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