What’s Happening To Our Great Barrier Reef?

Words by Isaac Muller

By Isaac Muller, 27/10/2023

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Watching Pixar’s Finding Nemo (2003) at age three was my first impression of the Great Barrier Reef. It was magical. I can’t wait until I get to swim through the real thing. Unfortunately, by the time I get there, it might be gone.

As of right now, the reef’s 50 percent dead, and the parts that have survived are in “very poor health”. The government is blocking its listing as “in Danger” and I just found out our beloved dugongs are disappearing. We’ve long known that the future of one of the world’s seven natural wonders isn’t looking good, but just how dire are things for the Great Barrier Reef? And what can we do to fight this man-made sea of problems?

What’s The Significance Of The Great Barrier Reef? 

The Great Barrier is out of this world. Literally, it can be seen from space. It isn’t one singular reef, as the name suggests, but rather 3000 reefs, 760 fringe reefs, 600 continental islands, 300 coral cays and 150 inshore mangrove islands. 

It was around 500,000 years ago when the world’s largest living organism began to form. The ‘Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’ puts the 344,400 square kilometre phenomenon into perspective by stating: “[It’s] bigger than… the United Kingdom, Switzerland and Holland combined… [or] the same area as Japan, Malaysia or Italy…[It] makes up about 10 percent of the world’s coral reef ecosystems, and is one of the best known and most complex natural systems on Earth.” 

Now, humans have actually seen their fair share of this history. 70 Traditional Owner groups have been living, interacting and protecting the ever-evolving reef for more than 60,000 years. They understand why each aspect of the marine park needs to be cared for. For example; the soils, roots and plants within the seagrass meadows and mangrove forests store a massive 10 percent or 111 tonnes of Australia’s blue carbon according to research by Deakin University. Environmental scientist, Professor Peter Macreadie, says there have been dramatic reductions in blue carbon ecosystems but good things will happen if they’re reversed. “By restoring blue carbon ecosystems in 90,000 hectares of land throughout the Great Barrier Reef catchments we could capture an additional five million tonnes of CO2 by 2100,” he said. 

How Bad Are Things Looking For The Great Barrier Reef? 

The reef is bleaching. Again. And again. Yep, the coral is “under stress” and is expelling microscopic algae that live in its tissue making it transparent and at risk of starvation and disease. A reef can recover from bleaching but the problem is it’s happening far too often. Similar to a bushfire hitting a forest in the same spot, year after year… while being hit by hurricanes. Yuh. 

According to Australian Geographic, “The majority (91 percent) of the 719 reefs surveyed have suffered some degree of bleaching… The GBR has suffered four mass bleachings in just the past seven years (2016, 2017, 2020 and 2022). This [2022] is the first event to occur during a traditionally cooler La Niña period.”

Yeah, it’s bad. Back in 2019, UNESCO stated “the property has further deteriorated from poor to very poor… [there’s] 30 percent loss of shallow-water coral cover following the 2016 bleaching event and the combined footprint of the 2016 and 2017 bleaching events extending over two-thirds of the property”.

And the problems keep coming. The Queensland Government says “the biggest threat [to the reef] is climate change. Other more local challenges include poor water quality [particularly ground water] due to land-based pollution, pests such as the coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish, fishing and coastal development”. Despite the COT starfish being native, their individual appetite for an annual 10 meters square of coral reef-building corals (hard corals) and the overwhelming population is fucking shit up. 

Ocean Blue Protect reports that “between 1995 and 2017, 50 percent of the coral on the Great Barrier Reef died… It includes small, medium, and large corals in shallow and deep water. These animals — yes, they’re animals — have been around for millions of years”.

Despite all this, the Great Barrier Reef somehow isn’t on the “in Danger” list. Crazy. 

Why Isn’t The Great Barrier Considered “In Danger”?

A Reuters article reports the “UNESCO heritage committee… stopped short of listing Australia’s Great Barrier Reef as a site that is ‘in Danger’ but warned the world’s biggest coral reef ecosystem remained under ‘serious threat’.” 

This seems sus: who is stopping the reef from being listed “in Danger”, and why? 

The article continues, “Australia has been lobbying for years to keep the reef which contributes about A$6 billion [annually] to the economy and supports 64,000 jobs off the endangered list as it could lead to losing the heritage status, taking some shine off its attraction for tourists”.

Sounds like money may be making the decisions around here. So what is the government struggling to protect the reef from?

The GBR losing reefs is like a forest losing trees. It’s a global problem and will affect everyone and everything in one way or another. Thousands of marine species rely on the GBR and it provides food and services to around one billion people, while also protecting coastal communities. 

Thankfully, many of the coral species are now being preserved in a “coral ark” through a new Australian initiative, Forever Project, based in Cairns Aquarium. 181 of the 415 Great Barrier Reef coral species have already been preserved. It doesn’t beat saving the reef but at least we won’t lose these beauts. Sydney legend, “The Godfather of Coral” AKA Former Chief Scientist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science Dr Charlie Veron has dedicated his life to saving reefs. We have him to thank for a lot of our reef success stories. “Without question, this [Forever Project] is the most important project we can be undertaking for corals and coral reefs,” he has said.

Junkee spoke to Charlie, who said, “Once the biobank is completely stocked up with all coral species there will always be a reserve for research. Now that is the one hope that a coral reef has, which is that we can produce cultivars which are tolerant of temperature… and that is definitely doable.” 

However, Charlie feels the severity of the GBR’s future felt extremely grim. Twenty-five years of fighting “science against ignorance” has left him emotionally drained. “It affects me really badly, it’s the place I’ve loved all my whole life,” he said. “I’ve likened it to having your own art gallery and having it set fire. And it’s slowly burning and all the paintings that you’ve loved all your whole life, you see one after another catch fire. It’s horrible and I can’t describe it in a better way than that. It affects me enormously, I don’t like driving anymore that’s for sure.”

Animals Are Affected, Too 

Now that I know how the coral, or animals, are going, I want to know how our Nemos, dugongs and their aquatic friends are. Also, where’s Squirt in all this?  

The Australia Academy of Science states the GBR “provides habitat for nearly 9,000 species of marine life — and that’s just the (relatively) easy to count ones.” It’s assumed that the number is actually way higher due to the frequent discoveries of new species. 

While new animals are found, others disappear. 

A recent ABC article reports “Dugong numbers are falling in coastal areas along the Great Barrier Reef and researchers warn floods and fishing pose an ongoing threat to the species”. This is extremely concerning because Ocean Info reports “The largest populations [of dugongs] are in the waters around Australia”. Dugongs have an important role in the management of the GBR, they are a key indication of the health of “seagrass ecosystems which are regarded to be as important as coral reef systems”. 

So, Squirt? Green Turtle Research Program states, “Six species of marine turtle are found on the Great Barrier Reef… Years of monitoring indicate that the northern Great Barrier Reef green turtle population is in decline. Raine Island is the world’s largest green turtle rookery, and monitoring indicated a 20-year failure to produce sufficient green turtle hatchlings to maintain a sustainable population”.

While those two beloved ocean creatures still have time to be saved, others have already been lost forever. 

A University of Queensland and Queensland Government survey in March 2014 confirmed the only known population of Bramble Cay Melomys has been destroyed. “The only mammal species endemic to the Great Barrier Reef – is the first [known] mammal to go extinct due to human-induced climate change,” they reported. 

Charlie told Junkee he holds concerns for everything living within the GBF. “The Great Barrier Reef is on its way out,” he said. “And I can’t see any other way of looking at it and I haven’t been able to see any other way of looking at it in the last 25 years. That’s exactly what I said in the emergency meeting of the Royal Society, David Attenborough next to me on a stage and I held forth to a full house at the Royal Society in London and that’s exactly what I said then, my title was Is The Great Barrier Reef On Death Row?… and it is. It’s dying.”

Charlie isn’t just mourning the reef, he’s beginning to mourn the planet. “About half the world’s species have some part of their life cycle in a coral reef so if we lose coral reefs we go to an ecological collapse of the oceans and that’s happened before and, and it’s initiated a mass extinction. It’s very very serious, a mass extinction is something serious beyond imagination,” he said. “The precursor is, in each case [of previous mass extinctions], has been the collapse of coral reefs and then the collapse of the oceans and then mass extinction. That’s the sequence.”  

What Is The Government’s Response To The Great Barrier Reef Crisis? 

Here we go: The Australian Government has invested a “record” $1.2 billion into the reef (sounds pretty small compared to the annual $6.4 billion it generates, may I add?), investing $150 million to improve water quality, rejected a coal mine that could have direct impacts on the reef, withdrawn federal funding for dams that would have had a detrimental impact on the reef’s water quality, and more. On the 3rd of October 2023, the Australian Government revealed it “is investing a further $6.4 million in three new water quality projects to safeguard the health of the iconic Great Barrier Reef”.

Five years ago, the Turnbull government made a bold decision to allocate a record-breaking grant of $443 million to a small conservation organisation, the Great Barrier Reef Foundation (GBRF) which was made up of six full-time employees… yes, bold I said… However, the GBRF was just as bold and planned to raise a further $400 million. To many people’s disbelief, they’ve already managed to raise $256 million. The team that was doubted by nearly everyone has been extremely transparent with their spending and impressed nearly everyone. “The foundation was reviewed by the auditor-general again in 2021. It found the funds had been invested appropriately,” the ABC reports. YAY!

While activists scramble to protect the reef, the government appears to be scrambling in other ways. On top of UNESCO having concerns about the government’s urgency and efforts for the protection of the reef, Minister for the Environment and Water, MP Tanya Plibersek was being sued. The Environment Council of Central Queensland (ECoCeQ), claimed she did not review the impact of global warming when approving coal mines. However, The New Daily reports “Australia’s Environment Minister doesn’t have to take action to stop the damage fossil fuel projects will inflict on natural wonders like the Great Barrier Reef, a court has found.” This same MP appeared offended by UNESCO raising concerns for the GBR (despite the fact it’s halved in size in recent years and is in “very serious danger”). “If the Great Barrier Reef is ‘in Danger’, then every coral reef in the world is ‘in Danger’,” she said. Ummm, yes. That is exactly right, MP for Environment and Water – especially the largest and most diverse reef in the whole entire world *cough* our Great Barrier Reef.  

I was curious what Charlie thought of the government’s initiatives around the GBR. He didn’t seem impressed. “It really is important to push for governments to not do things like say the GBF is not ‘in Danger’ because it bloody obviously is,” he said. “Since the mid 1990’s I would say, that’s when I started saying it.”

Watch Pilbersek’s full response to UNESCO here:

If The Government Isn’t Doing Enough, What Can I Do?

How can we help? “We all need to get active, and we need to talk about it, and we need to write and protest and do whatever is needed because it’s soon going to be too late,” Charlie told Junkee.

The Great Barrier Reef is in danger but not “in Danger”. It’s halved in size. Nemo is watching the majority of his friends disappear. The first [known] mammal to go extinct due to human-induced climate change was only found in the GBR but thank you to our government for staying optimistic and protecting our “shiny” tourism industry. I need a drink.

Isaac Muller is a proud Palawa and Wiradjuri man and writer at Junkee. Follow him on Instagram

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