“The World’s Largest Fossil”

Isobel Creedon breaks down what she has learned from David Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef

Over the last 30 years we have lost approximately 50% of the Great Barrier Reef. Worldwide, it is reported that 19% of coral reefs are dead, according to Worldwatch Institute. There are many different threats to coral reefs and reasons behind these living organisms’ deaths; however climate change due to damaging human activity, especially the fossil fuel industry, is mostly to blame. This issue was tackled by Sir David Attenborough in the 2015 documentary, Great Barrier Reef.

One of the main arguments by people who, for whatever reason, don’t seem to want to protect our coral reefs or believe in global warming, is that if there is evidence of the death of an enormous coral reef before humans/human industries, so why is it our fault now? Why do we have to be so worried? The death of coral reefs previously, as well as the extinction of other species, usually happened due to changes in the atmosphere that took place over thousands of years. The rapid warming of our oceans that has caused such a large percentage of coral to bleach is the clue to answering that question. These deaths and the increases in ocean and atmospheric temperatures have taken 30 years to occur, compared to, say 10,000 years for ancient reefs. That makes it fairly difficult to try to ignore the constant and high volume of pollution caused by humans, resulting in warmer oceans. An increase of just 2°C causes coral to bleach – when it becomes stressed, it releases zooxanthellae (a type of algae which gives coral its vibrant colours) which are photosynthetic, meaning the coral can no longer make food. This relationship is symbiotic, and so the zooxanthellae also die. Another threat to coral reefs at the moment is the crown-of-thorns starfish. This animal feeds on coral at a level that is difficult to control. Their numbers are increasing, likely thought to be a result of agricultural runoff into oceans, which increases phytoplankton levels, as well as overfishing which destroys the natural balance of certain ecosystems. They have few predators, and their over-feeding of coral destroys smaller animals’ habitats within the reefs.

One of the biggest destroyers of coral reefs are cyclones. These storms are particularly damaging because of how close to the surface the reefs are, ripping the organisms up from their foundations. However, this destruction has proven that coral reefs can repair and regrow eventually. One specific and interesting example of this can be seen in the Great Barrier Reef roughly 12 miles from Alva Beach in Queensland. Over 100 years ago in 1911, the S.S. Yongala was destroyed in a cyclone; its wreck lies 30m below sea level. The reason this wreck has become a famous diving site is down to the transformation which occurred over the many years since it sank.

The wreck basically became a man-made coral reef, host to a beautiful array of marine life. The area in which the ship sank still experiences many cyclones.

One of these did destroy the newly formed coral reef; however, it was observed that algae had begun to grow again, and this eventually led to the regrowth of the reef, and the return of sea animals. This shipwreck gives us hope that coral reefs are not doomed and are resilient, giving scientists more time to research methods of protecting them.

Algae are not the only living things which need coral reefs to survive. Coral reefs are, to me, like the cities of the ocean. They are populated and visited by 25% of the fish species in the ocean, from tiny (and cute) ones like clownfish, to large and impressive predators like sharks. Manta rays and sharks even visit small reefs to get cleaned by little fish, like a car wash! They usually return to the same spot every time, often doing this consecutively for years.

Humans, too, rely on coral reefs for survival. Having such a large variety and number of fish species means as many as 1 billion people depend on reefs for food and income. Reefs also provide protection to coastal communities during storms, as well as medical treatments. Unsurprisingly, coral reef tourism can bring in a substantial amount of money to many countries. Of course the Great Barrier Reef is a well-known example, bringing in over $1 billion a year. That importance has been recognised by the Australian PM this year.

In January, Malcolm Turnbull announced a AUS$60 million rescue fund for the Great Barrier Reef. The main areas this money would go towards include fighting the influx of crown-of-thorns starfish; increasing the number of reef patrol officers; reducing pollution from agricultural run-off and providing more research into coral and how to rescue reefs. There has been criticism towards this rescue fund however, primarily from members of Greenpeace Australia Pacific. They have described the package as a “tinkering around the edges” approach – their main concern being it does not address the issue of climate change and focuses more on symptoms rather than causes. There are other countries doing their part to bring attention to and protect their own coral reefs. One such example is the Great Sea Reef of Fiji, called Cakaulevu Reef in iTaukei.

The United Nations has created the International Year of the Reef in Fiji to recognise its value, as well as hopefully raise enough awareness to help protect reefs in other locations.

Belize is another country which is acknowledging fully the importance and beauty of its coral reef; at the very end of 2017, the country permanently stopped all oil activity in its waters. Its reef is the largest in the Western Hemisphere (industrytap.com). Although the oil industry in Belize might not have compared to those in places like the US, the small country’s decision to abandon it and the income made from exporting that oil says a lot about the respect they place on the natural beauty of the reef. It appears many countries are recognizing that the income made from tourism of protected natural land- and seascapes far outweighs that made from industries which destroy these formations.

 Coral reefs may seem a million miles away from many of our day to day realities, which might make you question why you should care at all? Aside from the fact that they are impressively beautiful and complex natural structures, their bleaching and death signifies more than just a localised problem – it is a sign of a global crisis that we are all responsible for. Coral reefs are a fragile and vital ecosystem, whose survival affects millions worldwide, both human and animal. David Attenborough puts it as eloquently as it can be put: “Do we really care so little about the Earth on which we live that we don’t wish to protect one of its greatest wonders from the consequences of our behaviour?”