The Great Barrier Reef is worth saving.
This is true whether you add it up in cash, as the Deloitte Access Economics Report did, valuing it at $42 billion (including 64,000 Australian jobs), or as an iconic natural wonder stretching 1400 miles that can be seen from space, or as a living reef supporting countless animal and plant species in one of the most unique and complex ecosystems in the world.
However you value it, there is no question that the reef is dying and that global warming is playing the dominant role in its demise.
Recently the entire Pacific Ocean went through one of the longest bleaching periods in recorded history. Coral bleaching happens when the coral is exposed to warming sea temperatures and starts to be damaged by the sun. When the coral bleaches, it dies and the life that lived in and beneath the living coral dies off as well. In the past two years, experts say that the reef has lost almost half of its coral this way.
The Australian government released the Reef 2050 Plan to protect and maintain the reef through the year 2050. Since release of the plan, the Australian and Queensland governments have made good progress in implementing the 151 actions in the initial five years with 89 percent completed or underway and on track.
Among the goals:
End dumping of dredged material from five major industrial ports.
Prohibit future dredging.
Halt and reverse the decline in water quality entering the Reef from agriculture, including pesticide and nitrogen. Provide extra protection to turtles and dugongs through tough new laws against poaching, improved sustainability agreements with Indigenous communities and local land managers and funding to help reduce marine debris.
Over $A2 billion projected investment in the coming decade for research and management activities on the Reef and in the adjoining catchments along the coast.
Establish a new $A40 million Reef Trust towards improving water quality.
An additional $A100 million over five years towards water quality initiatives, scientific research and helping business transition to better environmental practices in primary production and fishing industries.
Recently, the targets for the plan have been in doubt. During a meeting of the Reef 2050 advisory committee, some of the experts who enacted the plan said they no longer think the goals are realistic.
The Great Barrier Reef Independent Expert Panel, another group trying to implement the Reef 2050 Plan, voiced its concern over the feasibility of the goals set forth. The panel stated that “Coral bleaching since early 2016 has changed the Reef fundamentally.”
The statement continued: “There is great concern about the future of the Reef, and the communities and businesses that depend on it but hope still remains for maintaining ecological function over the coming decades.”
Bleaching and global warming aren’t the only challenges the reef is facing. Since 2004 there have been 5 major oil spills around the reef. Most recently, a Panama based company spilled 15 tons of oil near the reef, for which it may be fined up to $17 million.
It seems that there are many groups trying to bring the reef back from the brink, but many factors that are making the progress difficult. Oil spills continue to be a problem and there seems to be no end to them anytime soon.
The bleaching phenomenon appears to be ending and that may give the reef some time to recover from the worst bleaching in recorded history. However, with sea temperatures rising, experts think that the next bleaching event may not be too far away and that this could be the new norm for coral reefs across the world. Higher sea temperatures could just be alternating between northern and southern hemispheres and bleaching events following their paths.
So how dead is the Great Barrier Reef? Not all dead, but certainly not thriving. It needs a lot of good luck, good policy and the reversal of climate change to bring it back from the brink.