Australia's Great Barrier Reef is in a bit of trouble. Back-to-back coral bleaching events brought on by warming waters have devastated areas of the Reef over the past two years, and 2018 has brought another feisty and familiar foe: the predatory crown-of-thorns starfish. Things are so dire that the Australian government has announced a AU$60 million (US$48 million) plan to preserve the world's largest living structure, including using submerged fans to pump cold water over the top of it and an "all-out assault" on the starfish. But environmental experts are wondering how much impact this likely to have, and whether it is simply a way of avoiding a larger, more complex issue.
What's up with the reef?
Coral bleaching comes about as a result of abnormal sea conditions (such as warmer waters), which cause heat stress on the algae that lives inside the coral. This leads the coral to expel the algae from their tissue and, because the colorful algae are vital to their health, their departure leaves the coral whitened, withering and in danger of dying completely.
The Great Barrier Reef has now endured four major bleaching events in its recent history: 1998, 2002, 2016 and 2017. While a range of factors can contribute to warmer seawater, both the frequency and severity of these bleaching events is expected to increase in line with global temperatures, as the ocean absorbs much of the extra heat.
Scientists labeled 2016 the worst bleaching event in the Reef's history after aerial surveys revealed severe damage throughout the northern and middle sections, with only the southern, cooler third left unharmed. Coral can bounce back from bleaching, but it involves at least a decade of recovery, and back-to-back bleaching events leaves it little chance, the scientists said at the time.
Professor Terry Hughes is the Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, and was aboard for those aerial surveys in 2016 and 2017. After returning from the first trip, he shared the followed graphic on Twitter with the message "I showed the results of aerial surveys of bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef to my students. And then we wept."
"Any credible plan to save the Reef has to deal with climate change and the reduction of Australia's greenhouse gas emissions," Hughes tells New Atlas today. "Global warming that causes coral bleaching is the number one threat, yet we're not addressing it."
To make matters worse, 2018 has brought a major outbreak of crown-of-thorns starfish to the Reef. These native creatures feast on the coral and, while they can be an important part of the biodiversity mix in the right numbers, too many of them have can have a major negative impact on coral coverage.
Outbreaks tend to occur round every 17 years, with four documented since the 1960s. This time around, thousands of them are devouring coral in the southern section of the Reef in the highest densities scientists have ever seen, with lots of coral expected to be lost as a result.
The Australian Government has today announced an investment of AU$60 million for programs designed to preserve the Great Barrier Reef. More than half of this, AU$36.6 million (US$28 million), will go toward reducing the pollution in the water by supporting farmers to prevent run-off from their properties.
"The impact of farming run-off and sediment in the Reef is significant for a number of reasons," Dr Nikola Casule, Climate and Energy Campaigner at Greenpeace Australia Pacific," tells New Atlas. "The more run-off there is, the more sedimentation goes into the reef lagoon, which reduces the amount of light available for coral and the organisms that depend on it. You also have a lot of fertilizers, phosphorous and other chemicals that are going into the reef and upsetting the natural equilibrium of the different organisms there, so you have the wrong type of algae growing much faster, impacting the ability of the coral to survive."
Another portion of the funds, AU$10.4 million (US$8.3 million), will go towards an "all-out assault" on the crown-of-thorns starfish, increasing the number of ships dedicated to culling them from three to eight. But environmental experts are concerned that not only are these culling efforts having a negligible effect, they could be worsening the problem by causing more resistant strains of starfish to evolve.
"Imagine if you've a lot of weeds in your backyard," says Dr Casule. "If you rip up 20 percent of the weeds, in a month the whole backyard will be covered in weeds again. And that's exactly what the government is talking about with the crown-of-thorns starfish."
Dr Charlie Veron is considered the world's foremost expert on coral reefs and has been diving on the Great Barrier Reef for more than 50 years. Known as the Godfather of Coral, he is responsible for identifying more than 20 percent of the world's coral species. He was a little more blunt on what sort of impact this "all-out assault" could have.
"None," he tells New Atlas. "It is like trying to shoot rabbits. They will just come back. No scientists believe in this approach. We need to research larvae, not kill adults."
The government also plans to spend AU$2.2 million dollars (US$1.76 million) on giant fans that keep vulnerable corals cool by drawing colder water from the depths and pumping it across the surface. Seriously. As you might expect, this has attracted some skepticism, and not just from environmental activists.
Last month, The Guardian got its hands on documents that revealed the government's independent review panel saw the project as a "major departure from reality" and explicitly recommended against it going ahead. Among the potential problems was the chance that the deeper water could be more acidic and polluted, and that by circulating water, the fans would pump warmer water onto deeper reefs and pose problems for them.
Though the review panel initially recommended the project be killed off, it said that if it was to go ahead, it should be repurposed as a research project. Three weeks later, the government did just that. These fans are now set to be trialed as part of a pilot project at a popular dive site near the city of Cairns in early 2018.
"This is something out of an Austin Powers movie, I mean seriously," says Dr Casule. "It has no credibility whatsoever and the world's leading reef scientists have come out today, again, to say that it's completely not supported by the science."
Seems like a great place for a coal mine
The great irony in all of this is that the state of Queensland, where the burning of fossil fuels is contributing to killing the world's largest coral reef, might become home to one of the world's largest coal mines. The proposed Carmichael coal mine by Indian mining giant Adani would stretch 50 km (31 mi) across the center of the state.
If it does go ahead, it will include a massive new shipping terminal and the dredging of seabed along the coastline. It would also send 500 extra coal ships with their cargo through the Great Barrier Reef each year, bringing new risk of damage to its fragile corals on their way to releasing an equivalent of more than 4.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
"If the Adani project were not to go ahead, the coal that it would send to India will be sourced somewhere else, that's the important thing," Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told the media yesterday. "It's important to remember that when you burn Australian coal, you release C02 in the atmosphere, but it is cleaner than many other sources of coal around the world."
You can probably guess what Greenpeace makes of this.
"Because the government is sort of in the pocket of the fossil fuel industry and you have a core of climate deniers that threaten the prime minister's leadership, there's a political imperative to not take serious action on climate change," says Dr Casule. "Malcolm Turnbull is prevented from that because of political considerations, so his government has to pretend it's doing something to placate public opinion, and things like fans on the reef, crown-of-thorns starfish culls and these other kinds of Mickey Mouse schemes are just a public relations stunt."
Another thing to consider is the Reef's status under the UNESCO World Heritage Committee. The site received World Heritage status from UNESCO in 1981, but has teetered on the fringes of its "in danger" list for years due to the threats to its survival. The government's Reef 2050 Plan is a multi-billion dollar framework for protecting the Reef until at least midway through the century, and was enough for UNESCO to omit it from the "danger list" for now. But according to "the Godfather of Corals," there is little going on here other than smoke and mirrors.
"The only thing that will save the Reef is to mitigate increase in the ocean's temperature," Veron tells New Atlas. "That means curbing CO2 emissions, drastically. I believe the government's AU$60m is to try to convince UNESCO that Australia is doing its bit to head-off the destruction of the Reef. They are certainly not doing that."
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