Australia reprieved – now it must prove it can care for the Reef


Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, The University of Queensland

UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee has decided not to add the Great Barrier Reef to the List of World Heritage in Danger, for now at least. In a draft decision released ahead of its annual meeting next month, it has welcomed Australia’s plan to save the Reef, but also demanded a progress report on its policies by the end of 2016, as well as a full update on the Reef’s conservation status by December 2019.

The move draws a temporary line underneath an issue that has loomed large for the past three years, bringing Australia’s stewardship of the Reef uncomfortably into the international spotlight.

During that time there has been copious input from scientists, politicians and campaigners, discussing threats such as climate change, dredging, pollution, shipping, and even the fate of the barramundi on our plates. It has got people talking all over the planet about whether or not the Australian and Queensland governments really care enough about one of the most recognisable symbols of Australia.

Not everyone has agreed with one another. As debated extensively on The Conversation and elsewhere, experts have advocated both for and against the idea of listing the Reef as endangered.

On one hand, the evidence is impossible to doubt that the Great Barrier Reef is in danger. Half of the corals on the Great Barrier Reef have disappeared since 1985, and the destruction of coastal habitat by rapid port development and other activities has been plain to see. On the other hand, the recent ramping up of remedies by both federal and state governments shows that our leaders clearly want to honour the promises made when the Great Barrier Reef was first listed as World Heritage in 1981.

Has UNESCO made the right call?

I have previously argued that a decision to list the Great Barrier Reef as endangered would be premature. So UNESCO’s decision makes a lot of sense to me, for several reasons.

The first is that the decline of the Great Barrier Reef began as much as 100 years ago, and hence is not something that the government can turn around overnight. It requires a concerted, non-political process that recognises and aggressively solves the problems of pollution, sediments, and unsustainable fishing.

Given that we have not had an effective process for some time (water quality, for instance, has been an issue for decades; it didn’t just pop up in the past couple of years), it would seem counterproductive to list the Great Barrier Reef as “in danger” at a time when federal and state governments are finally beginning to take clear actions in response to the issue. It will take time to rethink coastal agriculture, fix eroded gullies, and address issues such as coastal herbicide and pesticide use.

The second reason is that the response of ecosystems to these policy changes will necessarily be complex and slow. As coral populations hopefully rebound, seagrasses regrow, and threatened populations such as dugong being to recover, we will need to make careful long-term observations before we know if the actions taken now have been effective.

Short-term international manoeuvring won’t save the Great Barrier Reef. We need to think beyond politics and recognise that safeguarding the Reef will require a long-term commitment by Australia as a nation, not just a political process.

The third and final reason is that it would be rather perverse for UNESCO to ignore Australia’s clear intention to take this issue seriously. Given the effort that successive state and federal governments have made to avert an “in danger” listing, what incentive would remain if the listing was made anyway? It would hardly help to motivate future governments to fight the uphill battle of getting the listing removed again.

Crunch time

There is no doubt that federal environment minister Greg Hunt and his Queensland state counterpart Steven Miles will both be sighing with relief that the prospect of an “in danger” listing has been staved off for another five years. This is great for Australia and for the many people who believe that re-listing the reef as “in danger” would have been the wrong step to take at this time.

But the real work starts now. It’s time to vindicate UNESCO’s decision by showing that the Reef is truly being protected.

There are encouraging signs. The Queensland government has successfully introduced the Ports Bill, which restricts port development in Queensland to four so-called Priority Port Development Areas, and has restricted dredging for port facilities outside these areas for the next 10 years.

Meanwhile the federal government has banned port developers from dumping dredge spoil in the waters of the Great Barrier Reef, and both federal and state governments have committed to a long-term sustainability plan that acknowledges the major challenges from coastal development, pollution, and (in a somewhat less satisfactory way) climate change.

This is all well and good. But as pointed out before, the devil is in the detail. While still in process, much of these commitments still need to be legislated, and without legislation they are no more than hot air. We must also trust our science (and not private opinion), and ensure that we take real actions with a measurable outcome that safeguards the Reef.

It is also absolutely essential that loopholes, such as those within the Ports Bill, are removed so that we never again find ourselves engaging in activities that are ultimately at odds with the long-term future of the Great Barrier Reef. As it stands now, for example, the Ports Bill only prohibits “significant” port development. However, what is classified as “significant” is not defined by the Bill and is, at this point of time, entirely arbitrary. These problems need to be fixed if Australia’s apparent sincerity about solving the problems is to be believed.

Let’s hope that in 2020, when UNESCO assesses the progress that has been made, Australia passes with flying colours as a nation that has successfully turned around one of its most significant environmental problems.

The Conversation

Ove Hoegh-Guldberg is Director, Global Change Institute at The University of Queensland.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Development and the Reef: the rules have been lax for too long


Bob Pressey, James Cook University; Alana Grech; Jon C. Day, James Cook University, and Marcus Sheaves, James Cook University

This article is part of a series examining in depth the various threats to the Great Barrier Reef.

The Great Barrier Reef, in one of the world’s best-managed marine parks, might seem safe enough from human activities on land. But its future depends to a large degree on what people do alongside it.

The Reef’s coastline spans about 2,300 km, and its catchment is home to 1,165,000 people, most of whom live along the coast. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park attracts some 1.6 million tourists each year, while the coastal zone produces or exports large volumes of farming and mining products.

While most development has been in the southern two-thirds of the Reef’s coast, south of Cooktown, much of the Reef’s coastal zone has been converted (see pages 6-36 here) to various land uses, such as housing and other urban infrastructure like roads, drainage, commercial and light-industry areas, and tourism facilities. Land has been developed for sugar cane and other crops, aquaculture, stock grazing, highways, railways, refineries and other industrial developments, and ports.

People have changed the Reef’s coastal zone dramatically, and the direct result is the decline of the Reef’s ecosystems. Further declines are likely, but not inevitable – with enough commitment, we can improve the Reef’s condition.

Effects of coastal development

The beauty, biological richness, and cultural values that have made the Great Barrier Reef a World Heritage Area, not to mention a global and national icon, are at stake, as UNESCO weighs up whether to add the Reef to the List of World Heritage in Danger.

The water that flows into the Reef’s lagoon is polluted with sediments, nutrients and pesticides. Urban development is a big contributor, while some tourism developments, such as Port Hinchinbrook, have been ecologically damaging because of poor planning or inappropriate fast-tracking.

Many coastal waterways have been blocked by roads and dams; recreational and commercial fishing have damaged habitats and populations of dolphins and dugongs (see page 127 here); and shipping traffic is set to increase markedly, with the associated port development posing a threat from dredging.

Add climate change to the mix, and the upshot is a long list of threats (see page 256 here) to the Reef, some of which are set to intensify rapidly.

Gladstone is one area on the Great Barrier Reef coast that has hosted a range of different development types.
AAP Image/Dan Peled

The danger is death by a thousand cuts. No single development has tipped the balance, but a litany of poor choices has resulted in a tyranny of small decisions, with a large cumulative impact.

The problem is simple, even if the solutions are not: a long succession of piecemeal developments and government approvals has ignored or failed to understand the environmental problems, and put short-term gain before the long-term survival of the Reef.

What are we doing about it?

To the casual observer, checks and balances seem to be in place for safeguarding the Reef. Large developments are subject to environmental impact assessments (EIAs), while there are systems aimed at monitoring cumulative damage and offsetting any environmental losses.

The reality is different. The EIA process is broken, with a focus on bureaucratic procedure instead of good environmental outcomes, and permit conditions are not being monitored. Offsets are poorly implemented, preventing real compensation for environmental losses, and the assessment of cumulative impacts is primitive.

Last year, when the Federal and Queensland governments released their draft 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan, they acknowledged that the greatest risks to the Reef are “climate change, poor water quality from land-based run off, impacts from coastal development and some fishing activities”. In a critical response, the Australian Academy of Science pointed out that the draft plan would promote further coastal development and fail to assess and mitigate the resulting impacts on the Reef.

The revised Reef 2050 Plan, released in March, is still short on specific commitments to tackle the impacts of coastal development. The Academy remains concerned.

Some statements of achievement don’t stand up to close scrutiny. For example, the ban on marine dumping of dredge spoil from new port developments leaves the Queensland government with the problem of deciding where else it will go, with the environmental impacts still unknown. And the plan is vague about the management of around a million cubic metres a year of spoil from maintenance dredging at existing ports.

The Reef Trust, bolstered by an extra $100 million in the recent Federal Budget, provides welcome additional funding, although not enough to address all the threats to the Reef. And some of the Reef Trust money amounts to a levy on developers who damage the Great Barrier Reef, with the funds set to be used in ways that are obscure and – if past performance is any guide – possibly ineffective.

The Reef 2050 Plan sets targets for ecosystem health and biodiversity that are general and qualitative, making achievement subject to argument. Enhancements to management of coastal land-use change are described using terms such as “add to”, “require”, “strengthen”, and “ensure” – vaguely encouraging, but essentially lacking in specific commitment.

Time to get serious

If the Federal and Queensland governments are serious about reducing the impacts of present and future coastal development on the Great Barrier Reef, there are several ways forward.

First, the burden of proof should rest with developers. We have pushed the Great Barrier Reef to the point where there can be no more tolerance of uncertainty about the impacts of developments. Where there is any uncertainty, proponents of new developments must demonstrate that no harm will ensue.

Second, the environmental impact assessment process needs to be made effective, by appointing contractors capable of independent assessment, introducing peer-review of assessments, ensuring financial guarantees against unexpected impacts, and regular auditing of approval conditions.

Third, governments need to use the best available methods to assess cumulative impacts on the Reef as a result of changes in land and water use, coastal planning decisions, and the future demands for coal, sugar cane, tourism or other products. We have the ability to model the effects of all these factors on the Reef, using the best available data and expert opinion.

Fourth, there is an urgent need to tighten the process of environmental offsets, which are meant to deliver environmental benefits elsewhere to make up for damage caused by development. Above and beyond the need to first avoid or mitigate environmental damage from developments, offsets should be designed according to world’s best practice, an appropriate standard for the Great Barrier Reef.

Fifth, targets for recovery of the Reef need actual numbers, not vague statements. And those numbers should, at any time, be the best available estimates of what is needed for the recovery of key ecosystems and species, coupled with ongoing monitoring.

Committed action on these five fronts would be a strong start toward reversing the decline of the Great Barrier Reef. There is no time to lose.

The Conversation

Bob Pressey is Professor and Program Leader, Conservation Planning, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University.
Alana Grech is Lecturer in Spatial Information Science at Macquarie University.
Jon C. Day is PhD candidate, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University.
Marcus Sheaves is Professor of Marine Biology at James Cook University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

No bones about it: sharks evolved cartilage for a reason


John Long, Flinders University

Sharks are one of the oldest and least changed of all the living back-boned jawed creatures. But because their skeletons are made of cartilage much of their early fossil record is poor.

Cartilage is a rubbery tissue that forms the framework for bones to ossify (harden) upon. It’s why babies have rubbery legs when they begin to walk, as the bones haven’t fully ossified around the cartilage cores. Our ears and noses have cartilage frameworks too, which lack bone, but still support the soft structures we hear and smell with.

Cartilage doesn’t preserve as well as bones, so the early shark fossil records are based mostly on isolated scales and teeth.

Although the oldest of these shark-like scales is 480 million years old, the oldest complete shark fossil, Cladoselache, is only about 360 million years old.

Older but quite incomplete fossil sharks are known, such as Doliodus from Canada, around 400 million years old. But the simple truth is that most sharks of this age are known only from isolated teeth or scales.

Cladoselache, one of the oldest complete fossil sharks, is dated at around 360 million years old, but its remains are compressed, unlike the new fossil shark from Gogo in Western Australia.
John Long, Author provided

This poor fossil record is partly responsible for scientists thinking that sharks must represent a primitive condition in vertebrate evolution compared to all other fishes and land animals (tetrapods) which have a well-ossified bony skeleton.

But this idea has just been challenged due to the discovery, announced today in the journal PLOS One, of a 380-million-year-old fossil shark from Western Australia named Gogoselachus lynbeazleyae that shows remnant bone cells present in its cartilaginous skeleton.

Finding the fossil

Finding a very rare fossil in the field gives one a kind of euphoric rush and I recall it well the day I found the Gogo shark, at 11am on July 7, 2005. I was searching for fossils on Gogo Station in the Kimberley, near Fitzroy Crossing, about a four-hour drive inland from Broome.

I had just split a limestone nodule with my hammer and saw a vague outline of a pair of jaws staring at me. Examining the specimen with my hand lens revealed the teeth had multiple cusps fixed onto a broad bony base – a feature unique to sharks at this time. I was overjoyed at finding the first fossil shark in more than 60 years of collecting from the site.

This photo of me holding the Gogo shark was snapped minutes after the discovery on July 7, 2005.
Lindsay Hatcher, Author provided

So why the big deal about finding a shark at Gogo? The Gogo Formation is undoubtedly one of the world’s best sites for studying the early evolution of fishes as it yields superb three-dimensional specimens that lived 380 million years ago, a very important time in fish evolution.

Gogo has a diverse fauna of many kinds of ancient armoured placoderm fishes as well as early bony fishes (osteichthyans), but no sharks.

Finding a shark at Gogo has been a bit of a holy grail for fish palaeontologists as we all expected a shark from this site would have extraordinarily good preservation. It should reveal something new about early shark evolution, as nearly all other sharks of this age were flattened and poorly preserved.

Back in the lab, I prepared the specimen in dilute acetic acid, which slowly dissolved away the limestone rock surrounding the fossil. I was surprised to find the cartilaginous elements of the shark easily came out of the rock. This suggested that the skeleton was made of a special kind of highly mineralised cartilage.

Although mostly incomplete, the specimen comprised the complete lower jaws, shoulder girdles which support the pectoral fins, some isolated gill-arch elements and many small teeth and scales.

Top, the Gogo shark specimen in rock as it was found. Below, after three weeks of dilute acetic acid preparation the large lower jaw cartilages are seen emerging in perfect 3D form.
John Long, Author provided

The teeth were highly unusual, with many small cusps surrounding the larger fangs. From the distinctive teeth we knew we had a new species of shark, as every living shark on the planet has its characteristic teeth that can identify the species from teeth alone.

Gogoselachus was clearly a fast-swimming predator that hunted other fishes using its jagged teeth to snare prey. Gogoselachus lived on an ancient reef that teemed with many kinds of large predatory placoderm fishes, so had to hold its own in this piscine rat race.

Teeth of Gogoselachus are distinctive with many small cusps. The image far right is a CT-scanned tooth showing internal structure.
John Long, Flinders University, and Tim Senden, ANU, Author provided

Fossil shark cartilage with bone cells

Professor Per Ahlberg is a palaeontologist at Uppsala University in Sweden who was not involved in the study but is an expert on early fish evolution. He acknowledges that this discovery about early sharks is interesting.

It fills an ecological gap in our understanding of the Gogo reef. We know from other fossil localities that sharks had evolved and were already quite diverse by this time, so it has always been a puzzle that they were absent from the Gogo fauna. Now we can see that they were there after all, even though they seem to have been quite rare.

What Gogoselachus might have looked like, as restored from the scant fossil remains.
John Long

Yet the most significant thing about the find was in the detail of its cartilage microstructure. We analysed the specimen using thin-sections, micro-CT scanning and scannning electron microscopy.

While these tools allowed us to confirm the cartilage was like modern shark cartilage, made up of little bundles called tesserae, the matrix holding these cartilage units together retained a cellular structure with remnant bone cells visible.

This implied that sharks most likely evolved from ancestors that had much more bone in the skeleton. The evolution of modern sharks was driven by their loss of bone, which suggested they are not as primitive as previously thought.

Gogoselachus cartilage showing the separate units called tesserae making the up the lower jaw (left), and a thin section showing bone cells (red line) inside the matrix which binds the tesserae together (right). Image on the left is 0.5mm across, image on right is about 0.1mm across.
John Long, Flinders University, and Carole Burrow, Queensland Museum, Author provided

Per told me the other exciting thing about this shark is the light it throws on the evolution of the skeleton.

Modern sharks have skeletons of a peculiar tissue called prismatic calcified cartilage: cartilage that is mineralised, not as solid sheets, but as a mosaic of tiny mineral prisms.

The new Gogo shark shows what seems to be an early version of prismatic calcified cartilage: unlike the modern kind, the gaps between the prisms contain cells that resemble bone cells. This may help to explain the relationship between prismatic calcified cartilage and bone.

Modern sharks most likely evolved their lighter cartilaginous skeletons to become faster swimmers, to evade predators and swiftly catch their prey. The loss of bone in their skeleton is also supported by the fact the oldest and most basal of all jawed vertebrates, the placoderms, had heavy bony skeletons. In the most recent phylogenetic analysis of lower vertebrates, the placoderms appear as being basal – or at a common evolutionary level – to sharks.

This study further supports the idea that sharks must have evolved from bony primitive ancestors and lost their bone early on in the race as they acquired their predatory body shape.

Today when we see the sleek form of a shark in water we see a triumph of evolution, a masterpiece of fine tuning at the cellular level, resulting in their current ecological success.

The Conversation

John Long is Strategic Professor in Palaeontology at Flinders University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.