More eyes needed to monitor Reef health

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the tourism industry are urging visitors and those who work in the Marine Park to monitor closely any impacts from unusually high water temperatures on the Reef.

Twelve months of sustained above-average temperatures in the wake of last year’s coral bleaching event prompted the appeal to tour operators, fishers, scientists and other visitors to report any signs of coral bleaching on the vast 348,000-square-kilometre ecosystem.

“We are receiving anecdotal reports of bleaching, noting some low-level coral bleaching typically occurs most summers,” Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority Chairman Dr Russell Reichelt said.

“We are sending a team of divers out to do spot checks between Cairns and Townsville to investigate these reports of localised bleaching, which vary in severity.

“The tourism industry and other Marine Park users play a vital role every year as part of our early warning system — alerting the Authority of any impacts to the health of the Great Barrier Reef. They help provide a complete picture of ecosystem health along the 2300 kilometre length of the Reef.

“We have our rangers out in the Marine Park doing surveys, but we need all the information we can get from scientists and the tourism industry to help us determine priority areas for further investigation.”

Last year’s coral bleaching was part of a global mass bleaching event that has been affecting the world’s coral reefs for at least two years — highlighting the need to mitigate climate change by supporting the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement.

“The Great Barrier Reef is not only one of our most valuable tourism assets, it is also a globally significant ecosystem that gives us an indication of the profound challenges the world community is facing from global warming,” Queensland Tourism Industry Council Chief Executive Daniel Gschwind said.

“Our industry is committed to demonstrating best management practices in this fragile environment and providing visitors with an insight as to how we are connected to our natural environment.”

The Authority also operates the Eye on the Reef program that includes an app Reef visitors can download to record their own observations and relay the information, including photos, to the Authority.

“This really helps us keep an eye on what is happening out there,” Dr Reichelt said.

“The coming weeks will be critical for the Reef and currently we are looking at predictions of above-average temperatures through until the end of March.

“The satellite monitoring tools we use as part of our Reef Health Incident Response System indicate a bleaching risk over the next four weeks. How this plays out will depend very much on localised weather during this time.”

Chief Executive of the Reef Rainforest Research Centre Sheriden Morris said the marine tourism industry welcomed the move to combine forces and share information with everyone.

“Of course we all hope there will be no mass coral bleaching in the coming month or two,” Ms Morris said.

“But if there is, the Marine Park Authority’s willingness to consolidate everyone’s observations Reef-wide and make regular public updates is much appreciated.”

Chief Executive of the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators Col McKenzie said industry was an active steward of the Reef, ensuring visitors implemented responsible reef practices and participating in programs such as controlling the coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish on popular tourism sites.

The Authority is working locally and regionally to build the resilience of the Reef to better withstand the impacts of climate change, including implementing its zoning plan (which safeguards biodiversity in the Marine Park) and working with the tourism industry and scientists to cull the coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish.

“Despite the pressures of climate change, the Reef remains a place of great beauty and biodiversity – a very precious place on our planet that we need to continue to value and protect,” Dr Reichelt said.