The Great Barrier Reef’s safety net is becoming more complex but less effective

Image 20170403 16542 1ax509b
The Great Barrier Reef is currently experiencing a second wave of bleaching.

Tiffany Morrison, James Cook University

The Great Barrier Reef is under serious threat, as the coral-bleaching crisis continues to unfold. These problems are caused by global climate change, but our ability to react to them – or prevent more harm – is clouded by a tangled web of bureaucracy. The Conversation

Published this week, my latest research shows the increasingly complex systems for governing the Reef are becoming less effective.

Earlier this month, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the National Coral Reef Taskforce confirmed that a second wave of mass bleaching is now unfolding on the Reef. The same week, the Australian government quietly announced an unexpected review of the governance of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

This most recent coral bleaching crisis brings the governance of the reef into stark relief.

How did we get here?

Yet this problem didn’t always exist. In 2011, a state-of-the-art system governed the complete range of marine, terrestrial, and global threats to the reef. The management of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park was (and still is) the responsibility of the Australian government, primarily through the statutory Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

A highly collaborative working relationship, dating back to 1979, existed with the State of Queensland. Complementary marine, land, water, and coastal arrangements were established over four decades. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) provided important international oversight as a consequence of the 1981 World Heritage listing.

By 2011, the management of the reef had received international acclaim, with the 2004 rezoning process (which divides the reef into eight zones for different activities) receiving 19 international, national, and local awards.

Yet despite the attention of federal lawmakers and considerable acclaim, in 2014 UNESCO was considering the Great Barrier Reef for an “In Danger” listing. Appearing on this list is a strong signal to the international community that a World Heritage area is threatened and corrective action needs to be taken.

Lizard Island in 2016, after the worst climate change-induced coral bleaching event ever recorded.
AAP Image/XL Catlin Seaview Survey

What went wrong?

So what went wrong? My study examined the structure and context of the systems for protecting the reef, which offers insight into how well they’re working.

It’s worth noting that complex systems aren’t inherently bad. A polycentric approach – which literally means “multiple centres”, instead of a single governing body – can be both stable and effective. But I found that in the case of the Great Barrier Reef, it masks serious problems.

A number of stresses, like climate change, economic crises, resource industry pressure and local political backlashes against conservation, have all combined to impact effective management of the reef.

Furthermore, successive governments keep making new announcements (new laws, programs, funds, and plans) while at the same time chipping away at the pre-existing laws, departments and funding.

Low visibility examples include the 2012 introduction of a policy that requires developers who want to build on or near the reef to make an offset payment into the Reef Trust, which funds activity to improve water quality. However, this has also made getting consent for development easier.

It’s also concerning that, while there is no evidence of actual corruption, there is no mechanism to minimise the potential for undue industry influence under this policy. The Department of Environment grants approval for developments, and also oversees the offset fund into which the developers pay. Most people would regard this as a conflict of interest.

More visible examples include the dismantling of complementary policies and institutions, including the repeals of Queensland coasts and catchments legislation in 2013, and Australian climate law and policy in 2014.

A 2015 study of OECD countries singled out the Australian Department of Environment for unusually frequent changes of both name and composition. The same study also showed that Australia has one of the sharpest declines in staff at national environment authorities since the 1990s, relative to other OECD countries.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority itself has seen its resources plateau, and an increasing politicisation of decisions. Its independence has also been reduced through a series of small, incremental actions. Since 2005, there has been at least ten “regime changes”, ranging from small tweaks to large restructurings.

Schematic of major changes to regime structure, context, and effectiveness over time. Different types of change influence the structure and effectiveness of the regime in different ways.

Core funding across all relevant agencies has failed to keep pace with costs, at the same time as demands on them rose in response to the Queensland resources and population boom, not to mention global climate change.

On top of that, reef stakeholders must increasingly focus their attention on how all of this fits together as a streamlined system or as a network, rather than how to actually make it effective.

If we are to save the Great Barrier Reef from climate change, then we need to fix its governance.

What needs to come next

In 2015, after the government released their Reef 2050 Plan, UNESCO decided not to list the Reef as in danger, pending a 2016 assessment of progress. UNESCO is yet to make a recommendation, although the fact that the plan has very little mention of human-induced climate change may prove to be an issue.

Despite scientific outcry, the Australian government successfully lobbied UNESCO to remove the Great Barrier Reef and other Australian sites from its draft report on World Heritage and Tourism in a Changing Climate in 2016.

In response to public concern, the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies held a policy consultation workshop with stakeholders and experts from all levels of government, industry representatives, environmental NGOs and peak scientific bodies like the Australian Institute of Marine Science. Participants made various recommendations for reform, including:

  • meeting the national climate mitigation challenge that Australia supported at COP21 in Paris (first and foremost)

  • strengthening independent oversight of environmental decision-making (for example, reinstating the formal joint ministerial council)

  • reinstating the independence and diversity of the Great Barrier Reef Management Authority, by improving the role and composition of the board and executive management

  • properly costing and funding the protection of the Great Barrier Reef.

Yes, the Great Barrier Reef is in crisis, but the coral-bleaching problem is also a governance disaster. Regressive change, both large and small, has been masked by the complexity of the governance regime. Clear analysis of the minor and major transformations required to update the regime will be critical. If there’s no real reform, a UNESCO “in danger” listing seems inevitable.

Tiffany Morrison, Principal Research Fellow, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University

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


Love connection: breakthrough fights crown-of-thorns starfish with pheromones

Image 20170405 24995 yfrzo1
Hundreds of thousands of crown-of-thorns starfish have invaded North Queensland, devastating reefs.

Bernard Degnan, The University of Queensland

Crown-of-thorns starfish are one of the most aggressive reef-destroyers in the world. A single female can produce up to 120 million offspring in one spawning season, and these spiny invaders eat coral, weakening entire reef systems. They’re a serious problem in northern Queensland, and are likely to move south. The Conversation

But after three years of work, my colleagues and I have made a discovery, published in Nature today, that could offer a whole new way to fight them: we have decoded the gene sequence for the crown-of-thorns’ pheromones, which prompt them to gather for mating.

The project was built on the premise that if we could tap into the communications systems of starfish, we could modify their behaviours, and then eventually set up a program to capture them.

The ultimate goal was to find a way to get the starfish to converge, so it’s possible to set traps and remove them from the reef. Currently, crown-of-thorns starfish are removed by divers, who either collect them by hand or inject them with toxic solutions. This is labour-intensive and deeply inefficient.

So how do we get them into one place? Well, we exploited their natural mating behaviour. Starfish, like a lot of other marine animals – including corals – release their eggs and sperm into the water, and fertilisation occurs externally. For starfish to do this successfully they need to form a tight cluster, so there’s a strong imperative gather in one spot, given the right stimulus.

Crown-of-thorn starfish grazing on healthy coral leaving behind dead white skeletons. Outbreaks of this starfish is one of the leading causes of coral reef destruction throughout the Indo-Pacific.
Oceanwide Images

How do starfish communicate?

We thought if we could figure out how starfish know how to get together, we might be able to replicate it. To find out what was going on, we put a group of crown-of-thorns starfish in a large aquarium, and waited for them to aggregate. We then set up what’s called a choice experiment.

We used a Y-shaped maze, and put new starfish at the base of the Y. The two arms of the Y contained either fresh seawater, or water that had just passed over the aggregating starfish in the other aquarium.

As expected, fresh seawater had no effect. These starfish aren’t very active animals – they just sat there. But as soon as the water from the aquarium hit them, they became highly active and moved towards the source.

That told us immediately that the aggregating starfish had changed the chemistry of the seawater in a significant way.

The next step was to actually sequence the pheromone proteins in that seawater. We then mapped these sequences back to the genome, and identified the genes that encode the pheromones that are making the starfish do this.

The beauty of this whole process is that there’s a direct one-to-one relationship between the sequence of proteins that make up the pheromones, and the gene sequence. Because genes are a lot easier to analyse than proteins, we can then look at them in great detail, and use that information in future projects.

A crown-of-thorns starfish eating a brain coral.
Australian Institute of Marine Science

Eco-friendly pest control

What’s particularly good about this result is that these pheromones are unique to the crown-of-thorns starfish. The genes that encode the proteins have evolved rapidly and recently, and aren’t shared by other species of starfish that we’ve looked at. It looks like each starfish has its own unique repertoire of pheromones.

This means that any attractants or bait we develop from this project will only be recognised by crown-of-thorns starfish, and won’t impact other species.

We look at this paper as phase one: the discovery of the communication pheromones. We’re now in phase two: trying to mimic those pheromones so we can develop baits for traps to remove the starfish from the reef before they reproduce.

Ultimately we’d like for fishers up and down the Queensland coast to be able to go out and fish them and make some money out of it. That could be through a bounty, or through developing some useful (or edible) product out of the starfish to sell.

We need a quicker way to remove crown-of-thorns starfish, and real incentive to get plenty of people involved. No-one knows how many there are around Australia, but there are some reefs in Queensland that have had hundreds of thousands, or even millions, removed by conservation projects. If we see those amounts on individual reefs, the true numbers across the Indo-Pacific ocean must be astronomical.

The final, most exciting aspect of this project is the possibility of wider applications. This approach hasn’t been used before in a marine environment, but it could potentially work for a wide range of invasive species. Pest organisms are a multibillion-dollar global problem – and this could mean we move beyond mitigating invasive species and actually start controlling them.

Bernard Degnan, UQ Development Fellow, The University of Queensland

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