Great Barrier Grief: what happens now?

Nadene Budden examines the current state of one of Australia’s most prized landmarks and what should be done to protect for the future.

One of the seven natural wonders of the world, 2,300 kilometres long as it stretches down the east coast of Australia. Home to 1,500 different species of fish, as well as six of the seven marine turtles currently under threat of extinction, and one third of the soft corals in global existence – a list that only begins to mention the level of biodiversity under and over the waters.

This, of course, is the Great Barrier Reef.

95 per cent of the reefs within the system have shown signs of bleaching, with around 22 per cent declared dead by officials. Although the bleaching is directly linked to an El Niño event as it warms the waters, the threat towards the corals and the rest of the life thriving off of the Reef has risen as elevated levels CO2 produce thermal heating. As climate change sustains greenhouse gases and continues to raise temperature levels globally, it too has begun to play a key role in the life or death of the Reef. Reef life has been further endangered by pollution from surrounding catchments and their encouragement of algae blooms as well as the devastation of native vegetation and wetlands. Human intervention, from fishing practices such as trawling to the Government-encouraged industrialisation of surrounding areas to become international coal ports risk the marine life and can and will bring damage to the seafloor.

It looks bleak. With the destruction of their habitats, everything from the birds to the fish to the molluscs will lose their home, which put these species in danger and risks the extinction of those already endangered. With Finding Nemo’s huge popularity came a surge in pet clownfish, some suppliers fishing wild ones out of reefs to sell in store (although this practice has steadily decreased with time), and a subsequent rise in the deaths of these fish, their owners unable to properly take care of them. With such a threat to the very existence of marine life of the Reef comes a threat to the existence of the Reef itself, but with the release of Finding Dory there has instead followed a raised awareness of the conservation of the Great Barrier Reef.

With the Remember The Reef initiative, Disney-Pixar has this time around encouraged people to focus on the conservation of marine life and reduce their carbon footprint, and has also mentioned the risk involved with owning a fish like Dory. With fun educational guides and activity for young fans of the movies, attention will surely be drawn towards saving the reef rather than Finding Dory accidentally being an advertisement for pet blue tangs. It is yet to be known just how effective Remember The Reef will be, but it certainly seems to be a step in the right direction for the conservation and protection of the Great Barrier Reef.

With time and some help from those that are able to lower levels of pollution and global warming – us – the reef can grow back. It is, however, the time length of the process that has created uncertainty between professionals. “We should be identifying the most resilient places – the ones most likely to be able to deal with all these assaults from outside and focusing our attention on them rather than trying to save everything,” Hugh Possingham, a professor from University of Queensland, said in an article for The Guardian. This view may upset those fond of the Reef, but, as the destruction and bleaching continues, it could become reality. “Do they want a few good reefs and lots of degraded reefs? Or do they want everything somewhere in the middle?” Possingham further stated.

Luckily, nature is resilient, but for real change to occur, everyone must get involved. This includes every step from the individual person to the government and big businesses. With the Turnbull government back in power after this election, let us hope there is more action towards the conservation of this natural wonder.

Feature image: Jackie Brock.