Simon Reeve opinion Great Barrier Reef: Time is running out for natural wonder due to man-made crisis
It faces a catastrophe. A combination of climate change, powerful storms and pollution is hammering it from all sides
Teeming with marine life, the Great Barrier Reef is one of the world’s most spectacular wonders.
It is the planet’s largest coral reef chain – stretching more than 1,500 miles along Australia’s east coast – and can even be seen from Space.
Glorious and gorgeous beneath the waves, it is home to 1,800 species of fish, more than 130 types of sharks and rays, and 360 species of coral.
There is nothing quite like it and I’ve been lucky enough to visit on two occasions while filming BBC series.
Slipping into the water and diving down on it ranks among the greatest experiences of my travels.
It feels like another planet – a rainbow world of craggy coral swarming with exotic creatures, including serene angelfish and bright iridescent parrotfish.
Drifting over the reef, my eyes have flitted across every type of coral and colour imaginable.
But it faces a catastrophe. A combination of climate change, powerful storms and pollution is hammering it from all sides.
The latest threat is industrial development. There are plans to build huge coal ports next to the reef and run up to 7,000 huge bulk carriers through it on a shipping “superhighway”.
The plans are a result of Australia’s “resources boom”. Unprecedented quantities of coal and iron ore are being dug-up in the endless Outback.
They are shipped across the sea to countries such as China to help make consumer goods for our high streets.
The boom means Australia has avoided the recessions that have hit Britain and the US, and has made the country rich.
Small mining towns have sprung up in remote areas and truckers, miners and other blue-collar workers are earning six-figure salaries.
But the long-term consequences could be a ruined environment.
By tomorrow, Australian Environment Minister Mark Butler must decide whether to allow firms to dig up three million cubic metres of seabed within the World Heritage Site that surrounds the reef, and then dump it inside the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
The dredging would clear the way to create the world’s largest coal port to service the resources boom.
But the scheme threatens the food sources for endangered turtles and marine mammals.
It could also open the door for yet more industrial development next to the reef.
As a result, many Australian campaigners are saying there are just hours left to save the precious reef.
On my first visit to Australia, I met Dr Selina Ward, a leading coral expert.
She reminded me the reef isn’t just a beautiful tourist attraction. Coral reefs occupy less than 1% of the Earth’s surface, but support more than 25% of all marine life.
They are among the most biologically diverse environments on the planet.
Only the great rainforests rival them for the sheer number of species they contain.
I’ve seen extraordinary sights on the reef. But I’ve also seen that it is dying.
Large areas of coral have been bleached to a ghostly off-white colour.
Before 1980 this bleaching only affected small sections of coral. Since then, it has hit larger areas of reef around the world.
In a mass bleaching “event” in 1998 more than 50% of the Great Barrier Reef was hit and more than 15% of the world’s coral died.
Sometimes it can recover.
But often it dies and so do the fish that depend on it to survive.
Bleaching happens when the temperature becomes too hot or too cold and scientists are convinced it is due to climate change.
It is a disaster for our oceans and is happening with greater frequency and greater intensity than ever before, as are violent storms that break fragile coral.
When I visited the reef again late last year, while filming my Australia series, I focused on another threat from the spiky crown of thorns starfish – a strange multi-armed feeding machine that looks like something from a sci-fi film.
They are native to the reef, and naturally eat fast-growing coral. But in recent years their numbers have hit plague proportions, with millions eating the reef to death.
Fertilisers used on farms are to blame. Washed out down rivers and into the sea over the Great Barrier Reef, artificial fertilisers help to sustain starfish larvae and boost their numbers.
Yet again it is the fault of humans. I went out diving with a group that culls starfish to protect the reef.
The divers first tried cutting them in half, but discovered each half survived, doubling the numbers. Now they inject the starfish with chemicals, but it’s a laborious process.
I fear for the future of the reef. A recent report revealed that during the past 30 years it has lost 50% of its coral cover.
The United Nations agency Unesco has now given the Australian government just a year to limit mining and projects on the reef before they put it on their “list of shame” of endangered World Heritage Sites.
For that to be even a possibility is extraordinary. It is astonishing that Australians are letting this happen.
Many scientists think man-made problems mean there won’t be much of the reef left in 20 years.
Losing it would be appalling. Future generations would be deprived of a global gem and ocean life would take a battering from which it may not recover.
If wealthy Australians can’t protect and save something as unique and special as the Great Barrier Reef, then nowhere is safe, and our natural world is lost.
Simon Reeve is author and presenter of many BBC TV series including Australia, Indian Ocean and Tropic of Cancer. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/simon_reeve
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