Searching for hope on the Great Barrier Reef
By Oscar Hartman Davies
"I’m sick of seeing obituaries for the Great Barrier Reef," exclaimed David Wachenfeld, at the Coral Reef Futures Symposium in Brisbane last July. "These are challenging times, and the job of protecting the Reef and the Marine Park is more difficult than ever before… [but] the Great Barrier Reef is still an incredibly valuable place."
It is difficult to feel hopeful for coral reefs. The obituaries that Wachenfeld, chief scientist at the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) Marine Park Authority, rails against have become almost synonymous with the reef itself: "It’s dying, if not already dead…" "It’s too late..." "See it before it’s gone completely!" These are not just messages from a media hungry for the next environmental catastrophe. The recent IPCC report on limiting global warming to 1.5˚C informs us that we will likely witness the loss of either most, or practically all, of tropical coral ecosystems by the end of the 21st century.
I was expecting the worst when I arrived at Lizard Island Research Station, a reef research facility, for a period of fieldwork. After a few days settling in, I hiked across the island, past the narrow, windy airstrip, to Watson’s Bay. A short swim later, I was snorkeling over ‘the clam garden’ a reef named for the vast giant clams nestled amongst the reef structure. To my surprise, everything seemed very much alive. I came across a docile barramundi cod, patterned like a Dalmatian dog, sharing a crevice with a tawny nurse shark and a starry pufferfish. The pufferfish quickly lost its nerve and darted off to another corner of the reef. The diversity of marine life overwhelmed my own knowledge, but I recognized familiar residents like groupers, stingrays, green turtles, as well as reef sharks cruising at the reef margins, alert for signs of prey. The corals themselves were equally varied in size, shape and color. I lingered by a patch where a finger-length cleaner fish was servicing larger fish clients, picking off parasites from their skin.
The diverse waters around Lizard drew researchers from the Australian Museum to the island in 1973 to establish a station. Lyle Vail, the current co-director with Anne Hoggett, remarked that this diversity has since greatly reduced. With a look of resignation, he told me that the clam garden is now the healthiest reef within an easy swim of the shore, but used to be ‘very average’ compared to other reefs around the island.
In response to this decline, the focus of the station’s research has changed significantly. Where in the past, reef researchers would have to conduct experiments in aquaria, simulating the predicted future conditions of warmer and more acidic oceans, they now have a real-world 'experiment' to study’. These new conditions certainly allow for novel studies, but this shift in focus is underlined by palpable alarm: there is no precedent for managing this situation either. The pressing question that faces researchers is: what can be done?
Two weeks later, I was listening to Professor Terry Hughes speak at the Coral Reef Futures Symposium in Brisbane. A small man of unassuming appearance, he spoke with a gentle Irish accent, periodically raising his eyes from his notes to survey the crowd with a look of concern. Dubbed ‘Reef Sentinel’ in Nature’s 10 people who mattered in 2016, he leads the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence (‘ARC CoE’) for Coral Reef Studies, an internationally-renowned centre hosting the symposium. He is considered a somewhat controversial figure for his erudite and unrelenting advocacy regarding the climate threat posed to coral reefs, and the need for mitigation. At odds with the nation’s political priorities, his position has brought him under attack from politicians, public figures, and the Australian tourist industry.
Hughes’ recommendations for more stringent climate policies chafe against the reef programs the government has financed. Withdrawing long-term funding from its own reef research and management agencies, the government under Malcolm Turnbull ‘gifted’ $444 million to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation in May 2018. Funneling such an amount in to what was then a tiny organisation with single-digit staffing, the move has been divisive amongst politicians, scientists and the broader public. The foundation emphasizes technological solutions and interventions, and on-the-ground actions over lobbying for changes to climate policy. This is welcomed by a government whose climate policies have been described as unambitious and uninspired, and a country whose top-earning export is coal. One researcher I spoke to summed this situation up as: "Look, here’s this money, spend it on the Reef and shut up. We’re not shutting down the coal mines."
The Great Barrier Reef Restoration Symposium in Cairns indicated exactly where this money was going. The event was largely an opportunity to discuss the work of the new Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program, run by the Australian Institute of Marine Science (‘AIMS’) and supported by the GBR Foundation. I attended several talks centered on reducing heat and light stress to the GBR. Speakers asked whether we could shade reefs with ultra-thin surface films, protect them from the sun via marine cloud brightening, or use industrial pumps to move cooler deep water over the coral when heat stress is greatest. Others considered altering the reef itself: could heat-tolerant ‘next generation’ corals be created, and mass produced for planting along the whole reef?
One researcher I spoke to summed this situation up as: "Look, here’s this money, spend it on the Reef and shut up. We’re not shutting down the coal mines."
For Chris Gillies of the Nature Conservancy, this event was all about ‘the positives of repair’, not ‘the negatives of despair’. This can-do attitude is certainly appealing, but many have questioned this optimism. Hughes refers to these interventions as ‘smokescreens and bandaids’. Another eminent reef scientist, Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, argues that without concurrent action on climate change, they amount to ‘rearranging the chairs on the titanic’.
Let us imagine a future Great Barrier Reef if these interventions were implemented. Even if effective, the sheer cost of implementing cooling pumps, surface films, next generation corals and other futuristic interventions make deploying them across the whole reef highly economically improbable. It seems clear that they will be used in the first instance to protect the most important tourist reefs.
This strategy of prioritizing tourist areas is already evident in the management of crown-of-thorns starfish. These starfish eat coral, and in large numbers can destroy whole reefs. Whilst there has been considerable debate since the 1960s over the causes of starfish population outbreaks, a general consensus has emerged to control their numbers to improve reef resilience in the face of other threats. Outbreaks typically begin in the northern GBR and slowly propagate south over several years, a relatively predictable pattern which repeats roughly every 15 years. I was told by several researchers from AIMS and the ARC CoE that the most effective control strategy would be to heavily target starfish in the area where outbreaks begin, but before they do so. This way, the build up of starfish numbers past an ‘ecologically sustainable threshold’ that leads to an outbreak might be thwarted, preventing damage to the whole ecosystem. However, the control program currently works by targeting ‘priority’ reefs — which are mainly tourist reefs — once an outbreak is already established and causing damage. This problematic short-term strategy has led scientists to attempt to establish an alternative strategy which takes a longer-term, holistic view. Surprisingly, the current control program is already a marked improvement from a few years ago, when the program ‘wasn’t based on science at all’, as a researcher from AIMS told me.
This example is illustrative of the economic logic likely to inform other management interventions, but also shows the determination of the scientific community to push for better management pathways where they are possible. Here, we can find reason for hope. Current discussions evidence a community of scientists and managers who care deeply for the reef and its future, and are urgently and diligently working to secure it within challenging political constraints.
Recent government financing decisions may indeed have been a deliberate distraction from climate change mitigation, and if this represents the limit of the government’s goodwill, there is cause for despair. At worst, this might spell disaster for all but the smallest, economically valuable parts of the reef. Australia’s politicians could ultimately say "We’ve saved the Great Barrier Reef, come and see!" – celebrating the perpetual and expensive management of these tiny pockets of ocean at the expense of the wider ecosystem crumbling around them.
Thankfully, the situation is not yet so dire. "Are we really at a stage where active, radical intervention on coral reefs is our only option?" asked scientist Line Bay at the GBR Restoration Symposium. She answered her own question with a firm "No, absolutely not!" Instead, she promoted opening up conversations surrounding the research now, in anticipation of a warmer future.
The reef is certainly still alive, and no doubt a change in approach is necessary to keep it that way. We should encourage, and feel encouraged by, those who are working on inventive solutions. The recent IPCC report suggests limiting warming to 1.5˚C is within our capacities, and perhaps as these solutions develop, more of the reef can be protected than is currently forecasted. Yet without fast changes to present climate policies, both in Australia and internationally, no localised intervention will be enough.
Oscar Hartmann Davies is a recent graduate of the MSc in Nature, Society and Environmental Governance at the University of Oxford. He is broadly interested in human-animal relations, particularly at sea. His MSc dissertation, titled ‘The Aquarium and the Pest: Governing Futures on the Great Barrier Reef’, has been nominated for the Royal Geographical Society’s Planning and Environment postgraduate dissertation prize. He is applying for a DPhil in Geography and the Environment, where he plans to research the uses of biotelemetry to understand environmental change and organize environmental management, with a focus on seabirds. He lives in London, where he is involved in a nascent conservation charity, and spends his free time bouldering and kitesurfing on the south coast.
This article first appeared in the print edition of Anthroposphere Issue III. If you like what you've just read, please support Anthroposphere by buying one of our beautifully designed physical copies here. All proceeds go towards printing, designing and maintaining our publication, and your contributions will help keep our climate journalism interdisciplinary and accessible for all.