Remember the first time you watched “Finding Nemo”? When you sat eagerly in front of the movie screen as Nemo swam freely in the lush rainbow-colored corals of his home with Marlin and his fish friends? Now imagine that all of the color is stripped away and you’re viewing the film in black and white. Nemo’s home is based on the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest coral reef containing one of the most diverse habitats on planet Earth, and unfortunately, coral bleaching is affecting it today, turning the vibrant colors of the reef into a dull grey color.
Clownfish swimming in a healthy coral reef. “Clownfish” by Janine is attributed under CC 2.0
Effects of coral bleaching. “Pocillopora meandrina bleach 1” by pvandyke3 is attributed under CC 2.0
The Queensland Government in Australia recently released a report that states that the Great Barrier Reef can be saved from being completely bleached in the long-term if 6.3 billion USD is invested into improving surrounding environmental conditions. Specifically, most of the money would be spent on improving water quality surrounding the reef.1 This is a huge amount of money, even by governmental standards, so what would motivate the Australian government to spend so much it?
To understand the viewpoint of the Australian government, I should explain the history and biological significance of the reef. The Great Barrier Reef is around 18 million years old and houses thousands of species, including 1625 fish, 100 jellyfish and 133 shark and ray species.4 Aboriginal Australians first lived in areas surrounding the Great Barrier Reef for over 40,000 years, which led to the reef becoming a staple of Australian culture. Today, it is estimated that around 2 million people visit the site annually and the Marine Park Authority stated that the reef added 5.67 billion dollars in value to Australia’s economy through tourism, research, recreational and fishing in the year 2012 alone.2
Despite the great benefits brought on by The Great Barrier Reef, it has been experiencing coral bleaching for the past forty years! Algae live on and inside coral, which gives coral their bright colors. If anything causes the algae to leave or die off, the coral loses its color and its primary source of food. Therefore, any stressful environmental change could cause coral bleaching. The illustrative diagram below outlines some of the changes that promote coral bleaching.
This illustrative diagram by the National Ocean Service is attributed under Creative Commons 2.0
One of the most significant reasons for coral bleaching is the increase in global temperatures. As the water temperature increases, the algae become uncomfortable with the coral they are living in. In a study published in the journal, Science Magazine by Dr. Ainsworth’s team at the ARC Center of Excellence for Coral Reef studies, they state that corals normally have a biological mechanism which allows them to prepare for changes in temperature, hence lessening damage by tolerating unideal conditions better. However, they have noticed that corals are slowly losing this ability and may not be able to tolerate temperature changes in the future, leading to an increased rate of coral bleaching.3
It was mentioned earlier that the Great Barrier Reef adds several billions of dollars (5.67) into the Australian economy a year, and it seems as if the initial investment of 6.3 billion dollars would pay for itself in a very short period of time. However, the process of going about initiating this hefty conservation project would face several issues such as the following:
- Bringing together the forces of government, conservation groups, and large corporations to strive towards a common purpose.
- Changes that require significant periods of time to enact. Such would include changing regulations regarding polluting and fishing in certain areas.
Despite these difficulties, we shouldn’t be reducing the discussion of conservation to a debate of numbers because there are so many intangible assets the reef possesses. The reef is often called one of the seven natural wonders of the world, and it would be unfortunate if the Great Barrier Reef were lost permanently due to human mistakes. Therefore, I highly support the multi-billion-dollar investment the Australian government must make. This isn’t a problem that’ll solve itself by throwing money at it. The money will help to increase the water quality, but it won’t be able to prevent coral bleaching due to changing temperatures. As a planet, we all need to consciously try to reduce our carbon footprints to prevent increases in global temperatures. As Dr. Ainsworth makes clear in a tweet, “The time for change is now!”
1 Chris D’Angelo. August 12, 2016 “Saving the Great Barrier Reef will cost $6.3 billion.” The Huffington Post
2 Deloitte Access Economics 2013, Economic contribution of the Great Barrier Reef, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Townsville.
3 TRACY D. AINSWORTH, SCOTT F. HERON, JUAN CARLOS ORTIZ, PETER J. MUMBY, ALANA GRECH, DAISIE OGAWA, C. MARK EAKIN, WILLIAM LEGGAT. April 15, 2016 “Climate change disables coral bleaching protection on the Great Barrier Reef.” Science 338-342
4 “Working Together Today for a Healthier Reef Tomorrow…” Facts about the Great Barrier Reef. Australian Government Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, n.d. Web. 26 Oct. 2016.