Matthew Fraser, University of Western Australia; Ana Sequeira, University of Western Australia; Brendan Paul Burns, UNSW; Diana Walker, University of Western Australia; Jon C. Day, James Cook University, and Scott Heron, James Cook University
The devastating bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef in 2016 and 2017 rightly captured the world’s attention. But what’s less widely known is that another World Heritage-listed marine ecosystem in Australia, Shark Bay, was also recently devastated by extreme temperatures, when a brutal marine heatwave struck off Western Australia in 2011.
A 2018 workshop convened by the Shark Bay World Heritage Advisory Committee classified Shark Bay as being in the highest category of vulnerability to future climate change. And yet relatively little media attention and research funding has been paid to this World Heritage Site that is on the precipice.
Shark Bay, in WA’s Gascoyne region, is one of 49 marine World Heritage Sites globally, but one of only four of these sites that meets all four natural criteria for World Heritage listing. The marine ecosystem supports the local economy through tourism and fisheries benefits.
Around 100,000 tourists visit Shark Bay each year to interact with turtles, dugongs and dolphins, or to visit the world’s most extensive population of stromatolites – stump-shaped colonies of microbes that date back billions of years, almost to the dawn of life on Earth.
Commercial and recreational fishing is also extremely important for the local economy. The combined Shark Bay invertebrate fishery (crabs, prawns and scallops) is the second most valuable commercial fishery in Western Australia.
However, this iconic and valuable marine ecosystem is under serious threat. Shark Bay is especially vulnerable to future climate change, given that the temperate seagrass that underpins the entire ecosystem is already living at the upper edge of its tolerable temperature range. These seagrasses provide vital habitat for fish and marine mammals, and help the stromatolites survive by regulating the water salinity.
Shark Bay received the highest rating of vulnerability using the recently developed Climate Change Vulnerability Index, created to provide a method for assessing climate change impacts across all World Heritage Sites.
In particular, extreme marine heat events were classified as very likely and predicted to have catastrophic consequences in Shark Bay. By contrast, the capacity to adapt to marine heat events was rated very low, showing the challenges Shark Bay faces in the coming decades.
The region is also threatened by increasingly frequent and intense storms, and warming air temperatures.
To understand the potential impacts of climatic change on Shark Bay, we can look back to the effects of the most recent marine heatwave in the area. In 2011 Shark Bay was hit by a catastrophic marine heatwave that destroyed 900 square kilometres of seagrass – 36% of the total coverage.
This in turn harmed endangered species such as turtles, contributed to the temporary closure of the commercial crab and scallop fisheries, and released between 2 million and 9 million tonnes of carbon dioxide – equivalent to the annual emissions from 800,000 homes.
Some aspects of Shark Bay’s ecosystem have never been the same since. Many areas previously covered with large, temperate seagrasses are now bare, or have been colonised by small, tropical seagrasses, which do not provide the same habitat for animals. This mirrors the transition seen on bleached coral reefs, which are taken over by turf algae. We may be witnessing the beginning of Shark Bay’s transition from a sub-tropical to a tropical marine ecosystem.
This shift would jeopardise Shark Bay’s World Heritage values. Although stromatolites have survived for almost the entire history of life on Earth, they are still vulnerable to rapid environmental change. Monitoring changes in the microbial makeup of these communities could even serve as a canary in the coalmine for global ecosystem changes.
The neglected bay?
Despite Shark Bay’s significance, and the seriousness of the threats it faces, it has received less media and funding attention than many other high-profile Australian ecosystems. Since 2011, the Australian Research Council has funded 115 research projects on the Great Barrier Reef, and just nine for Shark Bay.
The World Heritage Committee has recognised that local efforts alone are no longer enough to save coral reefs, but this logic can be extended to other vulnerable marine ecosystems – including the World Heritage values of Shark Bay.
Safeguarding Shark Bay from climate change requires a coordinated research and management effort from government, local industry, academic institutions, not-for-profits and local Indigenous groups – before any irreversible ecosystem tipping points are reached. The need for such a strategic effort was obvious as long ago as the 2011 heatwave, but it hasn’t happened yet.
Due to the significant Aboriginal heritage in Shark Bay, including three language groups (Malgana, Nhanda and Yingkarta), it will be vital to incorporate Indigenous knowledge, so as to understand the potential social impacts.
And of course, any on-the-ground actions to protect Shark Bay need to be accompanied by dramatic reductions in greenhouse emissions. Without this, Shark Bay will be one of the many marine ecosystems to fundamentally change within our lifetimes.
Matthew Fraser, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Western Australia; Ana Sequeira, ARC DECRA Fellow, University of Western Australia; Brendan Paul Burns, Senior Lecturer, UNSW; Diana Walker, Emeritus Professor, University of Western Australia; Jon C. Day, PSM, Post-career PhD candidate, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University, and Scott Heron, Senior Lecturer, James Cook University
Most people’s experience of World Heritage is now a digital one. Whether it’s on social media, an official website, Wikipedia or a simple Google search, this shift in “visitation” means many people who engage with World Heritage will never physically travel to the actual site.
The UNESCO World Heritage Committee is the top-tier organisation for the protection of natural and cultural heritage. To date, 1,073 properties have been listed for their significance to all of mankind.
The list includes many well-known ancient monuments like the Pyramids of Giza, and the Parthenon, and natural sites like Uluru Kata-Tjuta. Less frequently recognised are industrial sites like the Rideau Canal and contemporary works of architecture such as the Sydney Opera House.
The Sydney Opera House was listed in 2007, not only for its architectural and technical achievements as a masterpiece of modernism, but curiously also for its status as a world-famous iconic building. Digital visits to the Sydney Opera House now outnumber in-person visits by 16 to 1.
Digital engagement has a very broad reach
By 2019, half of the world’s people will have access to the internet. For most, the internet is essential to everyday life. The impact of this exponential growth of the internet on people’s engagement with World Heritage has been overlooked. Yet it has the potential to tell us about the close connections people have with some of our most esteemed places.
Managing organisations are beginning to see the social and economic value of digital audiences. In 2013 the Sydney Opera House reported a digital reach of 128 million. Deloitte estimated this to be worth A$59 million. It’s the result of a media strategy to develop digital content, social media engagement, and participatory online events.
But this is not the whole story. What about all the things people do online outside of the Sydney Opera House’s formal social media channels?
We know that not everyone actively posts pictures, edits Wikipedia, or writes a blog. The 1% rule describes online participation. For every person who actively contributes content, nine others will like it. Another 90 will simply view the originally posted content.
Adding up the number of followers across the official Sydney Opera House social media accounts (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube) gives us an immediate audience of about 1.67 million. Using the 1% rule, this extrapolates to 167 million, which is similar to Deloitte’s 2013 figure. This is almost seven times Australia’s population and equivalent to 2% of the world population. World Heritage has never been so visible!
But numbers are not the only story here. While impressive, they don’t tell us how people feel connected with such places.
What can the internet tell us?
My recent research investigates online forms of participation with the Sydney Opera House. Combining digital ethnography and data analytics enables us to better understand the social value of architectural icons and the implications for World Heritage.
Popular depictions of the Sydney Opera House posted online include photographs, cakes, artworks, children’s books, Lego, other buildings and hats. By examining these we can understand people’s values and how they engage with this World Heritage site in everyday activities and in the process reshape the narratives being told.
Close examination of online posts and activities reveals communities of people passionate about the Sydney Opera House. Participatory platforms such as Wikipedia and Flickr are filled with people dedicated to telling a comprehensive historically and visually accurate story about this place. But people are also discerning; they highlight that a single building cannot fully represent their city.
Brands and organisations also reference the form of the Sydney Opera House in their logo types to gain cultural capital. Examples include the Sydney Swans, Sydney Mardi Gras and the Sydney 2000 Olympics. The varied references to this place in many different contexts show its power to create a social connection that transcends borders.
What are the implications for World Heritage?
A World Heritage listing brings an increase in visibility and visits. A listed site gains international recognition and cultural status as well as economic benefits through tourism.
In the decade since the Sydney Opera House became a World Heritage site, annual visitors have doubled from 4 million to 8.2 million, audiences have grown from 1.2 to 1.5 million, and tours of the building have increased by a third.
But World Heritage status comes with a need to preserve and conserve the listed site. For the Sydney Opera House, this means maintaining its iconic status.
My research demonstrates how people’s participation through popular culture helps to maintain this iconic status. Through posting pictures on Instagram, or making “opera-house-shaped things” and sharing them online, people integrate this icon into their daily lives. But this also challenges the building’s copyright, which underpins corporate partnerships that provide funding in exchange for affiliation.
Further, tourism can threaten the conservation of World Heritage properties. Too many visitors and excessive development puts pressure on local communities, management and facilities.
International visibility can also make properties targets of political destruction. This raises questions about how World Heritage status is given and its implications for conservation in an increasingly digitally mediated world.
The Sydney Opera House always held the promise of transformation of Sydney. Now global online communities are transforming it. In our inevitable digital future, what role people will play in ascribing and maintaining World Heritage status?
The link below is to a useful map featuring Australia’s World Heritage sites.
The link below is to an article that looks at the world’s latest World Heritage Site, which is in Africa. UNESCO has declared the new site which is shared by the Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and Cameroon.
For more visit: