How is the Great Barrier Reef doing?

30 December, 2021

There is occasional talk in the country about the health of the Great Barrier Reef and there are also occasional arguments about how bad things are with Australia’s largest reef.

The last cloud of concern emerged when UNESCO recommended that the Great Barrier Reef be included on their list of World Heritage in Danger in June this year, because the reef is not doing well. Climate change is jeopardizing its future.

Photo: Matt Curnock/Ocean Image Bank

The Great Barrier Reef, located off the northeast coast of Australia in the state of Queensland, is the world’s longest and largest coral reef. As many as 3,000 different reefs spread out over an area that is 344,400 km2 in size. To understand the extent of this, the reef is slightly larger in area than our neighboring country, Finland.

The huge reef is home to over 1,600 species of fish, of which Nemo and Doris are two of these. On the seabed, around 600 species of soft and hard corals have been building their homes for over 10,000 years. It is a sea kingdom like no other.

But the reef is under threat. Just as trees are the forest’s supporting pillars, corals are the backbone of the reef. Without trees no forest. Without corals no reef. So how will the barrier reef cope with climate changes with warmer temperatures?

To find out, we go to the coastal town of Townsville in Queensland.

It’s the end of November. For Australia, this means that the country is getting ready for the approaching summer. And it is now that the Great Barrier Reef creates its magic under the water.

The sun has set.

It’s a full moon.

The corals are waiting.

Photo: Matt Curnock/Ocean Image Bank

And as if on a given signal, one of all the wonders of nature takes place.

“It’s comparable to a blizzard, although it goes in the opposite direction and here it happens under the water, and everything is pink and beautiful,” says marine biologist Emma Kennedy, who works to long-term monitor the barrier reef at the state-run marine research institute AIMS, the Australian Institute of Marine Science, in Townsville.

The blizzard in the ocean is corals that spawn. That corals spawn at all was only discovered in the 1980s and then marine biologists began to study this phenomenon at sea. But it was hard to know when the different coral communities would spawn, so the researchers started picking corals for AIMS’s “Sea simulator,” which is over ten labs with lots of aquariums.

When the corals are playing, it’s busy days for the marine biologists. They are all elated because it is new lives that are born. They stand crouching over their aquariums with red lights in their hands to watch as their particular coral will release their little pink balls.

“Most, but not all, corals are hermaphrodites. So they create both eggs and sperm in a small capsule and at a given time, the corals release their balls to the surface of the water,” Danish-Australian marine biologist Line Bay said via the video link from Townsville.

The marine biologists then capture the capsules and art-fertilize them, thus slowly producing more heat-resistant corals for the future. Researchers are constantly learning new things about the corals and, according to Line Bay, there are as many exceptions as there are rules when it comes to the corals’ reproductive system.

“Some corals only release eggs, others sperm. You also can’t say that everyone spawns on the same day, because depending on how close or far out of land they live in the reefs, their spawning time differs, Line Bay explains.

Photo: Katerina Katopis/Ocean Image Bank

Out at sea, the fertilization between eggs and sperm takes place on the billowing blue. A few days later, the mourner, because it turns into a smelly mourner lying on the surface, into larvae. These larvae sink to the bottom of the ocean and find a suitable coral to attach themselves to and a new coral begins to emerge. Depending on what species of coral it is, they grow from a few millimeters to around ten centimeters per year.

In addition to all the animals of the sea, the barrier reef is also important for locals, indigenous peoples, tourists and the whole country at large. It is a major source of income that contributes $6.4 billion annually to Australia’s economy. Around 64,000 people get their jobs through the reef, so when UNESCO recommended that the reef be included in the list of World Heritage Sites at risk in June this year, it created concern within the government. Environment Minister Sussan Ley told the morning newspaper Sydney Morning Herald that the government would “strongly oppose the recommendation”.

What prompted UNESCO’s recommendation was data that the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) had collected from various authorities in Australia. In the past five years, three major bleachings have occurred of the reef. According to scientists, the warm water bleached from 30 to 70 percent of the barrier reef’s corals, depending on where in the reef they live.

The government opposed by inviting ambassadors and other foreign representatives to the barrier reef through the Ministry of the Environment. This is so that the diplomats themselves could get an idea, and then write recommendations to their home countries before the vote at the World Heritage Committee meeting in July. Each year, the Committee is made up of 21 countries. This year, Australia, China, Norway and Thailand, among others, sat on the committee.

Local MP Warren Entsch met 14 diplomats in Cairns. The diplomats provided their air travel while the government provided a day trip on the reef, dinner and an overnight stay in a hotel.

– I can tell you that several of them were hostile when they arrived. They were set to be quite negative about the reef.

The diplomats got to see both healthy reefs and those that have been damaged by the warming of the climate.

“When the day was over, it sounded different. After all, they saw how beautiful it is and although they saw the damage as well, they realized that we manage the reefs well.

ocean fish
Photo: Matt Curnock/Ocean Image Bank

Warren Entsch says Australia has an internationally recognised management programme for its reefs. They have AIMS, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and CSIRO, which is the state’s overall scientific research institute.

“They’re the best. But what the ambassadors said is that yes, Australia has a role to play, to take care of the reef. But when it comes to climate change, every single country in the world has work to do with mitigating and combating climate change.

“What they brought back to their countries is that we all have to do better.

The committee voted in July and it decided to give Australia more time and did not follow UNESCO’s recommendations. The barrier reef has therefore not lost its status as an area of outstanding universal value.

The Australian federal government with Prime Minister Scott Morrison has long been unwilling to acknowledge the seriousness of climate change. But during the UN climate summit COP26 in November in Glasgow, Australia signed on to reach zero emissions by 2050. The road to get there is not yet mapped out.

Warren Entsch, whose electoral district runs along the barrier reef, thinks it’s a good thing his government has now taken climate change seriously.

“I would like to see us reach zero by 2050, and I think we can do that,” he says.

Warren Entsch has been a member of parliament for 25 years. Prior to that, he was a crocodile farmer.

“Not many countries have an old crocodile farmer in their parliament,” he adds with a boisterous laugh from the telephone line.

Although Warren Entsch is lighthearted on the wire, he and the residents of his Leichardt constituency stretching from Cairns up to the northernmost cape, Cape York, are concerned about climate change.

“Of course we’re worried,” he says.

In addition to climate change, there are also other threats lurking, such as the invasive starfish, the crown of thorns, hurricanes whose waves break the reef, and pollution from agriculture and mines that flow via rivers into the sea.

emma kennedy
Marine biologist Emma Kennedy with colleagues. Photo: Private

Marine biologist Emma Kennedy, who researches the bottom and corals of the ocean, believes that both the crown of thorns and the pollution feel easier in some strange way because there you can find solutions.

“But cyclones, heat waves and bleaching there, we have to trust that our governments are truly committed to making us independent of fossil fuels,” she says.

I ask Emma Kennedy if she would say that’s true, what’s written on the Climate Foundation’s website about scientists predicting that the Great Barrier Reef will become a geological relief in just under 30 years. It sounds way too scary to be true.

“Yes, that’s right,” she replies. Scientists agree that if we do not reduce warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees, all the reefs in the world will disappear.

“And what scares me,” Emma continues, “is what will happen next. Will all our forests burn up?

Emma Kennedy explains, drawing parallels between the bleaching of the reef with the wildfires that ravaged the entire east coast of Australia a couple of years ago.

“Nature can recover well, but then it is required that the forest does not burn again, because then there will only be black stumps left. It’s the same with the barrier reef, if the corals don’t get time to recover, then they can’t come back.

A bleaching of a reef is not the same as the corals dying all at once. What happens is that the algae that live inside the corals disappear, they die, and then the corals turn white.

“You see their skeleton, it’s white.

The corals can still catch some food that sails by but their main diet is the algae inside the corals.

“So if the algae don’t recover then the corals die of starvation.

She says that the corals can survive after a hot day, then they can get their algae and color back if the temperature drops in the water thereafter, but not if the heat wave goes on for days, weeks.

Turtle swims over bleached corals. Photo: The Ocean Agency/Ocean Image Bank

For a while, Emma Kennedy believed that as a marine biologist she would be able to save the reef. But when she realized it wasn’t possible, it was a bleak time. She says it feels like the world isn’t listening to the scientists.

“When we had the great mass bleaching of the reef between 2016 and 2017, we marine biologists thought that now something was going to happen, now our politicians and the world would realize the seriousness, but no, nothing happened.

“It was very tough mentally.

She says it’s a difficult balancing act to deliver facts about the reef and at the same time not make people think that it doesn’t matter what we do, that it’s already too late.

– But it’s not. The Paris Agreement has made me feel like there is hope,” she said.

Emma Kennedy is, by her own admission, one of those marine biologists who are more gloomy. She follows the reef year after year and sees how climate change affects the corals and reefs.

“We differ from the marine biologists who research reproduction. After all, they see rebirth.

Life in the sea, rebirth, corals playing, Emma who has long thought about not becoming a mother, because she does not want to create a new life because the world has looked so dark. Does she still think that way?

“No, I’m approaching 40 years old and after the Paris Agreement I started to regain hope. And yes, I can now imagine becoming a mother,” she says via the video link from a summery Townsville, laughing upliftingly.

Text: Ulrika Eriksson
Photo: Matt Curnock, Katerina Katopis, Jordan Robins/Ocean Image Bank, Emma Kennedy

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