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  News.com.au 19 Jun 06
Seaweed, algae could kill the Great Barrier Reef
By Jade Bilowol AAP

BEAUTIFUL corals dotted throughout the Great Barrier Reef could be killed by seaweed and algae within decades, an expert has warned.

Associate Professor John Pandolfi, of the Australian Research Council's Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (CoECRS), today said damaged reefs in the Caribbean were a "warning bell" for the Australian natural wonder.

Research by the Brisbane-based professor and the University of Queensland shows the coral reefs off Barbados in the Caribbean have changed dramatically suffering more damage in the past 30 years than at any other time in the past 220,000 years because of human activity.

Prof Pandolfi blamed overfishing, as well as pollution and coastal development, for wiping out herbivore populations that led to a surge in seaweed and algae.

"In the past you would have seen an overwhelming dominance of Elkhorn coral it was one of the most beautiful and striking features of the Caribbean reefs," he said. "Now that species has virtually disappeared and the same reefs are dominated by algae and seaweed there are precious few large fish, turtles, dugongs or sharks.

"It is totally different to the past. "If we don't restore herbivore populations (in the Great Barrier Reef) we may be looking like the Caribbean in a few decades time or less."

Prof Pandolfi said sea turtles and dugongs in the Great Barrier Reef had been "hard hit" and herbivorous fish had been in decline, ultimately altering the food web.

"We have done quite well to designate 30 per cent as a no take area where there is no fishing and this is a very bold step taken for the conservation of coral reefs," he said. "We need to make sure that stays and build upon it by now attempting to restore the large herbivore populations that have suffered a lot of damage out in the Great Barrier Reef."

After studying preserved remains of entire coastal reef communities that lived in the Caribbean up to 220,000 years ago, Prof Pandolfi found the same species dominated in consistent numbers over about 100,000 years before humans appeared there.

He said the reefs had persisted through hundreds of thousands of years of hurricanes, climate and sea level fluctuations. But he feared humans had "pushed them into a completely different state where they are far more vulnerable and susceptible to change than ever before".

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