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  Straits Times 28 Jun 07
Tourism players dive into bid to save Barrier Reef
One shopowner even forms political party to push for government action
By Tracy Quek

Straits Times 28 Jun 07
Australia's Great Barrier Reef
Global warming threatens the survival of fragile coral reefs
By Tracy Quek

CAIRNS - FROM the six-seater Cessna plane gliding low, the coral reefs sitting off Cairns appear as opalescent pebbles cast into limpid waters.

Pilot Kristy Clark, 22, has taken tourists on more than 300 leisure flights over the Great Barrier Reef, but the spectacle of it glistening in the afternoon sun never fails to dazzle her. 'Look below! That is a huge shark chasing a manta ray! These reefs are just teeming with marine life,' she enthuses, whipping the aircraft around to give her passengers another look.

The view from 150m may be mesmerising, but a plunge beneath the cool aquamarine water is what it takes for the reef to yield some of its secrets.

Descend just 10m below the surface at Agincourt, a coral reef 46km offshore, and a surreal underwater landscape reveals itself. Massive pale yellow corals, the size of large boulders, sit solidly on the sandy seabed. Blue-tipped, branch-like corals form an otherworldly forest of staghorns. A wall of sprawling soft corals sways as gracefully as a geisha's fan in the currents as kaleidoscopic fish flit by.

The rich biological diversity of the reef ecosystem and the natural beauty of its corals are what makes the Great Barrier Reef an Australian icon and a Unesco World Heritage Site.

To safeguard this irreplaceable treasure, Australian scientists and officials have undertaken rigorous conservation efforts which have focused on mitigating the effects of local threats to the reef's health.

Measures which include tackling destructive fishing, pollution from land-based sources and banning commercial fishing in a third of the reef have made it one of the world's best-managed marine parks, and its corals among the world's healthiest.

But in recent years, a new danger to the reef has emerged that is proving to be much tougher to regulate. To Australia's reef protectors, it is an insidious enemy they are still trying to fathom, one that confounds with its unpredictability but whose reach and impact is growing with each passing year.

Climate change - blamed for higher temperatures and rising ocean acidity due to increased carbon dioxide concentrations, as well as raising the frequency of severe storms and cyclones - is endangering fragile coral reef ecosystems the world over.

It has already begun its assault on Australia's corals, and looks set to do more damage, especially if the world decides to carry on with business as usual, reef scientists tell The Straits Times.

Dr Ken Anthony, a coral scientist at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, puts the threat of climate change plainly: 'The entire reef is not going to go bottom-up, but we are expecting a severely degraded one in decades.' 'As we push it beyond its comfort zone, instead of high coral cover and species, we might be left with the 'rats and cockroaches',' he warns.

Corals under siege

DRAINED of their vibrant hues, the corals in the picture seem to glow a ghostly white. Pointing to the eerie image of bone-white corals on his computer screen, Dr Ray Berkelmans explains that this is what happens when it gets too hot for corals to handle.

'Corals are very heat sensitive animals which already live very close to the upper limit of their temperature tolerance,' says the researcher at the Australian Institute of Marine Science in Townsville. 'To corals, even a 1 deg C rise is too hot, and they lose their colour.'

This phenomenon, known as bleaching, is the most visible sign of higher-than-average water temperatures linked to global warming.

Bleaching has already struck many reefs around the world, with two major events occurring in 1998 and 2002. In 1998, an intense El Nino warmed tropical waters from Africa out into the Pacific and caused the most widespread bleaching event on record, affecting 16 per cent of the world's coral reefs.

In Australia, the scorching summers of 1998 and 2002 raised local water temperatures by up to 2 deg C above the seasonal average. Half the corals in the Great Barrier Reef bleached, and about 5 per cent of those died.

The 1998 'white death' was a big wake-up call to coral scientists, says Dr Clive Wilkinson, who coordinates the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, which publishes global reports on the status of the world's reefs.

'Up to then, we were pretty confident that climate change was somewhere out there in the future,' he says. 'Then 1998 hit us, and we had to literally stand up and say we got it wrong.'

The problems, they realised, were not just local - pollution, overfishing and sediment run-off from development. 'We realised that reefs could be the first major ecosystem on the planet to collapse under the threats of climate change,' he says.

Bleaching occurs when, stressed by warm waters, corals expel the plant cells living in their tissue, which are the source of their colour and food, thus exposing their white limestone skeletons underneath.

However, bleaching does not mean death. If temperatures return to normal quickly, the corals can recover.

The major concern now is that global warming - which the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts will push up average temperatures by as much as 6 deg C by the end of the decade - will cause coral bleaching to occur more frequently.

'It is the pace of warming we are worried about,' says Dr Janice Lough of the Australian Institute of Marine Science. Should bleaching become an annual occurrence, corals, which need one to two decades to recover from a severe bleaching event, will not have enough time to recuperate, says Dr Lough, who leads the environmental change and impacts research team.

Dr Berkelmans says scientists have projected that a 1 deg C to 3 deg C rise in temperature would cause between 82 per cent and 100 per cent of Great Barrier Reef corals to bleach. Already, temperatures have risen by about 0.7 degC, and this has caused significant damage to reefs, says Professor Terry Hughes, director of the Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University in Townsville.

'The big unknown in terms of the vulnerability of coral reefs in general is just how much warmer the planet is going to get,' he says. A temperature rise of 6 deg C 'would be devastating for corals'.

So far, the Great Barrier Reef has not experienced the dramatic losses of living coral apparent in some half of the world's coral reefs.

However, there is no room for complacency, says Dr David Wachenfeld, director of science technology and information at the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the government agency that has been managing the reef since 1975.

'There are other threats that climate change will bring, and there is a great deal at stake,' he says.

Much at stake

CORAL reefs are more than just an underwater laboratory for scientists.

'There are serious political and economic implications to their destruction,' says Dr Wilkinson.

Around 500 million people live within 100km of coral reefs that protect adjacent coasts. Some 300 million people, especially in the developing world, depend on the reefs for fishing, tourism and construction material.

To Queensland, the economic cost of losing the reef would be unthinkable. The reef, which stretches 2,300km along its coast, supports a tourism and commercial fishing industry worth some A$5 billion (S$6.5 billion) a year.

'If the reefs go, there will be a huge number of environmental refugees and political disruption,' says Dr Wilkinson.

The Great Barrier Reef, spanning 345,400 sq km - an area larger than Britain and Ireland combined - is also more than just coral. It is home to many species of fish, whales, dolphins, sharks and turtles.

'Every part of the reef's ecosystem will be affected by climate change,' says Dr Wachenfeld.

Sea birds, for example, could be threatened because warmer temperatures and changes in ocean currents affect fish populations, their primary food source.

Scientists also agree that increasing ocean acidity, due to rising amounts of carbon dioxide produced by the burning of fossil fuels, has serious implication for coral reefs.

To test how they would fare under pressure, Dr Ken Anthony exposed corals to temperatures and carbon dioxide concentrations double that of current levels. He found that corals had difficulty forming strong skeletons and died within months.

Time for action

BUT there are those who feel that protection of the reef might have gone too far.

When the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority expanded the area of no-fishing zones from 5 per cent to a third of the park in 2004, the move prompted an outcry among commercial fishermen who claimed they were losing some of their most productive fishing grounds.

'They felt that the closures were unwarranted,' says Mr Martin Hicks, chief executive officer of the Queensland Seafood Industry Association in Brisbane. Commercial fishing in the reef's marine park, which employs some 3,000 professional fishermen and yields an annual catch worth about A$650 million, is already subject to strict regulations, he says.

'Closing a third of the park when you already have so many other regulations is a bit of an overkill,' he says.

Dr Wachenfeld sees no conflict between economic and environmental concerns: 'These economic uses exist because of a healthy and productive reef ecosystem. To allow our own uses of the reef to stop it from being so would be social, economic and environmental suicide.'

The park authority is working on a Climate Change Response Programme to assess the reef's vulnerabilities, identify gaps in research and develop an action plan to beef up the reef's resilience.

Dr Russell Reichelt, manager of the Reef and Rainforest Research Centre, says his organisation is working on a digital map that will detail the risks to the reef, its resilience and what needs to be done to mitigate those stresses. The atlas will cost A$15 million and take five years to put together.

Despite the effort invested into saving the reef, scientists say it will be for nothing if the world does not act quickly.

Prof Hughes underscores the sense of urgency when he says: 'The bottom line of the IPCC report is that we have got, as a global society, about 20 years to make very significant cuts in greenhouse emissions. 'It is not something we should start in 20 years. We have got to achieve those cuts by then. It means starting now.'

Straits Times 28 Jun 07
Tourism players dive into bid to save Barrier Reef
One shopowner even forms political party to push for government action
By Tracy Quek

CAIRNS - ONCE an obscure tent town populated by gold prospectors, Cairns these days is attracting a different crowd - cash-laden tourists.

The town of 130,000 now attracts a good proportion of the two million visitors who flock to Australia's north-eastern Queensland state every year for trips out to the Great Barrier Reef. Dive shops on every street offer everything from reef day trips to 'I Love Cairns' T-shirts. Restaurants compete with one another, offering endless seafood menus. Information kiosks offer multilingual tour brochures.

This is where Mr Colin McKenzie, 53, owner of a dive instructor agency and a marine business consultancy, has built up his niche over the past 15 years. 'Take the reef away, and tourism does not exist. Take tourism out of this place, and Cairns does not exist,' says Mr McKenzie, who is also a director of the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators, which is made up of major tour operators responsible for taking 95 per cent of visitors to the reef.

To make sure the reef and the industries that depend on it have a thriving future, those intent on raising public and government awareness of the damage that climate change can wreak are taking matters into their own hands.

Mr McKenzie set up a new political party last November to campaign for greater effort to save the reef, calling it the Save Our Great Barrier Reef Party. The Australian government's inaction on global warming was the main reason for his plunge into politics.

The authorities need to do more to improve water quality in the Great Barrier Reef lagoon and fund more research on reef protection, says Mr McKenzie, the party's executive director.

The party, which aims to represent small marine tourism businesses, is set to contest the Australian federal elections later this year and intends to lobby for greenhouse gas emissions reductions and for Australia to ratify the Kyoto Protocol.

'As tourism operators using the environment to make our money, we have got a moral responsibility to look after that environment and to make sure that the government does its fair share of it,' he points out.

Australia signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 and accepted emission reductions targets as an industrialised country. However, like the United States, it subsequently refused to ratify the Protocol and so is not bound by its targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Mr Chris McGrath is another individual whose dissatisfaction with the present level of government attention to climate change has prompted him to take action.

The Brisbane-based environmental lawyer has written a paper aimed at stirring debate among Australian policymakers on the need to set appropriate targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions - targets that will ensure the continued survival of the reef.

His paper - which harnesses scientific research that recognises climate change as a major threat to the reef - argues that policymakers have the ability to prevent temperatures from rising and must act now to prevent widespread damage to coral reefs.

He has already submitted the paper to various levels of the Australian and Queensland governments, including Minister for the Environment Malcolm Turnbull and Queensland's environment minister and environmental protection agency.

Over the coming months, he intends to present his analysis to different conferences, levels of government, non-governmental organisations and community groups.

Should they encounter climate change sceptics, both 'reef campaigners' say they stand on solid research that will back them up.

The work done by Dr Janice Lough, for example, would make unbelievers think twice. The climatologist with the Australian Institute of Marine Science in Townsville studies coral cores - extracts from coral skeletons dating back nearly 400 years - to chart ancient climate patterns.

Her research shows that never before in history have there been the kind of temperature spikes that have caused major bleaching events in the past two decades.

'What coral cores tell us is that global warming in the last 20 years is real. It's not just a geological phenomenon. There is evidence that there are extremes and the temperature curve is going up,' she says.

'People should realise climate change is the No. 1 long-term threat to corals.'

And at least one tour operator in Cairns is heeding the science. Quicksilver Group, one of the largest marine tourism operators in Queensland, has over the past three years been experimenting with shade- cloths to shield corals from the sun and heat.

The 5m by 5m pieces of cloth - four of them - have been spread over the corals at Agincourt reef for the past three summers. The anecdotal evidence of the experiment is 'promising', says Quicksilver marine biologist Russell Hore. 'Certainly there has been no sign of bleaching under any of the shade cloths.'

Mr McKenzie also points out that more funding should go into research on practical solutions. The father of four grown-up children, all in the tourism business, says: 'I have got an industry that is really all about going out there and showing people just how wonderful that reef is.

'I want to be able to continue doing it. I want my grandkids to be able to continue doing it, and there are things that can be done to make sure of that.'


Related articles on Global issues: marine issues and climate change
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