Science says the Great Barrier Reef can be fixed

A Hawksbill sea turtle near Lady Elliot Island in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

The Great Barrier Reef could be restored to its former glory through better policies which focus on science, protection and conservation, scientists say.

The key is to reduce the stressors on the reef — fishing, pollution, coastal development and climate change — according to a paper in the international journal Nature Climate Change.

The reef has lost more than half of its coral cover over the past 40 years and there is growing concern about the impact of climate change.

“We need to move beyond the gloom and doom to identify how the decline of the Great Barrier Reef can be turned around,” says co-author Professor Terry Hughes from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University.

“Our paper shows that every major stressor on the Reef has been escalating for decades – more and more fishing, pollution, coastal development, dredging, and now for the past 20 years we’re also seeing the impacts of climate change.”

The challenge is to use scientific knowledge to prevent further damage and give the reef breathing space to allow it to recover.

A first step would be to prevent unsustainable growth in each of the stressors to reduce their cumulative impact.

“If that means less dredging, less coal mining and more sustainable fishing, then that’s what Australia has to do,” says study co-author, Jon Day, also from the ARC Centre for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University says.

“Business as usual is not an option because the values for which the reef was listed as World Heritage are already deteriorating, and will only get worse unless a change in policy occurs.”

The authors say that as countries around the world move to curb global carbon emission, Australia has an opportunity to transition away from fossil fuels and to limit the development of coal ports alongside the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.

“No-one is saying Queensland should not have ports. However, what we are saying is that all developments within, and adjacent to, the Great Barrier Reef need to be far more sustainable in the way that they are developed and operated, especially because they adjoin a World Heritage Area, “says Jon Day.

The authors agree that no one wants to see the Great Barrier Reef placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage Area In-Danger list.

The scientists’ six-point plan for the reef:

  • A return to the former emphasis on conservation and protection of the Great Barrier Reef.
  • Australia taking a lead role in tackling climate change by transitioning away from fossil fuels.
  • Permanent legislative bans on dumping of spoil from dredging within the World Heritage area.
  • An overhaul of the environmental impact assessment process for new developments.
  • The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority reinstated as the agency responsible for all aspects of the reef, including fishing and ports.
  • A 50-year plan and adequate funding for the use of the catchment designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and agricultural run off.

Jon Brodie says Australia is starting to reduce runoff of nutrients, sediments and pesticides from land into the World Heritage Area, and is improving regulations for dumping capital dredge-spoil, but much more action is needed.

“These efforts are a welcome step in the right direction, but they will need much better resourcing in order to substantially reduce pressures on the World Heritage Area.”

The authors say the global community must make it clear that they want more effective policy action to ensure the Great Barrier Reef is restored for current and future generations.

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