IMOGEN ZETHOVEN. The coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef continues.

Apr 22, 2020

As the novel coronavirus engulfs the world’s attention,  the Great Barrier Reef is still suffering from coral bleaching and  the government is pursuing a novel approach to its protection, without confronting the main threat.

During February, the waters of the Reef were hotter than ever recorded. Many corals became severely stressed and reacted by expelling the tiny colourful algae that live in their tissue, turning them a ghostly white. Many will die as a result.

At a time when we have heard far too much bad news, this is not what anyone wanted to hear. But the reality is that the Great Barrier Reef just experienced its second worst coral bleaching event on record. It was also the most widespread, with corals bleached from Torres Strait to the southern boundary. It now appears that even in this and future non-El Nino years, summer sea temperatures in the Reef are becoming too hot for many corals.

In March the director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, Professor Terry Hughes, undertook an aerial survey of the entire length of the Reef and found 25% of corals were severely bleached. In other years, severe bleaching has led to mortality. There is some good news: although a further 35% of corals were moderately bleached, 40% did not suffer from any heat stress this year.

This year’s mass bleaching event received much global media attention. Organisations that prepare advice and reports to the World Heritage Committee (UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre in Paris and IUCN in Switzerland) are aware of the event. The World Heritage Committee was due to meet in June this year in China to review Australia’s management of our international icon. The Committee has oversight over all World Heritage sites. Its decisions are taken seriously by the Australian government.

The third severe coral bleaching event in the last five years is unfortunate timing for the government, a few months out from the Committee meeting. However, the meeting has been delayed due to COVID-19, with no new date set.

In the meantime, the Australian government is preparing a report for the World Heritage Centre about the 2020 bleaching event. This report provides an opportunity for the Australian government to document its new Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program (RRAP).

This program is a profoundly new response to managing the Great Barrier Reef in our heat stressed world. Traditional reef management is about managing people and how they use the resources of the Marine Park. It assumes that the Reef would look after itself if we do the right thing and comply with rules (for example, not illegally fishing in a highly protected zone). This new approach is about intervening in the Reef environment, using science, technology and innovation to improve the resilience of the Reef.

On the 16th of April, federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley launched the research and development phase of the program and announced that 43 concepts have been selected for further R&D. RRAP is led by the Australian Institute of Marine Science and includes a large consortium of science and research agencies. The concepts include cloud brightening and breeding corals that are naturally more heat tolerant with the aim of dispersing the larvae on a massive scale.

Most scientists are deeply alarmed about the future of coral reefs and are heading down this brave new world because it’s the only thing they can think to do that buys time for the Reef until global sea temperatures are stabilised and reduced to a level that’s safe for corals. Some scientists, however, are deeply sceptical of the value of this interventionist approach and have decided to stay outside the tent and call for urgent and drastic cuts to greenhouse gas emissions as the only way to save corals effectively .

The first phase of the RRAP includes an assessment of community attitudes. It found that restoration-based intervention on the Reef was necessary, however, the future credibility of RRAP depended on governments addressing direct threats to the Reef, such as climate change.

Conservationists generally feel a sense of wariness about the program due to the risks involved, but acknowledge the risk of doing nothing may be even greater. There is also grief over the loss of a marine world which could survive quite happily without human intervention. Now, unless we intervene to minimise light and heat exposure, and to assist coral reproduction, the Great Barrier Reef and all its many ecosystems and weird and wonderful plants and animals will not survive as a whole thriving system.

But it is not possible to have confidence in this federal government-funded program without a climate policy and plan that is compatible with the 1.5°C goal of the Paris Agreement. The IPCC has made it very clear that even at 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, the world will lose a further 70-90% of coral reefs. RRAP will never gain social acceptability while the federal government’s climate policies, such as they are, have us on a catastrophic path to more than 3°C and up to 4°C.

The Australian government’s report to the World Heritage Committee will no doubt proudly announce an investment of $300 million into RRAP. The federal government’s contribution is $100 million, which has already been announced as part of the $443 million given to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation in 2018. The Foundation has a goal of raising another $100 million for RRAP, which must now seem rather doubtful in our virus-infected economy. Science and research partners could contribute another $100 million.

$300 million is a lot of money to spend on trying to save an ecosystem from the ravages of global heating if it is not supported by an ambitious climate agenda. The only hope is that the World Heritage Committee will be awake to this tension when reviewing Australia’s performance. But the greatest hope of all is that the Prime Minister, driven by science in his response to COVID-19, may also pivot to a science-driven response to climate change.

Imogen Zethoven is Director of Strategy, Australian Marine Conservation Society.

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