One of the world’s most famous natural wonders is the Great Barrier Reef. The site is a marine wonderland, with a rich diversity of beautiful corals and thousands of aquatic creatures. The Great Barrier Reef is home to over 1,500 species of fish and 400 species of hard corals and covers an area of 133,000 square miles. That is why this ecosystem is one of Australia’s most popular tourist attractions, located off the coast of Queensland.

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Since 1981, the Great Barrier Reef has been designated as a World Heritage Site due to its immense ecological value. However, the emergence of new threats, primarily from human activities, has been deteriorating the condition of this vibrant reef system.

Related: A little bit of good news for the Great Barrier Reef

Recently, a United Nations panel recommended that the Great Barrier Reef be added to a list of world heritage sites in danger. The report emphasizes that current conservation efforts are insufficient and must be amplified in order to protect the Great Barrier Reef. This designation will increase public awareness and encourage the Australian government to take immediate action.

A variety of corals underwater

The recent developments

In March 2022, the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO appointed two experts — one each from UNESCO and IUCN — with the goal to assess the reef’s current condition. They also took into account the viability of the Australian government’s current sustainability plan for restoring the reef ecosystem.

After a thorough examination, the report stated: “The mission team concludes that the property is faced with major threats that could have deleterious effects on its inherent characteristics, and therefore meets the criteria for inscription on the list of World Heritage in danger.”

However, the government doesn’t want the Great Barrier Reef to get this “in danger” designation and has resisted multiple times bringing this into action. Similar proposals to include the ecosystem on the danger list were made in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2017.

This move may have a significant impact on the Australian economy, particularly tourism. According to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, the ecosystem contributes $4.8 billion to the Australian economy annually. It also provides jobs in sectors like tourism, fishing and research.

Call to action 

The reef is currently not on the danger list, but this does not imply that the ecosystem is in good health. The report also identifies some high-priority areas that could effectively address the conservation issues. 

Some of these key areas where government needs to take urgent actions include land and water, phasing out gillnets, efficient dredge spoils disposal and mitigating climate change. The report highlights setting “clear government commitments to reduce greenhouse emissions consistent with the efforts required to limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.”

Other priorities include reducing the “excessive use” of fertilizers and pesticides in nearby farms, increasing investment to meet water quality targets, and strengthening the government’s Reef 2050 plan as soon as possible. 

Coral with clownfish nearby

Bleaching: the biggest threat 

The beautiful ecosystem faces a slew of threats, the most serious of which is bleaching, worsening year after year due to the release of planet-warming gases. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, bleaching occurs when algae on coral reefs die, leaving them white and stressed.

Warm ocean temperatures have caused numerous devastating mass bleaching events on the Great Barrier Reef since 2015. Bleaching episodes in 2016, 2017 and 2020 are estimated to have damaged two-thirds of the coral

If the current situation continues, the damage could be irreversible, resulting in coral deaths and the permanent loss of this valuable marine ecosystem. About 25% of the ocean’s fish rely on healthy coral reefs, especially for shelter and food.

Other threats 

According to a study published last year, climate change, unsustainable fishing and pollution have reduced the global coverage of living coral by half since 1950. Additionally, poor water quality contributed by land-based runoff, as well as coastal development, exacerbates the ecosystem’s healing capacity.

Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has said that there are over 45 threats that impact the health of the coral reef. Therefore, addressing the lesser-known risks is equally important for its long-term survival. Scientists have already warned that 70% to 90% of all living coral worldwide might disappear in the next 20 years. 

Placing the reef on the danger list may help to increase global attention to its protection. The famous coral reefs of Belize in Central America, for example, were once placed on this list. This status heightened the government’s actions by prohibiting nearby oil exploration and protecting mangroves. Belize’s reefs have now been removed from the list of threatened species. 

The World Heritage Committee will decide whether the reef should be officially designated as “in danger” next year after UNESCO creates a more comprehensive report. Accelerating coral restoration efforts are critical to ensuring the future of the planet’s most important marine ecosystem.

Via The Guardian

Images via Pexels