Requiem for the Reef

15 Mar 2016 34 Share

Jock Serong

Senior Writer


Requiem for the Reef

The Great Barrier Reef is in deep trouble

Depending on your proximity to it, and the level of your interest in such things, you’ll have your own ideas about what the causes are. But most of us know by now that the core of the problem is not a single thing but a multiplicity of issues: some closely intertwined and some completely unrelated to each other. Saving the Reef will require a range of responses by a host of people: grassroots activists, politicians, engineers, climatologists, oceanographers and more. And it will require a concerted exercise of will by all those people.

Why should this involve us as surfers? The straight and selfish answer is, it doesn’t. Very few people have ever surfed the Great Barrier Reef, especially its outer margins.

No, it doesn’t involve us, unless you recognise the interconnectedness of marine environments, feel the flush of unusually warm water coming down the east coast from the north, wonder at the presence of tropical species you’ve never seen in your lineup, or the absence of other species. Not unless you look to the skies and ask yourself about the new patterns of the weather. Not unless you’re confident that corporate greed and industrial outrages are uniquely afflictions of the tropical north.

Maybe it’s someone else’s problem. Or maybe that thinking is the problem itself.

Photo by

Photo by

The difficulty of World Heritage listing lies in the reciprocal nature of the recognition: it’s not one-way traffic. It’s more than just a steady flow of tourists coming to behold one of the miracles of the natural world, which happens by good fortune to lie within your borders.

The other side of the coin is the burden of guarding the treasure. In Australia’s case, how does a single nation, albeit an affluent one, protect the welfare of this gigantic and diffuse entity which is located in the ocean and is part animal, part plant, part mineral, and so vast it can be clearly seen from space?

Closely related to this question is the secondary issue of national priorities. Assuming we know how to care for this curious gift that geography has bestowed on us, why should we place that task ahead of the pressing business of national prosperity, the relentless march of progress? Do we have to put a financial figure on the worth of the Great Barrier Reef in order to give it priority over say, mining interests or agriculture? Or is it enough to say this is not about numbers: it’s an unquantifiable asset that is priceless by virtue of being completely unique?

People tend to fall into two camps about this: either you believe it’s a matter of piling one set of numbers against the other, or you find that exercise irrational. This latter group are the people who, in Tim Winton’s terminology, “dare to think that the Reef has intrinsic value.”

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The Great Barrier Reef became a Marine Park in 1975, and its entire 348,000 square kilometre site was added to the World Heritage List in 1981. Indigenous relationships with the reef extend across multiple nations from the Mutumui people in the north to the Gureng Gureng in the south, and pass through tens of thousands of years. European entanglements with the reef go all the way back to Captain Cook, who in May 1770 sailed his tough little ship Endeavour into calmer waters inside one system of reefs near Gladstone and manoeuvred north, only to find himself sailing further and further into a maze of ever-shallower reefs until he was stuck fast off Cape Tribulation. Since then, as brilliantly documented in Iain McCalman’s 2014 history, The Reef, Australians have lived in a complex relationship with the Reef: even those who don’t live along its length or have never visited it owe part of their Australian identity to it, as much as they do to other physical features like Uluru or the Opera House.

At 2,300 kilometres in length, the Great Barrier Reef is largest single coral reef ecosystem on the planet, comprising nearly 3,000 separate reef structures, 900 islands, 1500 fish species and dozens upon dozens of marine mammal, shark and ray species. There are over 400 types of hard and soft corals that make up the reefs, and the sheltering waters of their lagoons are a hedge against extinction for many of these species, which would die out rapidly without its protection. A quarter of all marine life on the planet depends for its existence on giant reef systems such as this one. They’re the marine equivalent of terrestrial rainforests.

Crazy to think that losing the waves of the Great Barrier Reed is the leas of our worries. This diverse and powerful organism deserves protection from every citizen on the planet. Bede Durbidge. Photo by Andrew Shield

Crazy to think that losing the waves of the Great Barrier Reed is the leas of our worries. This diverse and powerful organism deserves protection from every citizen on the planet. Bede Durbidge. Photo by Andrew Shield


The set of threats facing the Great Barrier Reef are diverse and daunting in their complexity.

They include the headline development threats like the Abbot Point Coal Terminal extension, and lesser-known, long term problem such as agricultural sediment runoff. Since the middle of June 2012, UNESCO, the United Nations body which governs world heritage sites, had been considering placing the Great Barrier Reef on its “Danger List”, a move which would have represented a serious rebuke of successive Australian governments’ underperformance in caring for the Reef. Ultimately it chose not to do so.

A short list of the threats currently facing the Reef would include Crown of Thorns infestation, water quality issues including agricultural runoff and ocean acidification, pollution risks such as ship impacts and discharges, coral bleaching, overfishing, destruction of coastal mangrove habitats by developers and extreme weather events caused by global warming. It’s even been revealed in a study published in the US in October that a chemical widely used in sunscreen may be highly dangerous to coral reef systems. Oxybenzone (also known as BP-3; Benzophenone-3) is used in thousands of sunscreen products worldwide, and pollutes coral reefs both directly through swimmers wearing sunscreens and through traces turning up in wastewater discharge.

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A casual look over our list reveals that no one single approach is going to fix the problems: what’s needed is a suite of measures and sustained political willpower. At present, it seems neither is in place.

But it’s in the area of ports that the politics of reef conservation are most plainly spelt out. The public debate over mining and related port activity along the Reef’s length has been reduced to an ugly binary choice: you’re for the reef or you’re for economic progress.

Abbot Point

Abbot Point, 25 kilometres north of Bowen, is the locus of much of the debate at present. The coal loading facility there has been in place almost as long as the Marine Park itself, but recent plans for its massive expansion to accommodate new coal mining have drawn the ire of conservation groups. Behind the project is an Indian-based company called Adani, whose environmental record elsewhere is best described as spotty. They want to leverage the port’s position as a strategic deep-water loading point (of which there are very few on the Queensland coast) for bulk ore. The port can currently ship 50 million tonnes of coal annually: if the expansion is allowed to go ahead, that figure will jump to more than 85 million tonnes.

The extra coal will come from a ramping up of production in the Galilee Basin, driven in large part by Adani and Gina Hancock. The $16 billion Carmichael mine will be the largest ever created on this continent, comprising six open cuts and five underground mines, and all of its yields will flow directly out through the Reef. The threat in general, according to conservationists, is massive water pollution or an industrial accident. The specific threats are to green turtles, snubfin dolphins and dugongs, which rely for their existence on the sea-grass beds which will likely be destroyed by dredging.

The more immediate issue is what will happen with the millions of tonnes of dredge spoil that would have to be removed to build the expanded facility. Originally it was going to be dumped – somewhat incredibly – within the marine park. Experts shuddered at the prospect, but the federal government blithely waved it through. After further outcry, the state government has agreed that no dredging or dumping will occur within the park or its adjacent wetlands. Dumping of spoil is now proposed to be done on land – hardly ideal either. The local government is behind the project, salivating at the prospect of 10,000 new jobs (although that widely-quoted figure is unsupported by any evidence). Meanwhile, the state government proudly describes the project as “the gateway to Queensland’s economic development for many years to come…Queensland families (will) continue to prosper.” Missing from this statement are two inescapable conclusions: the value to Queensland that the Reef’s good health might represent has been overlooked, and the families that will truly prosper are based thousands of kilometres away in Western Australia and India.

The Federal government granted final approval for the expansion in the last days before Christmas 2015, no doubt hoping a barefoot nation would fail to notice or care. A range of environmental conditions have been set which, depending on your perspective, are either stringent or a mere swish of the feather duster.

Exports from the expanded facility are scheduled to begin this year, but its future is far from assured. Financiers have been running scared, under public pressure to disassociate themselves from the project. Demand for coal is falling internationally, and investors are wary of the likelihood that the project will be tied up in one legal challenge after another for years to come. When the project will actually deliver, if ever, remains anyone’s guess.

Up close and from afar, it's spectacular. Photo by Andrew Sheild

Up close and from afar, it's spectacular. Photo by Andrew Sheild


The heat and noise from the Abbot Point debate might be obscuring an even more lethal threat to the Reef: fine sediment pollution from the rivers of the tropical Queensland coast.

It’s now believed that the plumes of sediment produced from rivermouths travel further and remain in suspension in the water column much longer than was previously understood. What’s worse, there’s an evidentiary link between the sediment pollution and outbreaks of crown of thorns starfish. Radio National’s Background Briefing in September this year revealed footage of sediment plumes – essentially giant clouds of mud – billowing from the mouth of the Johnstone River near Cairns. The Johnstone is scientifically recognised as being responsible for the biggest nutrient loads entering the waters adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef. According to the program, the footage was shot from a drone by a local fisherman, shortly after a storm event that dumped 164 mm of rain on the catchment.

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One of the major culprits in the creation of these plumes appears to be banana plantations: the industry is rapidly expanding in Queensland, and farming practices produce more sediment and nutrient runoff than anything else that’s grown in the area. After initially countering Cunningham’s’ claims, the chair of the Australian Banana Growers council watched the footage and grudgingly agreed: “We have no doubt the banana industry does have issues.”

Bananas are grown in rows, which act like drains when large volumes of water pass through, taking with them substantial amounts of topsoil. A century of cattle grazing in these catchments has exacerbated the problem, creating dusty canyons that melt like ice-cream in the rain.

The fine sediments entering the reef system from rivermouths are so persistent that they are ending up at the mid- and outer reef shelves, a distance, in some areas, of up to 250 kilometres. They carry with them fertiliser components like nitrogen and phosphorus, along with deadly pesticides and herbicides. One scientist quoted by Background Briefing described the sediment as “marine snow, the goopy stuff that corals can’t shrug off when it settles.” The obvious result is less light reaches the corals under their blanket of muck, so they can’t photosynthesise and grow.

The major breeding ground for crown of thorns is known to be in the area near Cairns, close by the outlet of the Johnstone River. The starfish have been found there since the 1960s. It seems the algal blooms in the seawater caused by the extra nutrient loads are creating a soup of food for the larvae of the starfish, enabling them to grow faster and in greater numbers than they would otherwise.

It’s an alarming notion, and one that doesn’t come with a ready-made solution. But reform of farming practices would appear to be the front-line response.


Coral bleaching is such a unique and puzzling problem that it deserves a little discussion of its own. Bleaching was first observed on the Great Barrier Reef by the scientist who later became the head of the GBRMPA, Dr Charlie Veron, back in 1981.

Bleaching occurs when a coral polyp (the animal part of the partnership that constitutes coral), spontaneously ejects the algae (the plant part), leaving the animal alive but desperately compromised by the loss of its symbiotic partner. Why the organism would do this, and what it means for reef health, is a matter of ongoing study.

A second, and far larger bleaching event occurred on the Great Barrier Reef in 1997/98. As with ‘81, the event corresponded to a simultaneous global bleaching event, suggesting the cause is something on a planetary scale, rather than a local factor. The giant bleach of 1997/98, which was also contemporaneous with a strong El Nino event, cost the Great Barrier Reef half of its coral cover. Half. We’re talking here about corals that have survived four or five hundred years.

Corals are exquisitely sensitive to changes in water chemistry. The ejection of the algae, giving the visual appearance of bleaching, is a reaction to stress. This can be caused by either a sudden rise in water temperature or in its acidity. This summer has been confirmed as another El Nino event, and with it comes another mass-bleaching event – likely to start affecting the Great Barrier Reef about now. Early indications are that the scale of the bleaching could be similar to that of 1997/98. The implications for our reef are dire.

Hawaiian scientists are frantically working on breeding a “super coral” that can withstand the likely higher temperatures. The Hawaiian Institute of Marine Biology is located on a tiny island off Oahu called Coconut Island – it’s where some of the scenes in Gilligan’s Island were filmed. The Institute’s Director, Dr Ruth Gates, is working with Australian scientist Madeleine van Oppen, raising the exciting prospect that what they learn will be shared with researchers working on our Great Barrier Reef.

Empty overhead barrels on a chunk of a natural wonder that's visible from space. Photo by Andrew Sheild

Empty overhead barrels on a chunk of a natural wonder that's visible from space. Photo by Andrew Sheild

Queenslanders find themselves in the awkward position of rightly worrying about the economic development of their state – their children’s futures, in effect – but being saddled with a reputation for callousness where the Reef’s welfare is concerned.

It’s not a fair assessment. Recent polling indicates that they would in fact gladly see the back of the coal industry if it meant the Reef could be saved. The survey in December 2015 found that 68 percent of respondents agreed that Australia "needs to restrict coal mining because of the impact that it is having on our natural environment and biodiversity". Responding to those numbers, Queensland Greens Senator Larissa Waters said "Queenslanders understand the dying coal industry is driving dangerous global warming, which is already threatening the Great Barrier Reef with coral bleaching, acidification and extreme weather."

Returning again to the vexed issue of whether it should be necessary to attach a dollar value to the Reef’s future (rather than simply acknowledging it exists outside such measures), Andrew Brooks made a salient point about investment when talking about the cost of remediating cattle damage that’s causing runoff. "The reef's worth $6 billion a year to the tourist economy,” he said. “We spend a billion dollars on a new section of freeway in south-east Queensland. I think the reef deserves that sort of funding specifically targeted at these sorts of problems." The Federal government claims it is investing $2 billion in the Reef over the coming decade, and enacting a 35-year plan to deal with its many challenges.

There are optimists within the scientific community who say it’s reasonable to give the Federal government time to prove its case that the funding will work to save the Reef. Among them are Professors Terry Hughes, from James Cook Uni, and Ove Hoegh-Guldberg of the University of Queensland. Professor Hoegh–Goldberg has been comparing early historical drawings of coral cover from as far back as 1928 to current satellite imagery, to map and measure coral loss. Despite finding evidence of extensive loss, he maintains it’s not time to despair.

"There's no doubt that the Great Barrier Reef is in danger," he said. "But I think there’s some very sincere efforts from State and Federal governments trying to solve this problem and I think we need to give the governments time… "

And indeed what cuts across the gloom around this issue is the energy and sincerity with which people are tackling the challenges. This multifaceted conservation problem has spawned grassroots responses like Free the Reef ( – the art’s great!), and an almighty roar from Surfrider Foundation’s tiny Yeppoon office (representing The Capricorn Coast – the northernmost rideable waves on Australia’s east coast). John McGrath, the president at Yeppoon, happens to be a fluent French speaker and has translated crucial reports to bring UNESCO into the picture. There’s Fight for the Reef, World Wildlife Fund, Get Up and Greenpeace in there too, each with a well-informed online campaign and a host of practical ways to get involved.

In trying to explain the millennial significance of coral reefs, Tim Winton recently spoke of “the resonance of a trillion lives, finished or only just begun, subjects that ache to be fed, seek the light and tilt towards increase in a creation that has been burning and lapping and gnawing and withering and rotting and flowering since there was nothing in the cosmos but shivering potential. To tread here and never pay tribute, to look and just see objects, is to be spiritually impoverished.”

The Great Barrier Reef has never been commercially explored as a surfing resource. There are waves out there, but those who enjoy them are tight-lipped, for now. Yet we’re in the perverse situation where, by the time we begin to reveal the wonders that lie out there, the reef will already be in its death throes. And of course, the issues at stake here are so much greater than our continued indulgence. A fragile and fundamental natural wonder is crumbling in our hands, and precious little is being done politically to stop it. The change has to come from us.

*The @protectthereefofficial social media campaign is a great way to stay up to date on nearly everything that's happening with the Great Barrier Reef

Tags: great , barrier , reef , jock , serong (create Alert from these tags)

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