In Danger: The Great Barrier Reef

With an unprecedented amount of dredging damaging its fragile ecosystem, UNESCO is threatening to downgrade the GBR to the World Heritage ‘In Danger’ list. And while financial and ecological decisions remain unaligned, everyone stands to lose. What’s at stake is much more than just a World Heritage status.

For decades, the Great Barrier Reef has enjoyed World Heritage Status and been synonymous with diving, tourism and with Australia.

But in June of 2014, UNESCO threatened to downgrade the Great Barrier Reef to the World Heritage ‘In Danger’ list; a category populated predominantly by war-torn and developing nations. The final decision will be made next month, in February 2015.

ABOVE: A small island and fringing reef seen from the air. The Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef ecosystem on the planet composed of almost 3000 individual reefs. Queensland, Australia. 

UNESCO’s concerns are focused on the issue of industrial development along the reef. Queensland has one of the largest deposits of coal, and with developed markets slowly turning their back on dirty energy, there’s huge momentum to dig it up and ship it out as fast as possible before falling prices make it no longer viable.

To do this requires unprecedented amounts of dredging, both to expand existing coal ports and to create new ones, many of which are located within the boundaries of the Barrier Reef Marine Park.

Dredging is problematic for a few reasons. Firstly it digs up seagrass meadows, removing valuable grazing areas for dugongs and turtles, secondly it creates a toxic soup of heavy metals which can severely impact on the health of marine life. And lastly, the dredge spoils are then dumped back out onto the Barrier Reef and can travel for miles up the coast clogging coral polyps and smothering entire reef systems.

ABOVE: Gladstone harbour. In the top photograph you see ships leaving the harbour and heading out onto the reef. Coal makes up 70% of exports from Gladstone harbour, which currently amounts to around 50 million tonnes per year.

Gladstone harbour has been the focus of the debate around port expansion in Queensland. The port of Gladstone has permission to dredge 32 million tonnes of sea bed in order to expedite the shipment of coal and LNG from Curtis Island.

Reports from fishermen of diseased fish, as well as an environmental disaster which coincided with a leaking bund wall in 2011, resulted in dead turtles and dugongs washing up on the beach and millions of tonnes of dredge spoil spilling out into the harbour and inner reefs. The local fishing industry has collapsed as a result.

ABOVE: The Fitzroy Delta is the largest delta flowing into the Great Barrier Reef. Consisting of shallow water areas and mangroves it plays a critical role in filtering agricultural run-off and in stopping pesticides and sediment flowing out to the reef.

The Great Barrier Reef is unique in that most of its threats come in the form of onshore industry. Before the recent push to expand coal ports, the main industry in the firing line was agriculture. Rainwater falls inland, travels across farms picking up pesticides and fertiliser and washes down the rivers, through deltas and out onto the barrier reef.

Of particular note is the relationship between increased nitrogen in the water and the catalysing of Crown of Thorns Starfish (COTS) cycles. Traditionally COTS would spawn on the north of the reef, around Cairns, once every 20 years or so.

ABOVE: A worker injects a Crown of Thorns Starfish with a new toxin developed at the James Cook University. Cairns, Queensland, Australia

In recent years the numbers of these starfish, whose primary food source is coral, has got out of control and boats are now patrolling the reef specifically tasked with eradicating them using a toxic injection. Previous eradication techniques required injecting every arm of the starfish in order to ensure that one arm didn’t break off and spawn another starfish. It’s now possible to kill them with just one injection.

ABOVE: Gerry Deguara and his sons, Sam and Joe, at their sugarcane plantation outside Mackay. Gerry has been working with WWF and others to implement new farming practices which reduce the amount of pesticides and fertilisers which are getting out to the reef. Mackay, Queensland, Australia

Agriculture, however, has taken huge strides forward in both accepting its responsibility for deteriorating water quality and in trying to do something about it. Farmers, state government and conservation groups such as WWF, have been working together to develop new farming methods that limit the run-off from farms and, in doing so, also help farmers’ businesses.

ABOVE: A manta ray swims off Heron Island research center. Notoriously difficult to study, no real estimates exist for how many are left in the wild. 

The tourism industry, one of the largest employers in Queensland, bringing in $6 billion annually, is also actively engaged in trying to protect the reef. For every tourist who visits the reef, tour operators pay an environmental management charge which ostensibly goes to ensure the reef is protected.

ABOVE: Tourists gather on a floating platform on the barrier reef to watch fish being fed. Tourism operations are allowed to feed up to 1kg of fish per day. Scientists say the impact of this is minimal. Below a young girl looks out from a submersible room suspended over the reef. 

Understandably, both tourism operators and farmers feel there is a real equity issue on the reef. They are making sacrifices, both practical and financial, to protect the reef’s natural capital and the sustainability of their businesses. Meanwhile the coal export industry is dumping millions of tonnes of dredge spoil onto the reef and receiving tax incentives for the privilege.

ABOVE: A shovel nosed shark takes off in the waters around Heron Island. Originally identified as a shark on account of its prominent dorsal fin, the shovelnose is know classified in the ray family.

WWF’s recently released Living Planet Report echoes the voices of people I met on the Great Barrier Reef. Government policy moves too slowly, with the pressure of climate change threatening to wipe out the reef entirely within the next 100 years, industry stewardship is the only solution to the problem on the Barrier Reef, and many like it globally.

The Great Barrier Reef is more than capable of generating enormous annual revenue sustainably. But if our financial and ecological decisions remain misaligned, everyone stands to lose. And what’s at stake is much more than just World Heritage status.

All photographs © James Morgan / WWF-Canon


James Morgan

Photojournalist and film maker focused on projects that explore indigenous cosmologies and the human ecology side of the environmental movement.

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