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State of the Reef: Australia's Great Barrier Reef Strategy (2012-2017)

Australia's Great Barrier Reef is the largest cluster of coral in the world and one of the most protected coral reef ecosystems. The Australian people and their government recognized the importance of preserving the great reef system and created laws back in the mid-1970s. These laws set the stage for the protection the reef enjoys today. In 1981, the GBR was selected as a World Heritage Site. Conservation and awareness continue to expand, encompassing more areas of the reef and improving existing protection.

Great Barrier Reef Marine Park

A large section of the GBR is protected within the bounds of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, additional areas are being added to the park almost on a yearly basis. The park is managed and patrolled by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA). The idea is to limit the impact of human use by limiting fishing and unchecked, irresponsible tourism. These are just a couple of the human factors that are negatively affecting the reef ecosystem. A study published in October 2012 by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences states that approximately half of the GBR's coral cover has died off since 1985. That is an approximate 50% loss of living reef in less than 30 years! The GBRMPA keeps a constant eye on the myriad of problems that can potentially deteriorate the quality of the reef environment. Issues such as coral eating crown-of-thorns starfish infestations, changing water temperatures, ever more powerful storm surges and overfishing are just a few of the factors the GBRMPA and other institutions are monitoring and studying.

This mass coral death is real but there is debate on what has caused and is causing coral death along the GBR. The Australian government, for the most part, attributes the problem to accelerated, human-induced climate change and misuse of reef by industry and tourism. The climate change component is causing a relatively rapid imbalance reflected in increased water temperatures and storm agitation on a local and global scale. Multiple disruptive factors have upset the symbiotic relationship coral has with algae. The balance between coral and its sometimes unruly, endosymbiotic parasitic guest is fairly fragile. Three major coral bleaching events have devastated the GBR coral ecosystem in the last 20 years. The key to life is adaptation; however, the human induced changes are happening in microseconds from an evolutionary perspective. It is difficult for species to adapt when severe changes are occurring at break neck speeds sometimes within a single generation.

The Part that Humans Play

Australia is taking the health of the GBR very seriously. In 2012, The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority published the Great Barrier Reef Climate Change Adaptation Strategy and Action Plan (2012-2017). The report recognizes the cooperative efforts between local landowners and local governments, as well as the part that the fishing and tourism industry play in conservation. Many companies and individuals are taking steps to actively protect the GBR. The report recognizes that climate change is a huge, ongoing and long-term issue. The report goes on to conclude that what humans can do is reduce or eliminate any additional human stresses off the reef system so that it can adapt without further human interference. Two major stresses that cannot be directly controlled are warming water temperatures and damage caused by severe storms. Unfortunately for the ecosystem, human development and tourism are on the rise along the GBR, making public awareness and cooperation as well as enforced regulation a key part in preventing existing problems from worsening.

Local Conservation = Global Conservation

The Australian government is working with surrounding countries around the GBR's Coral Sea as well as learning from and collaborating with Caribbean nations who have experience managing reef environments. Green Sea Turtles use the GBR beaches as their primary nesting ground. The success of these breeding grounds affects the turtle population worldwide. By protecting mature turtles and ensuring they have protected nesting grounds is an example of Australia's strategy to bettering the global issue. By minimizing anthropogenic stresses, Australia hopes to offset some of the stress caused by factors not directly under human control.

In summary, Australia recognizes that climate change is real and that their once pristine Great Barrier Reef is being adversely affected. They also recognize that strong stewardship via education, cooperation and enforcement is necessary to protect the reef from the million of humans that use it each year. Australians are taking steps to give the GBR a fighting chance to recover and thrive.

 

Published July 6,
2013

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Marine Life

Green Sea Turtle

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