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Roya Sabri headshot

Great Barrier Reef Bleaching Threats Loom over Australia

Australia's Great Barrier Reef, which supports thousands of jobs and generates billions in local revenues, is under another huge threat of coral bleaching.
By Roya Sabri
Great Barrier Reef

Researchers at Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) are predicting a coral bleaching event during the southern hemisphere’s summer. Analysts say the event could be the most widespread seen to date, but not as intense as previous occurrences.

The Great Barrier Reef has seen bleaching, overfishing and pollution, which not only harm wildlife, but also threaten its Wold Heritage status. The back-to-back bleaching events of 2016 and 2017 affected two-thirds of the extensive reef. Still, the GBRMPA says hope is not lost.

Despite threats and bleak possibilities, GBRMPA’s chief scientist, David Wachenfeld, told reporters in Sydney last year: “With the right mix of local actions to improve the resilience of the system and global actions to tackle climate change in the strongest and fastest way possible, we can turn that around.”

The business case for saving coral

Coral bleaching occurs with a rise in water temperature or intense ultraviolet rays. The resulting whiteness occurs when the coral expels its mutualistic algae called zooxanthellae. This leaves the coral vulnerable and without a source of food, which normally the algae would photosynthesize.

The loss of coral doesn’t happen in isolation, though. Coral provides the building blocks of reefs and shelter and food to the marine life that live within these structures. Without healthy coral, the wellbeing of fish and wildlife is threatened.

Thus, major industries for coastal communities, including fishing and tourism, hang in the balance. In 2017, the international financial advisory consultancy Deloitte calculated that activity in and around the Great Barrier Reef created 64,000 jobs and generated approximately US$5 billion for Australian businesses and communities.

The report emphasizes the immense impact of the reef: “The livelihoods and businesses the Great Barrier Reef supports across Australia far exceeds the numbers supported by many industries we would consider too big to fail.”

Reports about the reef and predictions for its future may seem bleak, but just this month, marine biologists have discovered dozens of new coral species along the Great Barrier Reef.

“On almost every dive we were finding species that aren’t in the books,” Professor Andrew Baird from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University told SciTechDaily.

Are businesses stepping to the plate for the Great Barrier Reef?

Two years ago, the Australian government invested more than US$377 million to support the Great Barrier Reef. Most was allocated toward the Great Barrier Reef Foundation (GBRF), which monitors and restores the reef, protecting it from pollution and the crown-of-thorns starfish.

This marked the largest funding commitment for reef conservation and management in Australian history.

Business is part of the solution. Over the past 18 years the GBRF has received $2.5 from the private sector for every $1 from taxpayers, GBRF chairman, John Schubert, told the Australian Financial Review. And the foundation’s board of directors includes corporate leaders and scientists alike. Schubert himself was chairman of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia.

Despite doubts about corporate interests in the foundation, the government saw the GBRF as the most effective investment toward the reef. According to the Australian Financial Review, the Prime Minister was impressed by how well the GBRF has been able to leverage financial support from the private sector for its activities in the reef.

Yet, there remains work to be done on the climate front. Coal remains Australia's second-largest employer, after iron ore. And though UNESCO has, as of yet, avoided putting the Great Barrier reef on its “List of World Heritage in Danger,” if water temperatures continue to rise summer after summer, that may no longer be the case.

Image credit: Daniel Pelaez Duque/Unsplash

Roya Sabri headshot

Roya Sabri is a writer and graphic designer based in Illinois. She writes about the circular economy, advancements in CSR, the environment and equity. As a freelancer, she has worked on communications for nonprofits and multinational organizations. Find her on LinkedIn

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