at such a rapid rate that a prolonged feeding frenzy by these creatures could pose a threat to the whole of the Great Barrier Reef. Fortunately, outbreaks of the crown-of-thorns starfish occurs in natural cycles that the ecosystem is able to tolerate, but scientists fear that pollution and overfishing disrupts this; the pollution increasing levels of algae in the water allowing the starfish larvae to thrive, while overfishing reduces the amount of predators capable of keeping their populations at a manageable level.
Efforts to Protect and Conserve
The Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS) was formed by scientists and activists in 1965 to protect endangered species, establish marine reserves, and draw attention to issues threatening marine environments. In 1979, they secured a great victory when they persuaded the Australian government to ban all mining in the Great Barrier Reef. Amongst their methods of combatting the excesses of the fishing industry is their promotion of sustainable seafood – fish and shellfish that can be attained without drastic reduction of fish populations.
The Australian government was charged with protecting the Great Barrier Reef when the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared it a World Heritage Site in 1981, but efforts to uphold these duties have been mixed.
On the one hand, they administer the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority , which was founded in 1975 to preserve the Great Barrier Reef and regulate human activities therein, and they continue to plan further marine reserves including one they claim will be the size of India.
But on the other hand, they have received criticism from UNESCO and AMCS for not doing enough to discourage gas and oil mining in the Great Barrier Reef and other regions, with the Western coast of Australia in particular lacking sufficient protection against mining operations. Such is the urgency of the situation that UNESCO has threatened to put the Great Barrier Reef on the ‘Heritage Sites in Danger‘ list.
As the largest coral reef in the world, and as a primary source of revenue from tourist and fishing industries, damage to the Great Barrier Reef means a severe blow to both the environment and the Australian economy. Organizations like the ACMS urge greater measures towards protecting the Great Barrier Reef, for the good of all.