- Environmental threats to the Great Barrier Reef
The Great Barrier Reef is the world's largest
coral reefsystem,cite web|author=UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre |year=1980|title=Protected Areas and World Heritage - Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area|url=http://sea.unep-wcmc.org/sites/wh/gbrmp.html|publisher= Department of the Environment and Heritage|accessdate=2006-06-10] cite web|author= |year=|title=Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Values|url=http://www.deh.gov.au/heritage/worldheritage/sites/gbr/values.html|accessdate=2006-11-10] composed of roughly 3,000 individual reefs and 900 islands that stretch for 2,600 kilometres (1,616 mi) and cover an area of approximately 344,400 km². [cite web|author=Fodor's|title=Great Barrier Reef Travel Guide|url=http://www.fodors.com/miniguides/mgresults.cfm?destination=great_barrier@230&cur_section=ove|accessdate=2006-08-08] cite web|author=Department of the Environment and Heritage|title=Review of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975|url=http://www.deh.gov.au/coasts/publications/gbr-marine-park-act.html|accessdate=2006-11-02] The reef is located in the Coral Sea, off the coast of Queenslandin northeast Australia. A large part of the reef is protected by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
The Great Barrier Reef's environmental pressures include water quality from runoff, climate change and mass coral bleaching, cyclic outbreaks of the
crown-of-thorns starfish, overfishing, and shipping accidents.
The coastline of north eastern Australia has no major rivers, (except during tropical flood events caused by
tropical cyclones). It also has several major urban centres including Cairns, Townsville, Mackay, Rockhampton and the industrial city of Gladstone.
There are many major water quality variables affecting coral reef health including water temperature, salinity, nutrients, and suspended sediment concentrations. The species in the Great Barrier Reef area are adapted to tolerable variations in water quality however when critical thresholds are exceeded they may be adversely impacted. River discharges are the single biggest source of nutrients.
Cairns and Townsville are the largest of these coastal cities, with populations of approximately 150,000 each. [cite web|title=Office of Economic and Statistical Research|publisher=Office of Economic and Statistical Research|url=http://www.oesr.qld.gov.au|accessdate=2006-05-28] Unlike most reef environments, the Great Barrier Reef is the only one worldwide where the
water catchment areais home to industrialised urban areas and where extensive areas of coastal lands and rangelands have been used for agricultural and pastoral purposes.
Runoff is especially concerning in the region south of Cairns, as it receives over 3000 mm of rain per year and the reefs are less than 30 km away from the coastline. [cite book
last = Hopley
first = David
coauthors = Smithers, Scott G.; Parnell, Kevin E.
title = The geomorphology of the Great Barrier Reef : development, diversity, and change
year = 2007
publisher = Cambridge : Cambridge University Press
isbn = 0521853028
pages = pp.3 ]
Pollution is currently one of the largest threats to the Reef's health. The rivers of north eastern Australia provide significant pollution of the Reef during tropical flood events with over 90% of this pollution being sourced from farms. [cite web|date=2003|url=http://www.epa.qld.gov.au/register/p01258bs.pdf|title=Coastal water quality |work=The State of the Environment Report Queensland 2003 |publisher=Environment Protection Agency Queensland|format=PDF|accessdate=2007-06-07]
Farm run-off is polluted as a result of overgrazing and excessive fertiliser and pesticide use. Mud pollution has increased by 800% and inorganic nitrogen pollution by 3,000% since the introduction of European farming practices on the Australian landscape. This pollution has been linked to a range of very significant risks to the reef system, including intensified outbreaks of the coral-eating Crown of Thorns Starfish which contributed to a loss of 66% of live coral cover on sampled reefs in 2000.cite web|url=http://www.reef.crc.org.au/publications/techreport/techrept32.htm|title=CRC REEF RESEARCH CENTRE TECHNICAL REPORT No. 32 — Crown-of-thorns starfish(Acanthaster planci) in the central Great Barrier Reef region. Results of fine-scale surveys conducted in 1999-2000.|accessdate=2007-06-07]
Due to the range of human uses made of the water catchment area adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef, some 700 of the 3000 reefs [cite web|url=http://wwf.org.au/news/governments-sit-on-hands-while-pollution-damages-reef-wwf/|title=Governments sit on hands while pollution damages Reef: WWF|accessdate=2007-06-07] are within a risk zone where water quality has declined owing to the naturally acidic sediment and chemical runoff from farming, and to loss of coastal
wetlands which are a natural filter.cite web|author=Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority|year=|title=Wetlands|url=http://www.gbrmpa.gov.au/corp_site/key_issues/water_quality/wetlands|accessdate=2007-03-13] Industries in the water catchment area are cotton growing, comprising of approximately 262 km²; 340 dairy farms with an average area of 2 km² each, 158 km² cattle grazing, 288 km² horticulture including banana growing, sugarcane farming, and cropping of approximately 8,000 km² wheat, 1,200 km² barley, and 6,000 to 7000 km² sorghum and maize.cite web |date=2007 |author=Brodie, J.|url=http://www.actfr.jcu.edu.au/Publications/ACTFRreports/06-07_NMZ%20technical%20final%20March%202007%20main.pdf|title=Nutrient management zones in the Great Barrier Reef Catchment: A decision system for zone selection|publisher=Australian Centre for Tropical Freshwater Research|format=PDF|accessdate=2007-06-07] Fertiliser use in the cotton, dairy, beef, horticulture and sugar industries is essential to ensure productivity and profitability. However, fertiliser and byproducts from sugar cane harvesting methods form a component of surface runoff into the Great Barrier Reef lagoon. [cite web|author=Australian Government Productivity Commission|year=2003|title=Industries, Land Use and Water Quality in the Great Barrier Reef Catchment - Key Points|url=http://www.pc.gov.au/study/gbr/finalreport/keypoints.html|accessdate=2006-05-29] Principal agricultural activity is sugar canefarming in the wet tropics and cattle grazing in the dry tropics regions. Both are considered significant factors affecting water quality. [cite web|author=Australian Government Productivity Commission|year=2003|title=Industries, Land Use and Water Quality in the Great Barrier Reef Catchment - Key Points|url=http://www.pc.gov.au/study/gbr/finalreport/keypoints.html|accessdate=2006-05-29] Copper, a common industrial pollutant in the waters of the Great Barrier Reef, has been shown to interfere with the development of coral polyps. [cite web|author=Emma Young|publisher= New Scientist|date= 2003-11-18|title=Copper decimates coral reef spawning|url=http://www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=dn4391|accessdate=2006-08-26] Flood plumes are flooding events associated with higher levels of nitrogen and phosphorus. [ [http://www.gbrmpa.gov.au/corp_site/info_services/publications/research_publications/rp068/index.html Research Publication No. 68 - Flood Plumes in the Great Barrier Reef: Spatial and Temporal Patterns in Composition and Distribution] ] In February 2007, due to a monsoonal climate system, plumes of sediment runoff have been observed reaching to the outmost regions of the reef. [cite web|author=CSIRO |authorlink=CSIRO |year=2007|title=CSIRO imagery shows outer Great Barrier Reef at risk from river plumes|url=http://www.csiro.au/news/ps2t8.html|accessdate=2007-03-13]
It is thought that the mechanism behind poor water quality affecting the reefs is due to increased light and oxygen competition from
algae,cite web|author=Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority|year=2006|title=Principal water quality influences on Great Barrier Reef ecosystems|url=http://www.gbrmpa.gov.au/corp_site/key_issues/water_quality/principal_influences.html|accessdate=2006-10-22] but it has also been suggested that poor water quality encourages the spread of infectious diseases among corals. [cite web|author=Rachel Nowak|publisher=New Scientist|date= 2004-01-11|title=Sewage nutrients fuel coral disease|url=http://www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=dn4539|accessdate=2006-08-10] In general, the Great Barrier Reef is considered to have low of coral diseases.cite web|author=Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority|year=2004|title=Pressure|url=http://www.gbrmpa.gov.au/corp_site/info_services/publications/sotr/latest_updates/corals/part_04.html|accessdate=2007-03-23] The long-term monitoring program has found an increase in incidences of coral disease in the period 1999-2002, although they dispute the claim that on the Great Barrier Reef, coral diseases are caused by anthropogenicpollution. [cite web
last = Page
first = Cathie
title = Coral diseases on the Great Barrier Reef
publisher = Australian Institute of Marine Science Research
date = 2002
url = http://www.aims.gov.au/pages/research/reef-monitoring/coral-diseases/diseasecp.html
Elevated nutrient concentrations result in a range of impacts on coral communities, under extreme conditions can result in a collapse. It also affects coral by promoting phytoplankton growth which increases the number of filter feeding organisms that compete for space. Excessive inputs of sediment from land to coral can lead to reef destruction through burial, disruption of recruitment success or deleterious community shifts. Sediments affect coral by smothering them when particles settle out, reducing light availability and potentially reducing photosynthesis and growth. Coral reefs exist in seawater salinities from 25 to 42 per cent. Salinity impacts to corals are increased by other flood related stresses.
The Australian and Queensland Governments have committed to act to protect the reef. [cite web|url=http://www.premiers.qld.gov.au/policy/ReefPlan/|title=Department of the Premier and Cabinet - ReefPlan|accessdate=2007-06-07] However, the
World Wildlife Fundhas criticised that progress against these commitments has been slow, saying that as many as 700 reefs are at risk from sediment runoff. [cite web|url=http://wwf.org.au/news/governments-sit-on-hands-while-pollution-damages-reef-wwf/|title=Governments sit on hands while pollution damages Reef: WWF|accessdate=2007-06-07]
Most people believe that the most significant threat to the status of the Great Barrier Reef and of the planet's other tropical reef
ecosystems is climate change, comprising chiefly of global warmingand the El Niño effect.cite web |author=Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority |url=http://www.gbrmpa.gov.au/corp_site/info_services/science/climate_change|title=Climate change and the Great Barrier Reef|accessdate=2007-03-16] Many of the corals of the Great Barrier Reef are currently living at the upper edge of their temperature tolerance, as demonstrated in the mass coral bleachingevents of the summers of 1998, 2002 and 2006. [cite web|author=Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority|title=Coral Bleaching and Mass Bleaching Events|url=http://www.gbrmpa.gov.au/corp_site/info_services/science/climate_change/coral_bleaching.html|accessdate=2006-05-30] In February 2007, the current threat of mass coral bleaching was assessed as being "low" due to a monsoonal climate system, although sites displaying some coral bleaching were monitored. [cite web|author=Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority|title=Current Conditions Report - February 2007|url=http://www.gbrmpa.gov.au/corp_site/info_services/science/climate_change/current_condition_reports/2007_02_14|accessdate=2007-03-13]
As demonstrated in 1998, 2002 and 2006, corals expel their
photosynthesising zooxanthellae (which provide up to 90% of the coral’s energy requirements)cite book
coauthors =Marshall, Paul; Schuttenberg, Heidi.
title =A Reef Manager’s Guide to Coral Bleaching
Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority,
date = 2006
location =Townsville, Australia
isbn = 1 876945 40 0
ISBN status =May be invalid - please double check ] and turn colourless, revealing their white
calcium carbonateskeletons, under the stress of waters that remain too warm for too long. At this stage the coral is still alive, and if the water cools, the coral can regain its zoozanthellae. If the water does not cool within about a month, the coral will die of starvation. Australia experienced its warmest year on record in 2005. Abnormally high sea temperatures during the summer of 2005-2006 have caused massive coral bleaching in the Keppel Island group. A draft report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changestates that the Great Barrier Reef is at grave risk and will be "functionally extinct" by 2030, warning that coral bleaching will likely become an annual occurrence. [The The Daily Telegraph - January 30, 2007 - [http://www.news.com.au/story/0,10117,21141105-1702,00.html?from=public_rss Online version] ]
Global warming may have triggered the collapse of reef ecosystems throughout the tropics. Increased global temperatures are thought by some to bring more violent
tropical storms, but reef systems are naturally resilient and recover from storm battering. Most people agree that an upward trend in temperature will cause much more coral bleaching; [cite news|author=Greg Roberts|publisher=Sydney Morning Herald|date= 2003-01-19|title=Great barrier grief as warm-water bleaching lingers|url=http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/01/19/1042911270265.html|accessdate=2006-05-30] others suggest that while reefs may die in certain areas, other areas will become habitable for corals, and new reefs will form. [cite news|author=Kate Ravilious|publisher=New Scientist|date= 2004-12-13|title=Coral reefs may grow with global warming|url=http://www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=dn6763|accessdate=2006-08-10] However, the rate at which the mass bleaching events occur is estimated to be much faster than reefs can recover from, or adjust to.
However, Kleypas "et al." in their 2006 report suggest that the trend towards
ocean acidificationindicates that as the sea's pHdecreases, corals will become less able to secrete calcium carbonate. [cite web|author=Kleypas, J.A., R.A. Feely, V.J. Fabry, C. Langdon, C.L. Sabine, and L.L. Robbins|title=Impacts of Ocean Acidification on Coral Reefs and Other Marine Calcifiers: A Guide for Further Research|url=http://www.ucar.edu/communications/Final_acidification.pdf|accessdate=2006-10-18] Climate changeand global warmingare one of the greatest threats to the reef. A temperature rise of between two and three degrees Celsius would result in 97% of the Great Barrier Reef being bleached every year. [ Jones, R.N. (2004) Managing Climate Change Risks, in Agrawala, S. and Corfee-Morlot, J. (eds.), The Benefits of Climate Change Policies: Analytical and Framework Issues, OECD, Paris, 249–298, cited in the CSIRO's Climate Change Impacts on Australia and the Benefits of Early Action to Reduce Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions" [http://www.csiro.au/files/files/p6fy.pdf] ] Reef scientist Terry Donehas predicted that a one-degree rise in global temperature would result in 82% of the reef bleached, two degrees resulting in 97% and three degrees resulting in "total devastation". [ Woodford, J., (2004). "Great? Barrier Reef.", "Australian Geographic" vol 76, page 37-55.]
Climate change has implications for other forms of life on the Great Barrier Reef as well - some fish's preferred temperature range lead them to seek new areas to live, thus causing chick mortality in seabirds that prey on the fish. Also, in sea turtles, higher temperatures mean that the sex ratio of their populations will change, as the sex of sea turtles is determined by temperature. The habitat of sea turtles will also shrink.
With seawater temperatures rising above sustainable levels for oceanic life, the Australian ecology and biodiversity is suffering. Currently, several environmental activist groups and campaigners are trying to involve the wider community in part taking in an action plan against climate change. One such development, is the Big Switch. [ [http://www.thebigswitch.org.au/ The Big Switch Climate Change Campaign] ]
crown-of-thorns starfishis a coral reef predator which preys on coral polyps by climbing onto them, its stomach over them, and releasing digestive enzymes to absorb the liquified tissue. An individual adult of this species can wipe out up to six square metres of living reef in a single year. [cite web|author=Pierre Madl|title=Marine Biology I - Acanthaster planci| url=http://www.sbg.ac.at/ipk/avstudio/pierofun/planci/planci.htm| accessdate=2006-08-28]
Large outbreaks of these starfish can devastate reefs. In 2000, an outbreak contributed to a loss of 66% of live coral cover on sampled reefs in a study by the CRC Reefs Research Centre. Outbreaks of the coral-eating Crown of Thorns Starfish contributed to a loss of 66% of live coral cover on sampled reefs in 2000.cite web|url=http://www.reef.crc.org.au/publications/techreport/techrept32.htm|title=CRC REEF RESEARCH CENTRE TECHNICAL REPORT No. 32 — Crown-of-thorns starfish(Acanthaster planci) in the central Great Barrier Reef region. Results of fine-scale surveys conducted in 1999-2000.|accessdate=2007-06-07]
Although large outbreaks of these starfish are believed to occur in natural cycles, human activity in and around the Great Barrier Reef can worsen the effects. Reduction of water quality associated with agriculture can cause the crown-of-thorns starfish
larvae to thrive. Overfishing of its natural predators, such as the Giant Triton, is also considered to contribute to an increase in the number of crown-of-thorns starfish. [cite web|author=CRC Reef Research Centre|title=Crown-of-thorns starfish on the Great Barrier Reef| url=http://www.reef.crc.org.au/publications/brochures/COTS_web_Nov2003.pdf| accessdate=2006-08-28 (PDF)] The CRC Reef Research Centre defines an outbreak as when there are more than 30 adult starfish in an area of one hectare. [cite web|author=CRC Reef Research Centre|title=Managing crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks| url=http://www.reef.crc.org.au/discover/plantsanimals/cots/cotsmanage.html| accessdate=2006-10-18 (PDF)]
overfishingof keystone species, such as the Giant Triton and sharks, can cause disruption to food chains vital to life on the reef. Fishing also impacts the reef through increased pollution from boats, by-catchof unwanted species (such as dolphins and turtles) and reef habitat destructionfrom trawling, anchorsand nets. [cite web|author=CSIRO Marine Research|year=1998|title=Environmental Effects of Prawn Trawling|url=http://www.marine.csiro.au/LeafletsFolder/26trawl/26.html|accessdate=2006-05-28] Overfishing of herbivore populations can cause algal growths on reefs. The Batfish"Platax pinnatus" has been observed to significantly reduce algal growths in studies simulating overfishing. [cite news |first=Catherine |last=Brahic |title=Batfish may come to Great Barrier Reef's rescue |url=http://environment.newscientist.com/channel/earth/dn10819-batfish-may-come-to-great-barrier-reefs-rescue.html |work=New Scientist |publisher=Reed Business Information Ltd. |date=2006-12-18 |accessdate=2007-04-06 ] Sharks are fished for their meat, and when they are part of bycatch, it is common to kill the shark and throw it overboard, as there is a belief that they interfere with fishing.cite news |first=Rachel |last=Nowak |title=Great Barrier Reef sharks on the edge |url=http://environment.newscientist.com/channel/earth/dn10731-great-barrier-reef-sharks-on-the-edge.html |work=New Scientist |publisher=Reed Business Information Ltd. |date=2006-12-05 |accessdate=2007-04-06 ] As of 1 July 2004, approximately one-third of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Parkis protected from species removal of any kind, including fishing, without written permission. [cite web|author=Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority|title=Marine Park Zoning|url=http://www.gbrmpa.gov.au/corp_site/management/zoning/index.html|accessdate=2006-08-08] However, illegal poaching is not unknown in these no-take zones.
Shipping accidents are also a pressing concern, as several commercial shipping routes pass through the Great Barrier Reef. The GBRMPA estimates that about 6000 vessels greater than 50 metres (164 ft) in length use the Great Barrier Reef as a route.cite web|author=Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority|year=|title=Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority :: Shipping|url=http://www.gbrmpa.gov.au/corp_site/key_issues/water_quality/shipping|accessdate=2007-03-13] From 1985-2001, there were 11 collisions and 20 groundings on the inner Great Barrier Reef
shipping route. The leading cause of shipping accidents in the Great Barrier Reef is human error. [cite web|author=Australian Maritime Safety Authority|year=2002|title=Great Barrier Reef Review Report - Review of ship safety and pollution prevention measures in the Great Barrier Reef|url=http://www.amsa.gov.au/shipping%5Fsafety/great%5Fbarrier%5Freef%5Freview/gbr%5Freview%5Freport/contents%5Fhtml%5Fversion.asp|accessdate=2006-10-19]
Although the route through the Great Barrier Reef is not easy, reef pilots consider it safer than outside the reef in the event of mechanical failure, since a ship can sit safely while being repaired."Reef Dreams: Working The Reef" TV documentary,
Australian Broadcasting Commission, broadcast 6 July 2006 [http://www.abc.net.au/tv/guide/netw/200607/programs/ZY6905A003D6072006T180400.htm] ] 75% of all ships that use the Great Barrier Reef as a route use the inner route. On the outside, wind and swell will push a ship towards the reef and the water is deep right up to the reef so anchoring is impossible. Captain Cookin the "Endeavour" nearly came to grief that way, being utterly becalmed and pushed towards the reef by the swell. Right up to within 80 metres (262 ft) of the Great Barrier Reef, the water was so deep that no ground (to anchor against) could be felt with 220 metres (722 ft) of line.gutenberg|no=8106|name=Captain Cook's Journal During the First Voyage Round the World, for 15 August 1770] There have been over 1600 known shipwrecks in the Great Barrier Reef region. [cite web|author=Environmental Protection Agency/Queensland Parks and Wildlife Services |year=|title=About the Reef |url=http://www.epa.qld.gov.au/environmental_management/coast_and_oceans/great_barrier_reef/about_the_reef/|accessdate=2007-03-23]
Waste and foreign species discharged in
ballast waterfrom ships (when purging procedures are not followed) are a biological hazardto the Great Barrier Reef. [cite web|author=International Maritime Organization|year=1997|title=The IMO Guidelines Resolution A.868(20) GUIDELINES FOR THE CONTROL AND MANAGEMENT OF SHIPS' BALLAST WATER TO MINIMIZE THE TRANSFER OF HARMFUL AQUATIC ORGANISMS AND PATHOGENS|url=http://globallast.imo.org/index.asp?page=resolution.htm&menu=true|accessdate=2006-10-22] Tributyltin(TBT) compounds found in some antifouling paint on ship hulls leaches into seawater and is toxic to marine organisms and humans; efforts are underway to restrict its use. [cite web|author=International Maritime Organization|year=2002|title=IMO - towards sustainable development|url=http://www.imo.org/About/mainframe.asp?topic_id=741|accessdate=2006-10-22]
It is suspected that the Great Barrier Reef is the cap to an oil trap. In the 1960s and early 1970s, there was some speculation about drilling for oil and gas there. [ [http://www.gbrmpa.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0019/1918/AR1976-1977.pdf Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority - Annual Report 1976-77] ] [cite web|author=Australian Institute of Marine Science|year=1996|title=AIMS Science for Management of the Great Barrier Reef - The Great Barrier Reef at a Glance |url=http://www.aims.gov.au/pages/research/smgbr/smgbr10.html|accessdate=2006-11-10] In 1970, two
Royal Commissions were ordered "into exploratory and production drilling for petroleum in the area of the Great Barrier Reef". [cite web|author=Parliament of Australia|year=2006|title=List of Royal Commissions, 1902-|url=http://www.aph.gov.au/library/INTGUIDE/LAW/royalcommissions.htm|accessdate=2006-10-22] Oil drilling is not permitted on the Great Barrier Reef, yet oil spills are still a threat to the reef system, with a total of 282 oil spills between 1987-2002.
Tropical cyclones are a cause of ecological disturbance to the Great Barrier Reef. The types of damage caused by tropical cyclones to the Great Barrier Reef is varied, including fragmentation, sediment plumes, and decreasing salinity following heavy rains (Tropical Cyclone Joy). The patterns of reef damage are similarly 'patchy'. From 1910-1999, 170 cyclones' paths came near or through the Great Barrier Reef. Most cyclones pass through the Great Barrier Reef within a day.Citation
first =M. L.
title =Tropical Cyclones in the Great Barrier Reef, Australia, 1910–1999: a First Step Towards Characterizing the Disturbance Regime
publisher =Australian Geographical Studies
journal =Australian Geographical Studies
pages =378 ] In general, compact corals such as "Porites" fare better than branching corals under cyclone conditions. The major damage caused by the most recent, Tropical Cyclone Larry, was to underlying reef structures, and breakage and displacement of corals, which is overall consistent with previous tropical cyclone events.cite web|author=Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority|year=|title=Environmental effects of Tropical Cyclone Larry - Précis|url=http://www.gbrmpa.gov.au/corp_site/info_services/publications/sotr/latest_updates/environmental_effects_of_tropical_cyclone_larry_-_prcis|accessdate=2007-03-23] Severe tropical cyclones hit the Queensland coast every 200 to 300 years; however, during the period 1969-1999 most cyclones in the region were very weak - category one or two on the Australian Bureau of Meteorology scale.
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