Responsible tourism on the Great Barrier Reef

Australia doesn’t have an elephant in the room that no one dares talk about; it has a reef instead. Just as elephants are the African continent’s – and the world’s – largest land animal, the Great Barrier Reef is not only Australia’s but also the planet’s largest living structure. And yet its limbs and lungs are starting to fail. It covers over 2,300km and, relatively speaking, much of it is still thriving, and so it is important not to be put off visiting. However, over the last few years scientists, conservationists, divers and and many others have been doing what this living beauty can’t do. Screaming out in pain. But still the powers that be are refusing to hear. Or see. Or act.

GBR – Gigantic Bleaching Responsibility?

Often referred to as the GBR, the Great Barrier Reef’s famous acronym could be used to highlight the crisis currently hitting it: Gigantic Bleaching Responsibility. The last few years have seen a lot of questions raised about why large sections of the reef, particularly north of Cairns, are undergoing bleaching – a process whereby the coral turns white. This is due to sudden overheating of the water which stresses the coral and causes it to emit the colourful algae that feeds it. If the algae loss lasts for may also be covered in seaweed.

In many cases, coral can recover from bleaching if the water temperature lowers and if the water is clean. It tends to be the hard corals that survive being covered in a blanket of seaweed; the soft corals can’t. But in parts of the reef at the moment, certain sections are not recovering at all and are rapidly dying. Bleaching has happened in the past, caused by the natural phenomenon of El Niño, a blast of warm water that kicks in every five years or so. But impacts of Niño have been monitored in the past, and the destruction to coral has never been as speedy or hard hitting as it has been throughout 2016 – a spread of bleaching that has being well documented by various environmental, NGO and not for profit agencies, such as The Ocean Agency, either flying over the reef and taking shots over a period of time, or taking underwater records. Dying coral doesn’t just affect our diving and snorkelling trips; it means that fish have nowhere to shelter or feed, larger fish don’t have smaller fish to eat, and so on. We all know the food chain lecture. It’s ecosystem meltdown time.

Climate change

Athough to most of our eyes the reef is looking ripe and rosy, the reality is glaringly bleached white. And the causes are also glaringly obvious: human beings. Climate change. Fossil fuels. Agricultural run off. All things that can be regulated at government level. And controlled by humans. The majority of scientists, as documented by many expert commentators such as Guardian Environment and Greenpeace*, agree that climate change is the cause.

The sad fact is that far from turning the reef from white to green, Queensland is whipping its coal resources to death, squeezing every dollar possible out of the ground. Because unknown to many, Queensland is the world’s largest seaborne exporter of coal. Their own energy usage as a country is also highly dependent on fossil fuels, namely oil and coal (34 percent and 32 percent respectively**) ranking as high in the world for dirty energy consumption as some of the world’s leading oil producers.

But the responsibility doesn’t just lie in Australia, because three times as much coal is exported as is used in Australia. It is still big business, and three licenses were given in April 2016 to start exploiting Queensland’s Galilee Basin, one of the largest untapped sources of coal in the world. And so, as you can imagine, coal and coral doth not a good marriage make. And yet, Australia is intent on flogging this dead horse just to make sure they can gain every toxic dollar possible.
Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) Chairman, Dr Russell Reichelt:

“GBRMPA and the Australian Institute of Marine Science have been responsible for monitoring Reef health for over 40 years, and are now working together to develop a comprehensive and authoritative picture of how this year's bleaching has impacted the ecosystem as a whole… We've seen headlines stating that 93 per cent of the Reef is practically dead. We've also seen reports that 35 per cent, or even 50 per cent, of the entire Reef is now gone. However, based on our combined results so far, the overall mortality is 22 per cent — and about 85 per cent of that die-off has occurred in the far north between the tip of Cape York and just north of Lizard Island, 250 kilometres north of Cairns"

Politics & money speak louder than fish

Many tourism operators have been unwilling to speak out about it, with the reef generating $10.93bn annually for the state’s economy. Although that is beginning to change, with several starting to voice their opinions. However, views are divided. Some say that the bleached coral will revive, others say that it is doomed forever. The overall opinion is, however, that the harder corals can hopefully survive – if action is taken now.

As always, however, it comes down to politics and the economy. Just as there are disagreements about the extent to which the coral has been damaged, there are also disagreements about how much tourism is worth to the economy compared with coal. Depending on which side of the fence they stand, many local people will vote to preserve jobs and livelihoods. And each industry sector fights to protect its own, of course. ‘Twas ever thus. However, this is a time to really stand back and see the bigger picture. Which is a clear one. Jobs in tourism, especially in responsible tourism are sustainable. Jobs in coal most certainly aren’t. Which is why we, at Responsible Travel, are urging people to visit the reef and show that you mean good business. But don’t like environmentally destructive businesses that the Australian government seems to currently favour.
The reality is that half of the GBR’s coral has been lost in the last 30 years, which led UNESCO, which designated the GBR a World Heritage Site in 1981, to threaten to put it on an ‘in danger’ list in 2014. This was, in particular, due to a decision to start dredging the seabed for oil, although plans for this have since been halted. After negotiations with the Australian government, and the urgent drafting of a Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan Australian Government Department of the Environment, the threat to put it on the ‘in danger’ list was put on hold, on the condition that the government could show significant improvements to the reef’s condition by the end of 2016. Improvements which include reducing carbon emissions, controlling pollution and limiting the effects of dredging. And yet, the coal still keeps coming, as do more licences to exploit it and ships to export it, crossing the very waters in question.

What can you do?
Join activist organisation Greenpeace, which played a major role in highlighting the impending mortality of the GBR not only to UNESCO but to the world. Another good one is Fight for the Reef. Support their petitions, donate to their cause (fighting the coal industry and a center right coalition (ironically) government takes time and money), and spread the word by using social media, using striking images freely available from Global Coral Agency. And when you go there to dive, which you must because it is still stupendous, consider an underwater shot holding a waterproof sign with the hashtag #SavetheReef and post it everywhere you can, telling the government and the world that coral, on so many levels, wins hands down over coal.

* The Guardian, Greenpeace, Great Barrier Reef Marine Authority
** Source: Australian government’s Office of the Chief Economist: 2015 Australian energy statistics report
*** Source: EIA - International Energy Statistics 2014
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: Ukanda] [Herron Island: XL Catlin Seaview Survey] [Bleached coral: XL Catlin Seaview Survey] [Schooling fish: XL Catlin Seaview Survey]