Great Barrier Reef still showing its true colours

Published Thursday, 28 January, 2016 at 09:21 AM

Minister for Environment and Heritage Protection and Minister for National Parks and the Great Barrier Reef
The Honourable Steven Miles

Queensland’s iconic Great Barrier Reef continues to thrive despite warmer than average waters in its inshore regions.

While there are several weeks to go before sea temperatures are expected to peak in February–March, many experts are hoping that a major bleaching event on the Reef will not eventuate, as has been predicted for many regions worldwide in 2016 by the lead US agency, NOAA.

Minister for Environment and Heritage Protection and Minister for National Parks and the Great Barrier Reef Dr Steven Miles said it was encouraging that only minor damage had been seen so far.

“The world’s largest coral reef continues to be one of the greatest tourism destinations on the planet,” Dr Miles said.

“Reef scientists are advising that the current El Niño should wane soon, with the benefit that the risks associated with heat stress are likely to subside. We’re not out of the woods yet but I am crossing my fingers that we will not see any broad-scale bleaching events like those that endangered the Reef in 1998 and 2002, and an intense event in the southern part of the Reef in 2006,’ he said.

Rangers and Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority staff are constantly monitoring reef health at hundreds of sites across the Great Barrier Reef.

“So far this summer they’ve done more than 200 surveys on 29 reefs, mostly in far north Queensland, and have not seen any significant bleaching,’ Dr Miles said.

“In 12 percent of the surveys they saw low-impact coral bleaching. On northern reefs they saw localised bleaching on some reef flats, which is not unusual for warm summers.

“Further reef health impact surveys are programmed through January, February March and April to ensure we have the best possible scientific information about the health of the reef. The Eye on the Reef citizen science program means there are even more eyes out for bleaching events. 

“The Great Barrier Reef is 2300km longand made up of about 3000 individual reefs and is well and truly open for business. This is one of the natural wonders of the world – a chance to see coral reefs in their absolute spectacular beauty.

“Visitors can rest assured whether they go snorkelling at Green Island off Cairns or diving at any of the well-serviced dive sites off the Queensland coast that they can expect to see the Great Barrier Reef in all its glory,” he said.

Other parts of the world have not been so lucky. Dr Miles said reefs in some other countries had been seriously affected by bleaching recently, including some around Hawaii. Australian scientists from the University of Queensland’s Global Change Institute have been collaborating with US scientists to understand the implications and impacts of the serious bleaching in Hawaii.

Global Change Institute Director, Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, has studied mass coral bleaching ever since it first began to be documented in the early 1980s.

“The event in Hawaii is the worst on record since bleaching began a decade ago. Corals have been damaged across hundreds of kilometres of coastline. Given the importance of coral reefs to the Hawaiian economy, both industry and the public are worried about the future of their reef resources,’ Professor Hoegh-Guldberg said.

“Corals get their food from tiny symbiotic algae that live in their cells and provide abundant energy from sunlight. When the coral are stressed, for example, by elevated sea temperatures, they expel the algae and turn pure white (i.e. bleach) as their tissues lose the brown cells.”

Coral reefs can recover if temperature stress is mild and for not too long.

Dr Miles said: “While this latest news is positive for the Great Barrier Reef and Queensland’s fishing and tourism industries, unfortunately predictions in a warming climate are that bleaching events, like bushfires, are likely to intensify in the future as levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases, and consequently, sea temperatures, increase’.

The Palaszczuk Government is committed to protecting the Great Barrier Reef, including committing $100 million to the reef over the next five years. the reef is an Australian icon and world-renowned ecosystem contributing $6 billion annually to the Queensland economy, supporting 60,000 jobs.


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