Scientists Working To Protect Australia's Great Barrier Reef
July 3, 2014

Scientists Working To Protect Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

Australian scientists are studying degraded reefs off the Northwest Australian coast as the country marks a decade since a massive rezoning of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

“Reefs north of Exmouth have experienced large-scale bleaching in the past five years,” said Malcolm McCulloch from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (Coral CoE) at the University of Western Australia.

The marine biology team is busy gathering and analyzing both live and dead stony coral. McCulloch affirms the bleaching was extensive, taking place both inshore and offshore. Oddly enough, this was across a region virtually abandoned by humans since atomic bomb testing took place at the location in the middle of the 20th century.

“The Pilbara reefs experienced bleaching due to higher temperatures that extended way beyond the dredging areas,” McCulloch said.

The marine biologist warned about the upcoming El Nino, which could bring intense warming down the east coast of Australia, including the Great Barrier Reef. The World Meteorological Organization recently released a report suggesting that El Nino could occur as soon as the Australian spring begins later this year.

“The El Nino years of 1998 and 2002 were the warmest and most devastating years on record for the Great Barrier Reef,” McCulloch said. “The chances of bleaching are already much greater during these natural warming phases, but when superimposed with anthropogenic warming and other coastal effects, the results can be devastating.”

The coral research is taking place just as Australian conservationists are marking ten years since a large rezoning of part of the Great Barrier Reef. Politically contentious at times, the rezoning effort has been tweaked and validated as economically beneficial over the years.

“At the time, the rezoning of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park was the largest marine conservation measure in the world,” said Garry Russ, a coral reef specialist from Coral CoE. “The Reef went from being five percent protected to about 30 percent. So now, a third of it is green, or no-take, zones.”

The plan sparked controversy because the fishing industry said the rezoning would harm fish stocks in the area. However, a study published in 2012 traced parent fish in the green zones to young fish in the fishing areas via DNA tracking.

“About 80 percent of the babies of big coral trout from these green zones are being dispersed via ocean currents to settle in the fished areas,” Russ said. “So marine reserves don’t lock up fish resources. In fact, it is a pure bonus through conserving biodiversity that we see reserves exporting fish recruits to fishing areas.”

“Currents can carry larvae as little as one kilometer away,” he added. “But the maximum distance recorded so far is an astounding 250 kilometers (135 miles).”

Russ noted that natural disasters and forces, like El Nino, have had a negative impact on the green zones.

“The Great Barrier Reef has been hit by a lot of major environmental disturbances, such as cyclones, crown-of-thorns outbreaks and bleaching events,” he explained. “Live coral cover has declined by 50 percent in the past 27 years, and we see both no-take zones and fishing zones hit equally as hard.”

“What this shows is that protected areas are not necessarily protected from everything,” Russ added. “But how they recover will depend on the number of other stressors they have to contend with.”


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