A travel agent in Brisbane says it’s because of the cyclone that hit last year. Another one just down the street blames “some sort of starfish.” A tour guide in Cairns says bleaching is a natural part of the coral life cycle; another, in nearby Port Douglas, calls it propaganda. He proclaims the reef isn’t bleaching at all.
About the size of Japan, the Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest single structure made by living organisms and Australia’s third-most popular tourist attraction (after its beaches and wildlife). It’s even a World Heritage site, and for those less interested in the environment, it also supports 64,000 jobs and contributes $6.4 billion annually to the national economy.
Local suspicions notwithstanding, the reality is that the reef is bleaching more frequently and severely than ever. In 2016, 30 percent of the corals died. In 2017 the reef experienced a back-to-back mass bleaching event, unprecedented in modern times. By the end of it, almost half of the corals were dead along two-thirds of the entire reef. As of today, there’s virtually no section of the Great Barrier Reef that hasn’t experienced at least some bleaching.
Climate change is, of course, a global problem, and the culprit in the reef’s accelerating demise. Earth’s atmosphere is already about 1 degree Celsius (1.8 Fahrenheit) hotter than it was at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, according to a grave new report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Even more alarming, it’s on track to rise 3 degrees by 2100, double the pace targeted by the Paris climate agreement. Even a rise of 1.5 degrees would have catastrophic effects, including the loss of 70 percent to 90 percent of the world’s corals. Hotter atmosphere means warmer oceans, and warmer oceans mean dead corals.
Coral reefs are essential for marine life, providing shelter and necessary nutrients. The GBR is the most complex expanse of coral reefs on Earth, which makes it one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. It hosts 400 types of corals and more than 1,500 species of fish. The reef is instrumental in the life cycle of 30 species of whales and dolphins, six of the world’s seven species of marine turtle and the world’s largest population of sea cows. Reefs protect life onshore, as well. The structures can blunt as much as 95 percent of a wave’s energy, reducing coastal erosion.
But in Australia, not everyone wants to believe the reef is endangered. A few weeks ago the Reef & Rainforest Research Centre, a nonprofit that works with tourism operators, private foundations and universities, announced it was showing “encouraging signs of recovery,” a message enthusiastically amplified by the Queensland government, which has jurisdiction over the reef. Scientists, however, were skeptical. While it’s possible for corals to rebound from bleaching events, the recovery story “is biologically impossible,” according to professor Terry Hughes, a marine biologist at James Cook University in Townsville, Australia. “It is based on a press release, not science.”
Australia has a conflicted economic relationship with environmental policy. Visitors are drawn to its natural beauty, but the nation is the world’s largest exporter of coal. In 2019, resource and energy exports are expected to reach a record $164 billion. From 2008 to 2014 the country’s federal and state governments provided $17.6 billion in assistance to the mineral and fossil fuel industries, according to the Australia Institute, a public policy think tank. During that time period, the Queensland government spent $9.5 billion on subsidies to the same industries, the most of any state by far.
That conflict is evident among scientists, politicians, nonprofits, travel agencies and tour operators, too. While most concede the existence of climate change, they struggle to cope with the economic realities that come with it. Should they callously ignore it and treat the reef like a finite resource to be strip mined? Or should they warn the public about the danger, scale back activities that could further endanger it and risk alienating potential customers?
The Australian government has gone to great lengths over the years to portray the reef as healthy. In May 2016, the UN released a report on World Heritage sites threatened by climate change. Despite being included in preliminary drafts, the reef was ultimately omitted after lobbying by the Australian Department of Environment and Energy. By way of explanation, the department released a statement: “Recent experience in Australia had shown that negative commentary about the status of world heritage properties impacted on tourism.”
Corals are tiny, translucent animals that attach themselves to the ocean floor, often in the shallow waters of tropical or subtropical regions. Their color comes from algae living inside of them. Using sunlight along with the shelter and carbon dioxide provided by the coral, the algae produce sugar and oxygen. The coral polyps benefit from the sugar, too, while also feeding on passing zooplankton.
When the water gets too warm, the algae produce too much oxygen. At first, corals respond by producing antioxidants. When that isn’t sufficient, they expel the algae altogether, revealing the bone-white skeleton underneath. Theses “bleached” corals aren’t necessarily dead, but with the algae gone, they typically starve after eight weeks. This has been happening all across the Great Barrier Reef with increasing regularity.
In January, during the height of Australia’s summer tourist season, a tour group was having lunch on a snorkeling boat off of Cairns, a small port city near the reef’s midsection. Led by marine biologist Joanna Leonhardt, they discussed how its precipitous decline was no longer a taboo subject. “I don’t find it scary anymore,” Leonhardt says. “I think we need to be talking about it.”
Making the public scientifically literate is an uphill battle under the best of circumstances, but it’s especially difficult when our preconceptions about corals are wrong. Imagine, if you would, a reef. What you’re likely picturing—the deep blues and neon reds and groovy oranges splattered over every diver’s Instagram feed—are most likely damaged corals. Typically, it’s only when corals are stressed that they begin to “fluoresce,” according to Hughes. When corals are healthy, the colors are far more muted.
“Some people have no idea what they’re looking at,” Leonhardt says. “They have no idea what it was like prior to bleaching, and they still think it’s beautiful.” The media also plays a role in misinforming the public. Reporters sometimes make “a translational mistake, where ‘loss of corals’ is reported as ‘loss of reefs,’ ” according to Hughes. “No scientist has ever said that the reef has died or a portion of the reef has died.”
Hughes contends that the media’s “alarmist tone” isn’t helpful. “Our message has always been, ‘It’s never too late to save the reef,’ ” he says. However, there’s still no viable plan to do so. The previous Australian government under Malcolm Turnbull had a history of funding questionable solutions, like a recent $443 million grant awarded without a competitive tender process to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, a nonprofit with 12 employees and business partners including Melbourne-based BHP Billiton Ltd. and London-based Rio Tinto Plc, two of the world’s largest mining corporations.
Another project, which used underwater fans to circulate deeper, cooler water onto stressed corals, was criticized for its potential to “increase risk of thermal stress, disease and bleaching.”
“It’s all about perceptions,” Hughes explains. The government would rather fund bad ideas than no ideas. When asked to comment, the current administration of Prime Minister Scott Morrison sent a copy of the press release announcing Turnbull's previous investment in the Great Barrier Reef Foundation.
Educating the public, of course, may build popular support for protecting the reef and, more broadly, fighting climate change. But in doing so, the fear among some is that the economy will suffer in the short term. That fear manifested itself this past January, when Col McKenzie, head of the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators, petitioned the government to pull its funding for Hughes’s work. He argued that the professor was damaging tourism on the taxpayer’s dime.
In the short term, however, it seems the reef’s decline has been a boon for reef tourism. According to data provided by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, visitation has actually increased since 2011. “We haven’t seen a negative impact from visitation or people’s perceptions of the experience,” says John O’Sullivan, managing director of Tourism Australia. Some are even highlighting the reef’s vulnerability to attract tourists—come see it before it’s gone, in other words.
McKenzie argues that the effect of negative news about the reef has yet to fully manifest itself.
In fact, the fate of the reef and that of the tourism industry may not be all that intertwined. According to Sheriden Morris, the managing director of the Reef & Rainforest Research Centre, the majority of tourism is confined to less than 1 percent of the reef, meaning, for most people, “their experience is limited to what they see in a 250-square-meter area.”
So, from a mercenary perspective, operators need only preserve the high-traffic zones to maintain their revenue streams—a short-term solution until sea temperatures rise enough to kill all corals.
In Jervis Bay, a town about a three-hour drive from Sydney, there’s a dive shop with a sign in the front window: “Plot idea: 97 percent of the world’s scientists contrive an environmental crisis, but are exposed by a plucky band of billionaires and oil companies.” When asked whether the Great Barrier Reef is bleaching, Naomi Paquette, a recent college graduate who says she studied marine biology, isn’t sure: “You hear a lot of different stories,” she says. “Some sides are saying, ‘Yeah, the ocean’s heating up, and it’s causing the bleaching.’ The other sides are, ‘No, no. It’s not happening.’ It’s one of those things where, until I see it, I think I’ll be on the fence still.”
There are still a lot of Australians who believe climate change is real and aren’t sitting idly by. The nonprofit Reef Restoration Foundation, which studies corals that survived bleaching events, recruits tourist volunteers to help clean the underwater frames that hold the samples and track coral growth. Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef, a consortium of businesses, asks participants to undertake six concrete actions to help save the reef: eliminating plastic bags, bottles, straws and cups; reducing food waste; and sponsoring a scuba diver.
“The great challenge with conservation is that you end up talking to the 5 percent that already agree with you and fighting with the 5 percent who will never agree with you,” says Andy Ridley, the group’s founder. “And then you ignore this great mass in the middle, which is where change will happen.”
Engaging visitors in the conservation effort can have a lasting effect. “You may be more likely to take some action when you go home because you’ve actually got a connection and an ongoing connection with the Great Barrier Reef,” says Stewart Christie, founder of the Reef Restoration Foundation.
But such interactions, Leonhardt says, require a delicate balance. “If you dump a whole bunch of information on someone, it will just make them back up against a wall.”