Watching the Reef Die

The Great Barrier Reef is dying. It’s hard to believe but we are witnessing the decline of one of the great natural wonders of the world.

Yesterday, the Queensland Government released a report that shows the health of the reef is now “poor”. A panel of independent scientists appointed to survey the evidence said:

Globally, reefs and other coastal marine ecosystems are exposed to a combination of pressures including increased discharge of sediment, nutrients and pesticides, crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks, increased bleaching associated with global climate change, and increased incidence of and severity of coral diseases, destructive fishing practices, overfishing or loss of herbivorous fish and other grazing organisms. These pressures have led to precipitous declines in coral cover and to persistent shifts away from coral dominance.

On the Great Barrier Reef, recent evidence shows that coral cover has declined from around 50 per cent in the 1960s to around 14 per cent in 2011 with a well-documented decline from 28 per cent in 1985 to 14 per cent in 2013. Coral cover decline in the northern Great Barrier Reef has not shown the consistent downward trend seen along the developed coast of the central and southern Great Barrier Reef. This reflects the limited catchment development in Cape York.


A decline from 50% coral cover in the 1960s, when I was born to around 14% today! Don’t you find that incredibly disturbing?

And the causes are all human in origin. Climate change we all know about, but nitrogen? According to the scientific research, the biggest contributing factor to water quality on the reef comes from nitrogen discharges. The nitrogen comes from the fertilisers used on farmlands whose catchments empty into the water near the reef, which sets up a water quality in which crown-of-thorns starfish thrive, and the starfish in turn are incredibly destructive to the reef.

Oh yes, there’s a new plan in place to resolve the problem, but given the declines have happened under the current plan, I’m not filled with confidence.

How did we humans get to this point? It’s like we’re all passengers on a train headed for a bridge that has collapsed, we all know it, but no-one actually has the gumption to pull the brakes. It’s utter madness.

And it’s not a problem isolated to the Great Barrier Reef. Nitrogen releases have been identified as one of the world’s major ecological problems.

Perhaps it will take the loss of the reef to galvanise us into action. I hope not.


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