Great Barrier Reef Foundation chief scientist: science will lie at the heart of our decisions


Peter J Mumby, The University of Queensland

Much has been made of the federal government’s decision to invest A$500m into management of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR), A$443.3m of it to be administered by the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, of which I am the chief scientist.

If my conversations with colleagues in the reef research field are any guide, there is still a lot of confusion over the intended use of these funds, the disbursement process, and whether big business will interfere with how the reef is managed.

Filling funding gaps

Over the past five years, the foundation has funded or managed multiple research projects that aim to support long-term management of the reef. Many of these projects would be considered either too risky or not “pure science” enough to be funded by the Australian Research Council (the exception being the ARC Linkage program).

I mean “risky” not in the sense of posing a risk to the GBR, but rather to describe research plans that are at the cutting edge, where the potential rewards are high but so is the risk of failure.

In this way, the GBR Foundation has filled a critical gap in funding researchers who are working at the interface of science, climate change, and reef management. This has included teams from multiple universities, the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS), and CSIRO.

Decisions over funding allocations are made through a conventional procedure involving external and internal review and two scientific advisory committees with representatives from each of the major research organisations (the University of Queensland, James Cook University, AIMS and CSIRO), the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, and an independent chair.




Read more:
$500 million for the Great Barrier Reef is welcome, but we need a sea change in tactics too


As a professor of coral reef ecology at the University of Queensland, I participated in the foundation’s technical advisory group for several years and collaborated on several of the funded projects. As my own research focus includes how management can improve coral reef resilience, I was invited some months ago to serve as the GBR Foundation’s chief scientist, a part-time role alongside my main job as a University of Queensland professor.

I accepted this position for several reasons. First, scientists and practitioners have been calling for a major government investment in the GBR and I am keen to help steer the process in the most cost-effective way possible. I can help by ensuring that the right people are engaged in the process and that projects are subject to intense scientific scrutiny.

Second, having been involved with the GBR Foundation for some time, I know that its approach is both inclusive and merit-based, soliciting the best minds irrespective of which insitution they work for. This is important if we are to deliver the best value for taxpayers’ money.

Third, the foundation’s decision-making process is science-led, and I have never seen any interference from the board. Although some people have expressed concerns over the board’s links to the fossil fuel industry, climate change has been the focus of the foundation’s funded research for as long as I can remember.

Funding focus

The government’s decision to entrust environmental management and research to a private foundation is not unprecedented internationally. The US National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, for example, receives funds from both government agencies and private donations, which it uses to fund a range of conservation programs.

The A$443.3m provided to the GBR Foundation is intended to pursue a range of aims:

  • improving the quality of freshwater reaching the reef (A$201m)

  • reducing the impact of crown-of-thorns starfish (A$58m)

  • engaging traditional owners and the broader community in reef conservation (A$22.3m)

  • improving monitoring of reef health (A$40m)

  • supporting scientific research into reef restoration, with a specific focus on tackling challenges created by climate change (A$100m).

The latter is particularly significant because this program aims to expand the toolbox of interventions available to reef managers as climate change continues to intensify.

Of course, reef researchers and managers can’t fix climate change on their own. Other funding and incentives will also be needed to help our wider society reduce greenhouse emissions.

But here’s the important point: dealing with climate change will necessitate a wide range of responses, both to address the root cause of the problem and to adapt to its effects. The A$443.3m will help Australia do the latter for the GBR.

Clarifying misconceptions

I’d like to clarify some of the misconceptions I have heard around the funding awarded to the GBR Foundation.

The funds do indeed consider the impacts of climate change, specifically in helping coral reefs – and the associated management practices – adapt to the coming changes.

Science will lie at the heart of the decisions over how best to parcel out the funds, and although the foundation’s board will sign off on the approvals, it will have no say in what is proposed for funding.

Those research and management projects that do receive funding will be carried out by the most appropriate agencies available, whether that be universities, small or large businesses, other charities, AIMS, CSIRO, Natural Resource Management organisations, and so on. All of these agencies are well used to applying for funding under schemes like this.




Read more:
The science and art of reef restoration


Finally, I have heard concerns about the involvement of major corporations on the Foundation’s board. Everyone is, of course, entitled to their view on the appropriateness of this. But for what it’s worth, my own is that progress on climate change will be strengthened, not weakened, by a close dialogue between those responsible for managing the impacts of climate change and those in a position to exert significant change in our society.

Many of world’s greatest innovations occur in major industry, and I hope this will also apply to the Great Barrier Reef.The Conversation

Peter J Mumby, Chair professor, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Politicised science on the Great Barrier Reef? It’s been that way for more than a century



File 20180821 30599 8psjky.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Successive governments have seen the Great Barrier Reef not just as a scientific wonder, but as a channel to further economic development.
Superjoseph/Shutterstock.com

Rohan James Lloyd, James Cook University

The controversy surrounding the A$444 million given to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation by the federal government shows how politicised science has become on the Great Barrier Reef.

One reef scientist, who declined to be named, was quoted saying that the grant was “obviously” political, and accused the federal government of seeking to deny the opposition the chance to make the Great Barrier Reef an election issue.

But the politicisation of reef science, and particularly the Great Barrier Reef itself, is not new. It has a long history, stretching back to the time when the British empire was at its most powerful.




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In the nineteenth century, scientists studying the Great Barrier Reef were driven by the political winds and whims of British colonialists. For the most part, these scientists aided the mission of exploration and settlement. With every exploratory voyage, the value of the Great Barrier Reef as an arm of the empire grew, as scientists began to weave their insights into the reef’s biology and geology with evocations of its potential resources and suitability for settlement. Scientists such as Joseph Beete Jukes were particularly important in illuminating the Great Barrier Reef’s scientific mysteries and economic possibilities.

Around the time of federation in 1901, however, the politics of reef science took on a heightened nationalistic and provincial tone. Scientists asserted that the Great Barrier Reef’s value to Queensland and the nation lay specifically in its exploitable resources, and argued that it was the government’s responsibility to develop them.

As the science was in its infancy, reef scientists imagined that their field would inevitably develop in concert with the establishment of reef-based industries such as fishing and coral rubble mining.




Read more:
Death on the Great Barrier Reef: how dead coral went from economic resource to conservation symbol


In the early twentieth century, scientists suggested that a research station needed to be established along the Queensland coast. The idea was championed by natural historian Edmund Banfield, who wrote that it would “demonstrate how best the riches of the Great Barrier Reef might be exploited”.

Many scientists of the day believed that the government had failed to sufficiently develop the Great Barrier Reef, and feared that its dormant resources were at risk of plunder by our northern Asian neighbours. Reef science became caught up in the prevailing discourse of an empty and undeveloped northern Australia.

In response, Queensland-based scientists established the Great Barrier Reef Committee in 1922. The committee saw itself as having two roles: “pure” scientific research on the reef’s biology and geology; and the identification of commercial products that the reef could provide.

In 1928 the committee, backed by the British, Australian and Queensland governments, organised a research expedition to Low Isles, off the coast of Port Douglas.

The year-long expedition, led by British-born marine scientist Charles Maurice Yonge, aimed to find evidence of the reef’s economic potential. But the research, while significant to coral-reef science, offered little advice for the Queensland government despite its significant financial investment.

Nonetheless, the Great Barrier Reef Committee continued to leverage the state government’s interest in developing northern Queensland, and in 1950 it secured a lease on Heron Island. The committee was also given funding to build a research station on the island, after promising that it would reveal commercial products and boost tourism.

Heron Island, where the research station is still operating, now run by the University of Queensland.
UQ/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

The Heron Island research station was built at a time when only a few Australian universities offered full courses in marine biology. Reef science had always been dominated by geology, as researchers sought to understand how coral reefs were formed.

After the second world war, aided by more sophisticated drilling equipment, and governments eager to locate local oil reserves, scientists such as the Queensland geologist Dorothy Hill began studying the Great Barrier Reef’s mineral and petroleum reserves, and recommended several sites for further exploration.

Between 1959 and 1967 three exploration wells were drilled along the reef, but none showed signs of oil or gas. In the same period, the Queensland government granted 37 prospecting and exploration permits, 23 of them in the vicinity of the Great Barrier Reef.

Geologists’ role in this exploration meant that they were viewed with suspicion by their marine biologist colleagues when the “Save the Reef” campaign began in 1967.

Geologists were largely seen as sympathetic to the oil industry’s interests, whereas marine biologists typically aligned themselves with the views of conservationists. At the same time, scientists found themselves taking sides in response to the first outbreak of Crown of Thorns starfish in the 1960s.

Robert Endean, the scientist who campaigned for government intervention in the outbreak, found himself marginalised by the scientific community, faced backlash from tourist operators concerned by his claims of dying reefs, and eventually lost government support for his research.

During both the Save the Reef campaign and the Crown of Thorns outbreak, scientists were publicly scrutinised for how their research, and their public comments, impacted the debate. A similar pattern has played out over the mass coral bleaching that hit the Great Barrier Reef in 2016.

Today, it seems governments are seeking to make the Great Barrier Reef appear to be protected while scientists themselves leverage the political and public fascination, with the result that the Great Barrier Reef accounts for a significant proportion of Australia’s entire marine research output.

The issues of sediment and nutrient run-off, coral bleaching, ocean acidification, Crown of Thorns starfish, coal mines, and port developments have all complicated the politics of reef science.




Read more:
Not out of hot water yet: what the world thinks about the Great Barrier Reef


For half a century, the science has been overlaid with a wider discourse about the need to preserve the Great Barrier Reef. This idea, championed by scientists, politicians and civil society, shows no sign of subsiding.

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The Conversation

Today, the amounts of money involved may well be unprecedented. But the idea of reef science coming with political strings attached is nothing new.

Rohan James Lloyd, Adjunct Lecturer, James Cook University

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

Geoengineering the Great Barrier Reef needs strong rules



File 20180727 106505 1psdsqe.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Can geoengineering buy the coral reefs more time?
Oregon State University/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Kerryn Brent, University of Tasmania; Brendan Gogarty, University of Tasmania; Jan McDonald, University of Tasmania, and Jeff McGee, University of Tasmania

The Great Barrier Reef has experienced extensive coral bleaching over the past two years. Faced with this reality, scientists are proposing a range of options to save the reef.

A recent conference showcased new possibilities for enhancing Reef resilience, including boosting coral abundance and geoengineering techniques that would manipulate local conditions to reduce ocean temperatures.




Read more:
Great Barrier Reef bleaching would be almost impossible without climate change


These geoengineering approaches carry their own risks, and require careful management, even at the research and field testing stages.

Technology is needed to buy the reef time

Climate change is affecting the reef through bleaching events, species redistribution, and ocean acidification. Stabilising environmental conditions “to protect current reef biodiversity” requires that global temperatures stay below 1.2℃. Yet modelling of the global community’s current commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement suggests that global warming between 2.6-3.2℃ will occur by 2100. This would destroy the Great Barrier Reef as we know it.

Artificial marine clouds already occur as a result of shipping exhaust. Scientists propose simulating this to cool the Reef.
Liam Gumley, Space Science and Engineering Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison

It is not surprising, then, that scientists are looking to buy the reef some time, while the international community works to stabilise and then reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. The Commonwealth and Queensland governments have announced funding for feasibility projects aimed at manipulating surface water temperatures using three different techniques:

  • Creating a reflective surface film that would float on the surface of the water. Made from calcium carbonate (the same mineral as coral), the film would reflect sunlight, thereby lowering water temperatures and ultraviolet radiation exposure.

  • Marine cloud brightening to also reflect more sunlight away from the reef. The plan is to spray microscopic salt particles into clouds using customised vessels or modified snow machines. This increases the concentration of droplets in clouds and encourages smaller, more reflective droplets to form.

  • Water-mixing units with large, slow moving fans that will draw cool water from 10-30 metres deep and deliver it to surface areas to limit coral heat stress. In 2017 this proposal received A$2.2 million in Commonwealth funding, to test eight water-mixing units over a 1km square area of Moore Reef, off the coast of Cairns.

Engineering the climate of Australia’s most iconic natural system carries obvious risks. Indeed, Australia has a history of well-intended attempts to manage nature that have backfired because the risks were not fully understood.




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We must be confident that such technological interventions will protect the reef, not contribute to its destruction. This is a problem because scientific trials are supposed to identify and assess risks, so we won’t fully understand what impacts they have until such trials are undertaken.

Governance necessary for public confidence

Building public confidence that potential risks have been identified and addressed is essential to the long-term success of reef geoengineering proposals. Even feasibility studies can be derailed if they lack public support.

We need to develop governance frameworks to ensure we have the best possible chance of saving our most important natural wonder.
Yanguang Lan, Unsplash

The legitimacy and ultimate acceptability of reef geoengineering technologies therefore demands robust and transparent processes for funding, research, field testing and eventual deployment. Drawing on the Oxford Principles for Geoengineering Governance, the minimum governance standards should include:

  • criteria and clear processes for research funding decisions
  • public access to information about planned field testing
  • demonstrated compliance with Australia’s environmental laws.

Current environmental laws do not make special exemptions for scientific research or testing in areas of national environmental significance, such as the Great Barrier Reef. Any geoengineering trial that might have a “significant impact” on those areas is illegal without a permit from the Commonwealth Environment Minister. The Minister is guided by the precautionary principle and World Heritage obligations in issuing such permits.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act imposes separate approval requirements and makes protection of the reef the highest priority. This would suggest that the standard for environmental assessment for any proposal to run geoengineering trials on the Reef should be high.

It is unclear how the federal environment minister and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority will evaluate whether the risks of field testing are small enough to justify granting their approval. The position is made more uncertain by the fact that the authority is directly involved in at least one of the projects. This uncertainty risks poor environmental outcomes and erosion of public confidence.

We need a strong framework for assessing and managing the risks of geoengineering, to address legitimate public concerns.

The ConversationAs the stewards of the reef, the Marine Park Authority is ideally placed to take the lead on developing this framework, to ensure we have the best possible chance of saving our most important natural wonder.

Kerryn Brent, Lecturer, Faculty of Law, University of Tasmania; Brendan Gogarty, Senior Lecturer in Law, University of Tasmania; Jan McDonald, Professor of Environmental Law, University of Tasmania, and Jeff McGee, Senior Lecturer in Climate Change, Marine and Antarctic Law Faculty of Law and Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania

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

The 2016 Great Barrier Reef heatwave caused widespread changes to fish populations



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Some fish fared better than others amid the extreme temperatures of the 2016 heatwave.
Rick Stuart-Smith/Reef Life Survey

Rick Stuart-Smith, University of Tasmania; Christopher Brown, Griffith University; Daniela Ceccarelli, James Cook University, and Graham Edgar, University of Tasmania

The 2016 marine heatwave that killed vast amounts of coral on the Great Barrier Reef also caused significant changes to fishes and other animals that live on these reefs.

Coral habitats in the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) and in the Coral Sea support more than 1,000 fish species and a multitude of other animals. Our research, published in Nature today, documents the broader impact across the ecosystem of the widespread coral losses during the 2016 mass coral bleaching event.

While a number of fish species were clearly impacted by the loss of corals, we also found that many fish species responded to the increased temperatures, even on reefs where coral cover remained intact. The fish communities in the GBR’s southern regions became more like those in warmer waters to the north, while some species, including parrotfishes, were negatively affected by the extreme sea temperatures at the northern reefs.




Read more:
How the 2016 bleaching altered the shape of the northern Great Barrier Reef


The loss of coral robs many fish species of their preferred food and shelter. But the warming that kills coral can also independently cause fish to move elsewhere, so as to stay within their preferred temperature range. Rising temperatures can also have different effects on the success, and therefore abundance, of different fish populations.

One way to tease apart these various effects is to look at changes in neighbouring reefs, and across entire regions that have been affected by bleaching, including reefs that have largely escaped coral loss.

We were able to do just this, with the help of highly trained volunteer divers participating in the Reef Life Survey citizen science program. We systematically surveyed 186 reefs across the entire GBR and western Coral Sea, both before and after the 2016 bleaching event. We counted numbers of corals, fishes, and mobile invertebrates such as sea urchins, lobsters and giant clams.

Sea temperatures and coral losses varied greatly between sites, which allowed us to separate the effects of warming from coral loss. In general, coral losses were much more substantial in areas that were most affected by the prolonged warmer waters in the 2016 heatwave. But these effects were highly patchy, with the amount of live hard coral lost differing significantly from reef to reef.

For instance, occasional large losses occurred in the southern GBR, where the marine heatwave was less extreme than at northern reefs. Similarly, some reefs in the north apparently escaped unscathed, despite the fact that many reefs in this region lost most of their live corals.

Sea temperatures the culprit

Our survey results show that coral loss is just one way in which ocean warming can affect fishes and other animals that depend on coral reefs. Within the first year after the bleaching, the coral loss mostly affected fish species that feed directly on corals, such as the butterflyfishes. But we also documented many other changes that we could not clearly link to local coral loss.

Much more widespread than the impacts of the loss of hard corals was a generalised response by the fish to warm sea temperatures. The 2016 heatwave caused a mass reshuffling of fish communities across the GBR and Coral Sea, in ways that reflect the preferences of different species for particular temperatures.

In particular, most reef-dwelling animals on southern (cooler) reefs responded positively to the heatwave. The number of individuals and species on transect counts generally increased across this region.

By contrast, some reefs in the north exceeded 32℃ during the 2016 heatwave – the typical sea temperature on the Equator, the hottest region inhabited by any of the GBR or Coral Sea species.

Some species responded negatively to these excessive temperatures, and the number of observations across surveys in their northernmost populations declined as a consequence.

Parrotfishes were more affected than other groups on northern reefs, regardless of whether their local reefs suffered significant coral loss. This was presumably because the heatwave pushed sea temperatures beyond the level at which their populations perform best.

Nothing to smile about: some parrotfishes don’t do well in extreme heat.
Rick Stuart-Smith/Reef Life Survey

Local populations of parrotfishes will probably bounce back after the return of cooler temperatures. But if similar heatwaves become more frequent in the future, they could cause substantial and lasting declines among members of this ecologically important group in the warmest seas.

Parrotfishes are particularly important to the health of coral reef ecosystems, because their grazing helps to control algae that compete with corals for habitat space.




Read more:
How the 2016 bleaching altered the shape of the northern Great Barrier Reef


A key message from our study is not to overlook the overarching influence of temperature on coral reef ecosystems – and not to focus solely on the corals themselves.

Even if we can save some corals from climate change, such as with more stress-tolerant breeds of coral, we may not be able to stop the impacts of warming seas on fish.

Future ecological outcomes will depend on a complex mix of factors, including fish species’ temperature preferences, their changing habitats, and their predators and competitors. These impacts will not always necessarily be negative for particular species and locations.

The ConversationOne reason for hope is that positive responses of many fish species in cooler tropical regions may continue to support healthy coral reef ecosystems, albeit in a different form to those we know today.

Rick Stuart-Smith, Research Fellow, University of Tasmania; Christopher Brown, Research Fellow, Australian Rivers Institute, Griffith University; Daniela Ceccarelli, Adjunct Senior Research, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University, and Graham Edgar, Senior Marine Ecologist, Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania

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

Dugong and sea turtle poo sheds new light on the Great Barrier Reef’s seagrass meadows


Samantha J Tol, James Cook University; Alana Grech, James Cook University; Paul York, James Cook University, and Rob Coles, James Cook University

Just like birds and mammals carrying seeds through a rainforest, green sea turtles and dugong spread the seeds of seagrass plants as they feed. Our team at James Cook University’s TropWATER Centre has uncovered a unique relationship in the seagrass meadows of the Great Barrier Reef.

We followed feeding sea turtle and dugong, collecting samples of their floating faecal matter. Samantha then had the unenviable job of sifting through hundreds of smelly samples to find any seagrass seeds. These seeds range in size from a few centimetres to a few millimetres, and therefore can require the assistance of a microscope to be found. Once any seeds were found, they were stained with a chemical dye (Tetrazolium) to see if they were still viable (capable of growing).

PhD candidate Samantha Tol holding dugong poo collected from Cleveland Bay in Townsville.
TropWATER, JCU

Why is this important for turtles and dugong?

Green sea turtles and dugong are iconic animals on the reef, and seagrass is their food. Dugong can eat as much as 35 kilograms of wet seagrass a day, while sea turtles can eat up to 2.5% of their body weight per day. Without productive seagrass meadows, they would not survive.

This relationship was highlighted in 2010-11 when heavy flooding and the impact of tropical cyclone Yasi led to drastic seagrass declines in north Queensland. In the year following this seagrass decline there was a spike in the number of starving and stranded sea turtles and dugong along the entire Queensland coast.

The seagrass team at James Cook University has been mapping, monitoring and researching the health of the Great Barrier Reef seagrasses for more than 30 years. While coral reefs are more attractive for tourists, the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area actually contains a greater area of seagrass than coral, encompassing around 20% of the world’s seagrass species. Seagrass ecosystems also maintain vibrant marine life, with many fish, crustaceans, sea stars, sea cucumbers, urchins and many more marine animals calling these meadows their home.

These underwater flowering plants are a vital component of the reef ecosystem. Seagrasses stabilise the sediment, sequester large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere and filter the water before it reaches the coral reefs. Further, the seagrass meadows in the Great Barrier Reef support one of the largest populations of sea turtles and dugong in the world.

Seagrass meadows are more connected than we thought

Samantha’s research was worth the effort. There were seeds of at least three seagrass species in the poo of both sea turtles and dugong. And lots of them – as many as two seeds per gram of poo. About one in ten were viable, meaning they could grow into new plants.

Based on estimates of the number of animals in the coastal waters, the time it takes for food to pass through their gut, and movement data collected from animals fitted with satellite tags, there are potentially as many as 500,000 viable seeds on the move each day in the Great Barrier Reef. These seeds can be transported distances of up to 650km in total.

Green Island seagrass meadow exposed at low tide.
TropWATER, JCU

This means turtles and dugong are connecting distant seagrass meadows by transporting seeds. Those seeds improve the genetic diversity of the meadows and may help meadows recover when they are damaged or lost after cyclones. These animals help to protect and nurture their own food supply, and in doing so make the reef ecosystem around them more resilient.

Understanding recovery after climate events

Seagrass meadows have been under stress in recent years. A series of floods and cyclones has left meadows in poor condition, and recovery has been patchy and site-dependent.

This research shows that these ecosystems have pathways for recovery. Provided we take care with the environment, seagrasses may yet recover without direct human intervention.

The ConversationThis work emphasises how much we still have to learn about how the reef systems interconnect and work together – and how much we need to protect every part of our marvellous and amazing reef environment.

Samantha J Tol, PhD Candidate, James Cook University; Alana Grech, Assistant Director, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University; Paul York, Senior Research Scientist in Marine Biology, James Cook University, and Rob Coles, Team leader, Seagrass Habitats, TropWATER, James Cook University

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

$500 million for the Great Barrier Reef is welcome, but we need a sea change in tactics too



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The new funding is focused on measures that are already in the foreground.
Robert Linsdell/Flickr, CC BY

Jon Brodie, James Cook University

The federal government’s announcement of more than A$500 million in funding for the Great Barrier Reef is good news. It appears to show a significant commitment to the reef’s preservation – something that has been lacking in recent years.

The new A$444 million package, which comes in the wake of the A$60 million previously announced in January, includes:

  • A$201 million to improve water quality by cutting fertiliser use and adopting new technologies and practices

  • A$100 million for research on coral resilience and adaptation

  • A$58 million to continue fighting crown-of-thorns starfish

  • A$45 million for community engagement, particularly among Traditional Owners

  • A$40 million to enhance monitoring and management on the GBR.

A spokesperson for federal environment minister Josh Frydenberg said the funding would be available immediately to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, and that there was no predetermined time frame for the spending.

But one concern with the package is that it seems to give greatest weight to the strategies that are already being tried – and which have so far fallen a long way short of success.

Water quality

The government has not yet announced the timelines for rollout of the program. But if we assume that the A$201 million is funding for the next two years, this matches the current rate of water quality management funding – A$100 million a year, which has been in place since 2008.

Yet it is already clear that this existing funding is not reducing pollution loads on the GBR by the required extent. The federal and Queensland governments’ own annual report cards for 2015 and 2016 reveal limited success in improving water quality. It is also known from joint Australian and Queensland government analyses that the required funding to meet water quality targets is of the order of A$1 billion per year over the next 10 years.

In the region’s main industries, such as sugarcane cultivation and beef grazing, most land is still managed using methods that are well below best practice for water quality, such as fertiliser rates of application in sugarcane cultivation. According to the 2017 Scientific Consensus Statement on the GBR’s water quality, very limited progress has been made so far.

Progress towards targets and assigned scores in the 2015 Great Barrier Reef Report Card.
2017 Scientific Consensus Statement, Author provided

The respective load reduction targets set for 2018 and 2025 are highly unlikely to be met at current funding levels. For example, shown below are the current projections for levels of dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN).

Progress on reducing total GBR wide dissolved inorganic nitrogen loads and trajectories towards targets.
CREDIT, Author provided

This likely failure to meet any of the targets was noted by UNESCO in 2015 and again in 2017 as a major concern, amid deliberations on whether to put the GBR on the World Heritage in Danger list. The UNESCO report criticised Australia’s lack of progress towards achieving its 2050 water quality targets and failure to pass land clearing legislation.

As the 2017 Scientific Consensus Statement also pointed out, improvements to land management oversight are “urgently needed”. Continued government spending on the same programs, at the same levels, and with no federal legislation to mandate improvements, is unlikely to bring water pollution to acceptable levels or offer significant protection to the GBR.

In contrast to the federal government, the Queensland government is taking what are likely to be more effective measures to manage water quality. These include regulations such as the revised Vegetation Management Act, which is likely to be passed by the parliament in the next few weeks; and the updated Reef Protection Act, currently out for review. Queensland is also directing funds towards pollution hotspots under the Major Integrated Projects framework.




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Cloudy issue: we need to fix the Barrier Reef’s murky waters


Crown-of-thorns starfish

The government’s new package has pledged A$58 million for further culling of this coral-eating animal. Yet the current culling program has faced serious criticism over its effectiveness.

Udo Engelhardt, director of consultancy Reefcare International, and a pioneer in the control of crown-of-thorns starfish, has claimed that his analysis of the culling carried out in 2013-15 in reef areas off Cairns and to the south of Cairns, reveals a “widespread and consistent failure” to protect coral cover.

Nor does there seem to have been a major independent review of the program since these findings came to light. Without one, it seems a shaky bet to assume that we will expect any more success simply by continuing to fund it.

Overcoming crown-of-thorns starfish might take some more creative thinking.
Paul Asman/Jill Lenoble/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Reef restoration

Similar question marks hover over the A$100 million being provided to harness the best science to help restore and protect the reef, and to study the most resilient corals. Like other aspects of the package, the government has not yet promised a timeline on which to roll out the funds.

While reef restoration may be significant for the long-term (decades to centuries) status of the GBR, it is hard to believe that these studies will help within the coming few decades. And even long-term success will hinge either on our ability to stabilise the climate, or on science’s ability to keep pace with the rate of future change.

In the meantime, reef restoration seems at best to be a band-aid that could preserve select tourism sites, but is inconceivable on the scale of the entire GBR.




Read more:
Not out of hot water yet: what the world thinks about the Great Barrier Reef


Herein lies the most significant criticism of the new funding package. It avoids any mention of reducing Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, or of working closely with the international community to help deliver significant global reductions. Yet climate change is routinely described as the biggest threat to the reef.

The ConversationThe new announcement dodges that issue, while providing a moderate amount of funding for the continuation of largely unsuccessful programs. Given that the new funding is to be managed by the Great Barrier Reef Foundation – which is a charity rather than a statutory management body – we can only hope that the foundation finds new and innovative ways to improve greatly on the current efforts.

Jon Brodie, Professorial Fellow, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University

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

How the 2016 bleaching altered the shape of the northern Great Barrier Reef



File 20180418 163978 1aql97h.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Staghorn and tabular corals suffered mass die-offs, robbing many individual reefs of their characteristic shapes.
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies/ Mia Hoogenboom

Selina Ward, The University of Queensland

In 2016 the Great Barrier Reef suffered unprecedented mass coral bleaching – part of a global bleaching event that dwarfed its predecessors in 1998 and 2002. This was followed by another mass bleaching the following year.

This was the first case of back-to-back mass bleaching events on the reef. The result was a 30% loss of corals in 2016, a further 20% loss in 2017, and big changes in community structure. New research published in Nature today now reveals the damage that these losses caused to the wider ecosystem functioning of the Great Barrier Reef.

Fast-growing staghorn and tabular corals suffered a rapid, catastrophic die-off, changing the three-dimensional character of many individual reefs. In areas subject to the most sustained high temperatures, some corals died without even bleaching – the first time that such rapid coral death has been documented on such a wide scale.




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The research team, led by Terry Hughes of James Cook University, carried out extensive surveys during the two bleaching events, at a range of scales.

First, aerial surveys from planes generated thousands of videos of the reef. The data from these videos were then verified by teams of divers in the water using traditional survey methods.

Finally, teams of divers took samples of corals and investigated their physiology in the laboratory. This included counting the density of the microalgae that live within the coral cells and provide most of the energy for the corals.

The latest paper follows on from earlier research which documented the 81% of reefs that bleached in the northern sector of the Great Barrier Reef, 33% in the central section, and 1% in the southern sector, and compared this event with previous bleaching events. Another previous paper documented the reduction in time between bleaching events since the 1980s, down to the current interval of one every six years.

Different colour morphs of Acropora millepora, each exhibiting a bleaching response during mass coral bleaching event.
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef StudiesStudies/ Gergely Torda

Although reef scientists have been predicting the increased frequency and severity of bleaching events for two decades, this paper has some surprising and alarming results. Bleaching events occur when the temperature rises above the average summer maximum for a sufficient period. We measure this accumulated heat stress in “degree heating weeks” (DHW) – the number of degrees above the average summer maximum, multiplied by the number of weeks. Generally, the higher the DHW, the higher the expected coral death.

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has suggested that bleaching generally starts at 4 DHW, and death at around 8 DHW. Modelling of the expected results of future bleaching events has been based on these estimates, often with the expectation the thresholds will become higher over time as corals adapt to changing conditions.

In the 2016 event, however, bleaching began at 2 DHW and corals began dying at 3 DHW. Then, as the sustained high temperatures continued, coral death accelerated rapidly, reaching more than 50% mortality at only 4-5 DHW.

Many corals also died very rapidly, without appearing to bleach beforehand. This suggests that these corals essentially shut down due to the heat. This is the first record of such rapid death occurring at this scale.

This study shows clearly that the structure of coral communities in the northern sector of the reef has changed dramatically, with a predominant loss of branching corals. The post-bleaching reef has a higher proportion of massive growth forms which, with no gaps between branches, provide fewer places for fish and invertebrates to hide. This loss of hiding places is one of the reasons for the reduction of fish populations following severe bleaching events.




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The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which produces the Red List of threatened species, recently extended this concept to ecosystems that are threatened with collapse. This is difficult to implement, but this new research provides the initial and post-event data, leaves us with no doubt about the driver of the change, and suggests threshold levels of DHWs. These cover the requirements for such a listing.

Predictions of recovery times following these bleaching events are difficult as many corals that survived are weakened, so mortality continues. Replacement of lost corals through recruitment relies on healthy coral larvae arriving and finding suitable settlement substrate. Corals that have experienced these warm events are often slow to recover enough to reproduce normally so larvae may need to travel from distant healthy reefs.

Although this paper brings us devastating news of coral death at relatively low levels of heat stress, it is important to recognise that we still have plenty of good coral cover remaining on the Great Barrier Reef, particularly in the southern and central sectors. We can save this reef, but the time to act is now.

This is not just for the sake of our precious Great Barrier Reef, but for the people who live close to reefs around the world that are at risk from climate change. Millions rely on reefs for protection of their nations from oceanic swells, for food and for other ecosystem services.

The ConversationThis research leaves no doubt that we must reduce global emissions dramatically and swiftly if we are save these vital ecosystems. We also need to invest in looking after reefs at a local level to increase their chances of surviving the challenges of climate change. This means adequately funding improvements to water quality and protecting as many areas as possible.

Selina Ward, Senior Lecturer, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Queensland

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