“Loss of the Great Barrier Reef could well precipitate the greatest crisis
mankind has faced since recorded history began.”
- Theo Brown, Consultant, South Pacific Commission on
pollution of the Marine Environment (1972)
The Great Barrier Reef is the largest living organism on the planet. Running 2,000 kilometres down the North East coast of Australia, a myriad of over 2,500 reefs and islands occupies an area of 350,000 square kilometres of ocean. This greatest of all coral ecosystems supports 350 species of coral, 1,500 species of fish and thousands of molluscs, making it one of the most biodiverse communities in the world.
Besides its natural beauty the Great Barrier Reef is a scientific wonderland and an untapped source of pharmaceutical benefits for the human race. But this could all be lost if the present situation on the Reef is allowed to deteriorate further.
Unbelievably, the Great Barrier Reef took 20 million years to form yet it has taken a little more than 100 years of man’s interference to devastate it.
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THE BIGGER PICTURE
Our oceans are in a state of deterioration and the life it supports is diminishing rapidly.
The Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest ecosystem, more diverse than the Amazon rainforest is under attack on a number of fronts...
Crown of Thorns
The first plague of these coral eating predators descended on the coral reefs of the Indo-Pacific region in the early 1960’s and devastated huge tracts of coral in every ecosystem, some of which have not recovered to this day. The most damage suffered by any coral ecosystem was the Great Barrier Reef, for by the end of a third plague in the 2000’s, most of its enormous marine infrastructure had been affected. The destruction was catastrophic.
We are currently in the dangerous period of a fourth plague, where the starfish will congregate in large numbers to spawn resulting into millions more starfish which will attack and destroy whatever live coral is in their path. If no action is taken to reverse the situation this time around, the fate of the Great Barrier Reef will be sealed. For after each plague cycle the coral recovers less and less until it will reach the point of no return.
In 1998, in the International Year of the Ocean, the waters of the Great Barrier Reef warmed to their highest level in over 100 years and the reef suffered unprecedented coral bleaching, transforming huge areas of coral translucent white. Bleaching occurs when the delicate balance between algae and coral polyp is destroyed. When the coral is subject to sporadic adverse changes such as a rise in sea temperature, this causes the coral to release increased numbers of algae, leaving the coral polyp transparent with only the white calcium skeleton apparent. If the algae doesn’t return, the coral starves to death. Most corals can survive infrequent bleaching episodes but repeated or prolonged bleaching events will kill them.
A disastrous 2016 coral bleaching episode has reinforced the views of many marine scientists and climatologists around the world. They are convinced that rising sea-temperatures are attributed to human-induced global warming and unless this catastrophic problem is addressed, the future of coral reefs is grim.
With the collapse of their industry in the 1950’s, trochus-shell fishermen leaped into the lucrative shell collecting industry where collectors eagerly sought coral shell molluscs such as the Balers, Giant helmets and Giant tritons because these species commanded high prices. By the early 1960’s, the Giant triton numbers had been decimated. Since the Giant triton is the most prolific predator of the Crown-of-thorns starfish, a major link in keeping the starfish population in check on the Great Barrier Reef had been broken.
With the advent of scuba gear, high-powered spear guns and fast outboard motors which made reefs more accessible, professional spear-fishermen eliminated massive numbers of the larger Crown-of-thorns predators, such as the Giant grouper and the Humpback wrasse until the source was fished out and the practice outlawed. Also, the growing demand for fish from local fish markets and a “live-fish” for the Asian market industry is potentially decimating smaller starfish predators like the Spangled emperor and Triggerfish. So more links in controlling the starfish population on the reef is broken.
As the population continues to increase along the coastline of Queensland so does the amount of pollution, a good percentage of which affects the coral colonies of the Great Barrier Reef. A vast deluge of sediment and its associated nutrients is washed into the sea on a continuing basis, silting up virtually every inshore reef along the coastline and leaving them devastated. Also, semi-diluted sewage flows into the waters of the Great Barrier Reef from a number of outfalls along the Queensland coastline, changing the nutrient levels and in some cases causing toxic blooms. This in turn breaks down the foundation between coral and algae, once this foundation is broken, the whole system of coral life collapses.
Nothing causes changes to the nutrient level of the water of the Great Barrier Reef more than that attributed to agricultural run-off. Cane farming in particular has ballooned over the last seven decades. The pesticides used to grow crops are washed into the waters of the Great Barrier Reef via coastal rivers and creeks. This causes changes to nutrient levels which in turn affects coral development and is a source of food for Crown of thorns starfish in their larvae stage of growth.
The dredging of Queensland’s harbours has only one outcome, more and larger ships to ply through the narrow shipping channels within the Great Barrier Reef. At present 7000 ships use these channels and by 2020, in just four years time, that figure will double.
What these figures represent, is double the chance of a freighter coming ashore on the reef, resulting in a major oil spill. The ensuing damage to the reef would be catastrophic. A grounding in 2010 did major damage to a large reef. Also a chance of foreign species being discharged in ballast water to cause more havoc on reefs.
In the past eight years, over 50 million cubic metres of sea floor has been dredged and dumped in the sea off the Queensland coast, most the result of deepening existing harbours like Hay Point near Mackay and Gladstone. The latter has come in for the most criticism as there had been a lack of monitoring during dredging operations and who was doing it.
Now Abbot Point is in the spotlight as the Government has sanctioned the dredging of 3 million cubic metres of sediment and rock over three years and the dumping of it back into the sea, a bare 40 kms from the Great Barrier Reef.
The question has to asked: how closely will this be monitored? For it has to be remembered, that every inner fringing reef along the Queensland coastline had been destroyed by silting over the past 50 years.
In the breeding season of the Crown of Thorns Starfish (COTS) tens of thousands of these coral eating monsters will congregate to breed, with each female adult starfish capable of producing 60 millions eggs. Just 4,000 adult Crown of Thorns Starfish can eat one acre of live coral in a week.