Say Goodbye To The Reef


What’s the most important story of the last week? Think about it: Alan Jones? Peter Slipper? No, the Great Barrier Reef.

The Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef in the world. It is one of the greatest natural assets Australia possesses. The reef supports a tourism industry worth $6 billion annually. At least 54,000 full-time jobs are supported by economic activity associated with the reef, mainly in Queensland.

But the reef is in trouble. According to a recent study by the Australian Institute of Marine Science, the Great Barrier Reef has lost half its coral in the past 27 years. The study, published in the prestigious Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences, is based on the world’s longest and best study of reef conditions; 2,258 surveys of 214 reefs were carried out between 1985 and 2012.

The results are stark. The Great Barrier Reef is dying. We’re killing it.

The AIMS study shows "a major decline in coral cover", with 50.7 per cent of the reef’s initial coral cover vanishing. Tropical cyclones, coral predation by Crown of Thorns starfish (COTS), and coral bleaching were the three main culprits.

According to Terry Hughes, a federation fellow with the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University, the decline of the reef is nothing short of a "national crisis."

"We are not dealing here with an individual super trawler visiting our coast, this is serious," he told the ABC’s Ashley Hall last week. "I’d like to see the Prime Minister put $10 billion on the table and get serious about looking after the Barrier Reef."

There is debate about how much of the decline is related to human activities, of course, but it’s clear the rapid industrialisation of the Queensland coast is a key factor. Crown of Thorns starfish outbreaks appear to be related to run-off, and perhaps also to disruptions in marine ecosystems caused by coastal industry. Hughes, writing in The Conversation last week, puts it bluntly. "In reality, we are responsible for the loss of corals, not storms and starfish. Before people, corals recovered from routine shocks like recurrent cyclones, and now they don’t."

Geography also gives us a clue. The reef is most damaged near the coast and in its southern sections. Further out to sea and further north, where there is less industry and less exposure to nutrient run-off, the reef is in better health. According to the Institute’s Peter Doherty, "in the northern Great Barrier Reef coral cover has remained relatively stable, whereas in the southern regions we see the most dramatic loss of coral, particularly over the last decade when storms have devastated many reefs."

Experts agree that to solve the problem, much more will need to be done. For the past five years the federal government has been funding a program called "Reef Rescue" that works with farmers to reduce their sediment and nutrient run-off. It’s a $200 million program that will finish up this year.

According to Environment Minister Tony Burke, speaking on Lateline last week, Reef Rescue is "having a massive difference to the impact of how much chemical is going into the ground and how much runoff as a result is then going into the reef."

In that interview with the ABC’s Emma Alberici, Burke committed to extending Reef Rescue. "Reef Rescue will continue, there’s no doubt that we’ll find a way for Reef Rescue to continue," he said.

But so far, there is no money on the table. The logical time to put the money up would have been in this year’s budget in May, for any 2013 program. But with the Government counting every penny in a desperate attempt to return to surplus, it didn’t happen. Now there is real concern starting to emerge from environmental groups and farm lobby groups about when Reef Rescue will be renewed.

WWF Australia’s Sean Hoobin told New Matilda this morning that "we are calling to renew it, to extend it out to 2020 and to significantly increase the level of funding."

"The one key action that we can take locally is to reduce pollution flowing to the reef and that will give the reef a chance of surviving future climate change impacts." Hoobin points out that the expiring Reef Rescue program was $200 million over five years, compared to the $10 billion being spent to try and save the Murray-Darling Basin.

The Greens are also concerned, putting up a motion in the Senate this week to try and get Reef Rescue 2 moving with another $200 million over five years. The Government and the Opposition voted it down.

The Greens spokesperson on the reef, Queensland Senator Larissa Waters, called that "an insult".

"What an insult to the Reef, on the very day that the Minister approves a massive coal port expansion, for the old parties to refuse to act on the water quality problems behind the destructive crown of thorns starfish explosions," Waters said in a statement.

New Matilda contacted Burke about Reef Rescue. "The Government has not yet completed the design of the next stage of Reef Rescue," he replied in an email.

"Once that is completed the full program will be announced together with the dollars attached to it."

"The timing of that announcement will be based on when the policy work is done not based on when the Greens happen to move a resolution in the Senate."

But on some matters, the government is moving ahead. Just yesterday they approved a massive $6.9 billion coal port in Abbott Point near Bowen. That coal will eventually be burnt in overseas factories, where it will contribute to the global warming that causes coral bleaching.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.