A man snorkels in an area called the Coral Gardens near Lady Elliot Island, on the Great Barrier Reef, northeast of Bundaberg in Queensland. (Reuters photo)
Ask four Australians why the Great Barrier Reef is bleaching, and you’ll hear four different answers.
A travel agent in Brisbane says it’s because of the cyclone that hit last year. Another one just down the street blames “some sort of starfish”. A tour guide in Cairns says bleaching is a natural part of the coral life cycle; another, in nearby Port Douglas, calls it propaganda. He proclaims the reef isn’t bleaching at all.
About the size of Japan, the Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest single structure made by living organisms and Australia’s third most popular tourist attraction (after its beaches and wildlife). A World Heritage site, it also supports 64,000 jobs and contributes US$6.4 billion annually to the national economy.
Local suspicions notwithstanding, the reality is that the reef is bleaching more frequently and severely than ever. In 2016, 30% of the corals died. In 2017 the reef experienced a back-to-back mass bleaching event, unprecedented in modern times.
By the end of it, almost half of the corals were dead along two-thirds of the entire reef. As of today, there’s virtually no section of the Great Barrier Reef that hasn’t experienced at least some bleaching.
Climate change is, of course, a global problem, and the culprit in the reef’s accelerating demise. Earth’s atmosphere is already 1 degree Celsius hotter than it was at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
Even more alarming, it’s on track to rise 3 degrees by 2100. Even a rise of 1.5 degrees would have catastrophic effects, including the loss of 70% to 90% of the world’s corals.
The GBR is one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. It hosts 400 types of corals and more than 1,500 species of fish. It is instrumental in the life cycle of 30 species of whales and dolphins, six of the world’s seven species of marine turtle and the world’s largest population of sea cows.
Reefs protect life onshore, as well. The structures can blunt as much as 95% of a wave’s energy, reducing coastal erosion.
But in Australia, not everyone wants to believe the reef is endangered. A few weeks ago the Reef Rainforest Research Centre, a non-profit group that works with tourism operators, private foundations and universities, announced it was showing “encouraging signs of recovery”, a message enthusiastically amplified by the Queensland government, which has jurisdiction over the reef.
Scientists, however, were sceptical. While it’s possible for corals to rebound from bleaching events, the recovery story “is biologically impossible”, according to professor Terry Hughes, a marine biologist at James Cook University in Townsville. “It is based on a press release, not science.”
Australia has a conflicted economic relationship with environmental policy. Visitors are drawn to its natural beauty, but the country is the world’s largest exporter of coal.
From 2008 to 2014, the federal and state governments provided $17.6 billion in assistance to the mineral and fossil fuel industries, according to the Australia Institute. Queensland government spent $9.5 billion, the most of any state.
The Australian government has gone to great lengths over the years to portray the reef as healthy. In May 2016, the UN released a report on World Heritage sites threatened by climate change. The reef was named in preliminary drafts but omitted after lobbying by the Australian Department of Environment and Energy.
By way of explanation, the department released a statement: “Recent experience in Australia had shown that negative commentary about the status of world heritage properties impacted on tourism.”
Corals are tiny, translucent animals that attach themselves to the ocean floor. Their colour comes from algae living inside of them. Using sunlight along with the shelter and carbon dioxide provided by the coral, the algae produce sugar and oxygen. The coral polyps benefit from the sugar, too, while also feeding on passing zooplankton.
When the water gets too warm, the algae produce too much oxygen. At first, corals respond by producing antioxidants. When that isn’t sufficient, they expel the algae altogether, revealing the bone-white skeleton underneath.
These “bleached” corals aren’t necessarily dead, but with the algae gone, they typically starve after eight weeks. This has been happening all across the Great Barrier Reef.
Making the public scientifically literate is an uphill battle under the best of circumstances, but it’s especially difficult when our preconceptions about corals are wrong.
Imagine, if you would, a reef. What you’re likely picturing — the deep blues and neon reds and groovy oranges splattered over every diver’s Instagram feed — are most likely damaged corals. Typically, it’s only when corals are stressed that they begin to “fluoresce”, according to Hughes. When corals are healthy, the colours are far more muted.
“Some people have no idea what they’re looking at,” says marine biologist Joanna Leonhardt. “They have no idea what it was like prior to bleaching, and they still think it’s beautiful.”
The media also plays a role in misinforming the public. Reporters sometimes make “a translational mistake, where ‘loss of corals’ is reported as ‘loss of reefs’,” according to Hughes. “No scientist has ever said that the reef has died or a portion of the reef has died.”
Hughes contends that the media’s “alarmist tone” isn’t helpful. “Our message has always been, ‘It’s never too late to save the reef,'” he says. However, there’s still no viable plan to do so.
The previous government under Malcolm Turnbull had a history of funding questionable solutions, like a recent $443 million grant awarded without a competitive tender process to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, a nonprofit with 12 employees and business partners including Melbourne-based BHP Billiton and London-based Rio Tinto, two of the world’s largest mining corporations.
Another project, which used underwater fans to circulate deeper, cooler water onto stressed corals, was criticised for its potential to “increase risk of thermal stress, disease and bleaching”.
“It’s all about perceptions,” Hughes explains. The government would rather fund bad ideas than no ideas. When asked to comment, the current administration of Prime Minister Scott Morrison sent a copy of the press release announcing Turnbull’s previous investment in the Great Barrier Reef Foundation.
Educating the public, of course, may build popular support for protecting the reef and, more broadly, fighting climate change. But in doing so, the fear among some is that the economy will suffer in the short term.
That fear manifested itself this past January, when Col McKenzie, head of the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators, petitioned the government to pull its funding for Hughes’s work. He argued that the professor was damaging tourism on the taxpayers’ money.
In the short term, however, it seems the reef’s decline has been a boon for reef tourism. According to data provided by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, visitation has actually increased since 2011.
“We haven’t seen a negative impact from visitation or people’s perceptions of the experience,” says John O’Sullivan, managing director of Tourism Australia. Some are even highlighting the reef’s vulnerability to attract tourists — come see it before it’s gone, in other words.
Engaging visitors in the conservation effort can have a lasting effect. “You may be more likely to take some action when you go home because you’ve actually got a connection and an ongoing connection with the Great Barrier Reef,” says Stewart Christie, founder of the Reef Restoration Foundation.
But such interactions, Leonhardt says, require a delicate balance. “If you dump a whole bunch of information on someone, it will just make them back up against a wall.”