Tag Archives: Great Barrier Reef

Great Barrier Reef sees record coral deaths this year

Warming oceans this year have caused the largest die-off of corals ever recorded on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, scientists said this week.

The worst-affected area is a 700-kilometer (400-mile) swath in the north of the World Heritage-listed 2,300-kilometer (1,400-mile) chain of reefs off Australia’s northeast coast, said the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.

The center, based at James Cook University in Queensland state, found during dive surveys in October and November that the swath north of Port Douglas had lost an average of 67 percent of its shallow-water corals in the past nine months.

Farther south, over the vast central and southern regions that cover most of the reef, scientists found a much lower death toll.

The central region lost 6 percent of bleached coral and the southern region only 1 percent.

“The mortality we’ve measured along the length of the Great Barrier Reef is incredibly patchy,” the center’s director, Terry Hughes, told reporters. “There’s very severe damage in the northern section of the reef.”

“The good news is that south of Port Douglas, including the major tourist areas around Cairns and the Whitsundays (Whitsunday Islands), have had relatively low levels of mortality,” he added.

The governments of Australia and Queensland will update the UNESCO World Heritage Center this week on progress being made to protect and improve the reef, including their response to coral bleaching.

Providing a status update to the World Heritage Committee was required as part of its decision in June last year not to list the reef as “in danger.”

Federal Minister for the Environment and Energy Josh Frydenberg said Tuesday that the reef’s coral cover had increased by 19 percent in recent years before it suffered a “significant bleaching event” this year, caused by the El Nino weather effect and climate change.

“What that shows is that the Great Barrier Reef is very resilient and quite strong,” Frydenberg’s office said in a statement.

The governments plan to spend 2 billion Australian dollars ($1.5 billion) over the next decade on improving the reef’s health.

Hughes said the coral death rates in the north would likely make the task of keeping the reef off the “in danger” list much harder.

“In its ongoing dialogue with UNESCO, Australia has said the outstanding universal values of reef are in tact because of the pristine condition of the northern reef. That’s simply no longer the case,” Hughes said.

Researcher Andrew Baird said the 2016 coral die-off was “substantially worse” than the previous worst-ever event in 1998.

“The proportion of reefs that were severely affected was much, much higher,” Baird said, adding that he did not have precise figures immediately available.

The 1998 event was restricted to in-shore reefs around the Queensland coastal city of Townsville, while the 2016 destruction affected a much larger area, he said.

Scientists expect that the northern region will take at least 10 to 15 years to regain the lost corals. They are concerned that another bleaching event could interrupt that recovery.

There have been three extreme mass bleaching events in 18 years on the reef. In each case, the areas that suffered the worst bleaching were where the water was hottest for the longest period of time.

Reef tourism operator Craig Stephen did not expect the dead coral would diminish visitors’ experience of one of Australia’s biggest tourist drawcards.

“The patchiness of the bleaching means that we can still provide our customers with a world-class coral reef experience by taking them to reefs that are still in top condition,” Stephen said in a statement.

Graeme Kelleher, who headed the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority for 16 years, said last week that Australians must not buy the “political lie” that they can have the reef as well as major coal mines nearby.

“We’ve lost 50 percent of the coral cover on the Great Barrier Reef in the last 30 years and the main cause of that is the burning of fossil fuel. I sincerely hope UNESCO rejects the claim that the government is doing enough,” Kelleher said.

Experts issue plea to save coral reefs from extinction

As the largest international gathering of coral reef experts comes to a close, scientists and policy makers are moving ahead with plans for action to save the world’s reefs, which are being rapidly damaged.

“We are not ready to write the obituary for coral reefs,” James Cook University professor Terry Hughes, who is also the president of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies in Australia, said about the “unprecedented” move by the scientific community. Scientists are not known for their political activism, he said, but they felt this crisis warranted such action.

A call to action from three Pacific island nations whose reefs are in the crosshairs of the largest and longest-lasting coral bleaching event in recorded history was presented Friday at the conclusion of the International Coral Reef Symposium in Honolulu. The Associated Press was given advance access to the call for action and the scientific community’s response.

The heads of state from Palau, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands attended the conference and will provide a plan to help save their ailing coral reefs, which are major contributors to their local economies and the daily sustenance of their people. The call to action, signed by the three presidents, asked for better collaboration between the scientific community and local governments, saying there needs to be more funding and a strengthened commitment to protecting the reefs.

“If our coral reefs are further degraded, then our reef-dependent communities will suffer and be displaced,” the letter said. They also called for more integration of “traditional knowledge, customary practices and scientific research” in building a comprehensive coral reef policy.

In response to the letter, the scientific community at the conference said: “We pledge to take up the 13th ICRS Leaders’ Call to Action, and will work together with national leaders of the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the world to curb the continued loss of coral reefs.”

Bleaching is a process where corals, stressed by hot ocean waters and other environmental changes, lose their color as the symbiotic algae that lives within them is released. Severe or concurrent years of bleaching can kill coral reefs, as has been documented over the past two years in oceans around the world. Scientists expect a third year of bleaching to last through the end of 2016.

In the northern third of the Great Barrier Reef, close to half of the corals have died in the past three months, said Hughes, who focuses his research there. The area of the reef that suffered most is extremely remote, he said, with no pollution, very little fishing pressure and no coastal development.

“That’s an absolute catastrophe,” Hughes said. “There’s nowhere to hide from climate change.”

But the panel of scientists emphasized the progress they have made over the past 30 years and stressed that good research and management programs for coral reefs are available. The scientists said they just need the proper funding and political will to enact them.

The researchers focused on the economic and social benefits coral reefs contribute to communities across the globe, saying the critical habitats generate trillions of dollars annually but conservation efforts are not proportionately or adequately funded.

In the United States, the budget for the federal coral reef conservation program is set at about $27 million a year, said Bob Richmond, director of the University of Hawaii’s Kewalo Marine Laboratory and convener of this year’s International Coral Reef Symposium.

In Hawaii, he said, the reefs are valued at $34 billion, and the return to the state’s economy is about $360 million annually — meaning the entire nation’s budget for coral reef conservation is less than 10 percent of the annual return in that one state alone.

Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands also have ailing reefs under the budget.

The Coral Reef Conservation Act of 2000, which aimed to protect coral reefs and create programs to manage their conservation, has been plagued by political resistance and a severe lack of funding, Richmond said.

Bleaching kills third of coral in northern Great Barrier Reef

Mass bleaching has killed more than a third of the coral in the northern and central parts of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, though corals to the south have escaped with little damage, according to scientists.

Researchers who conducted months of aerial and underwater surveys of the 1,400-mile reef off Australia’s east coast found that around 35 percent of the coral in the northern and central sections of the reef are dead or dying, said Terry Hughes, director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University in Queensland state. And some parts of the reef had lost more than half of the coral to bleaching.

The extent of the damage, which has occurred in just the past couple of months, has serious implications, Hughes said. Though bleached corals that haven’t died can recover if the water temperature drops, older corals take longer to bounce back and likely won’t have a chance to recover before the next bleaching event occurs, he said. Coral that has died is gone for good, which affects other creatures that rely on it for food and shelter.

“Is it surprising? Not anymore. Is it significant? Absolutely,” said Mark Eakin, the coral reef watch coordinator for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “We’re talking about losing 35 percent of the population of coral in some of these reefs — that’s huge.”

The damage is part of a massive bleaching event that has been impacting reefs around the world for the past two years. Experts say the bleaching has been triggered by global warming and El Niño, a warming of parts of the Pacific Ocean that changes weather worldwide. Hot water puts stress on coral, causing it to turn white and become vulnerable to disease. Other reefs have suffered even more severely from the recent bleaching; Some Pacific islands, for example, have reported coral death rates of more than 80 percent, Eakin said.

This is the third and most extreme mass bleaching event in 18 years to strike the Great Barrier Reef. In each case, the areas that suffered the worst bleaching were the areas where the water was hottest for the longest period of time, Hughes said.

This time, the southern half of the reef was spared largely due to a lucky break that arrived in the form of a tropical cyclone. The remnants of the storm, which had lashed the South Pacific, brought cloud cover and heavy rains to the region, cooling the ocean enough to stop bleaching that had just begun in the south. About 95 percent of the coral in the southern portion of the reef has survived.

Storms have previously proven very helpful for heat-stressed reefs, Eakin said. In 2005, for instance, the quick succession of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita cooled the waters below as they passed over Florida, sparing the Florida Keys from a serious coral bleaching event affecting the Caribbean.

Experimental approaches to the bleaching dilemma have included attempts to lower water temperatures by using shades to cover corals, Eakin said. But such efforts require massive amounts of preparation and can only be done in small areas, Eakin said. Other solutions may lie in finding ways to minimize additional stressors to the already fragile reef.

“Anything you can do to reduce the level of injury and stress coming from other sources, the better the chance that the corals are going to survive,” Eakin said. “Those reefs that have recovered after events like this are the ones that are the most protected, least visited and least disturbed.”

Last year, the United Nations’ heritage body expressed concern about the state of the Great Barrier Reef and urged Australia to boost its conservation efforts.

Following the release of the bleaching report, Australian politicians — who are in the midst of an election campaign — jumped on the issue, with the opposition Labor Party pledging to create a $500 million fund for better management and research of the reef. Environment Minister Greg Hunt, meanwhile, announced that if his party is re-elected, the government would invest $6 million to helping combat the crown-of-thorns starfish, which feast on coral.