Till (your) death do us part

Extensive coral bleaching (white/yellow patches) documented on the Great Barrier Reef during aerial surveys in March 2016. Credit: ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
25/29 November 2016

The Australian and Queensland Governments have announced $45 million in joint funding towards improving water quality and reducing sediment run-off across the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). It comes as the two governments are about to report "significant progress" in protecting and improving the GBR to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, against the backdrop of the most severe bleaching event on record.

Coral death across the GBR according to a follow-up study by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies Image source: The Conversation published under (CC BY 4.0)

A few months ago a study involving more than 300 scientists from 10 organisations across the country reported results from aerial surveys of more than 500 coral reefs. It was triggered by concerns over record-breaking sea surface temperatures: In 2016 the GBR experienced the hottest ever average sea surface temperatures for February, March, April, May and June since records began in 1900.

Early statements summarising the report triggered controversy as the chairman of the GBR Authority, Russel Reichelt, appeared to downplay the significance of the findings in an interview with The Australian. However, Reichelt then corrected this interpretation. "They gave the shorthand version of what I said, they missed parts out," he told The Guardian. By then, however, headlines such as "More cheating lies from scientists?" were making the rounds in the quarters of climate sceptics.

The interim report of the study, released by the GBR Marine Park Authority in September 2016, then detailed the widespread but patchy bleaching of varying levels of severity throughout the Marine Park as a result of prolonged heat stress.

"The most severe bleaching occurred between the tip of Cape York and just north of Port Douglas (that is, in the remote northern third of the Marine Park). This area experienced the greatest heat stress, with abnormally high sea surface temperatures persisting for a long period of time and as a result, a substantial amount of severely bleached coral died."

South of Port Douglas coral mortality was found highly variable, though, and in many areas reefs showed little coral die-off. The report noted that this severe bleaching will have lasting impacts on the health and resilience of affected reefs, and these could potentially also affect the social and/or economic value of reef sites important to Reef-based industries.

A follow-up study by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, which co-led the initial survey, has now confirmed the damage - the largest loss of corals due to bleaching ever recorded for the Great Barrier Reef. In the northern region of the GBR two-thirds (67%) of the corals surveyed have died, except for the northern offshore corner of the GBR Marine Park, where the loss of coral was lower than in the other northern reefs.

Reefs in the less affected areas in the central and southern regions are now recovering, while in the north recovery will be slow, at least 10-15 years, and depending on the conditions, lead researcher Professor Hughes and colleauges report in The Conversation.

With this crisis unfolding, the Australia's progress report to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee on its efforts to strengthen coral resilience will be a hard sell. The report is required following the committee's decison not to list the Reef as 'in danger' in 2015.

The Governments have now agreed to look into additional measures for the northern part of the Reef most affected by bleaching.

They will also establish a Reef 2020 Plan Investment Framework that will detail current and future funding towards reef sustainability, including from the private sector.

And they announced $45 million in joint funding to support a new collaborative approach involving government, the private sector, research institutions and conservation groups.

According to the federal Environment Josh Frydenberg, it is the first time that existing and new programs targeting water quality and sediment run-off across the GBR are brought together.

Key initiatives include: