[Coral-List] Differing perspectives on the GBR

Peter Sale sale at uwindsor.ca
Thu Oct 22 19:20:06 UTC 2020

Hi listers,
My earlier post fell on deaf ears, possibly because of no interest, but likely because it was buried in a flurry of concern re whether Darwin was right or wrong.  But I was hoping for some reaction, so...
Thinking back to the beginning of my experience of the Great Barrier Reef, I can identify seven distinct perspectives (mine and/or Australians):

  1.  On my first visit, late 1968, I saw a profoundly rich reef system of mind-boggling extent that was largely ignored/taken for granted by Australians.  I assumed/believed it would always be there.
  2.  End 1960s, there was the famous bumper sticker, Save the Barrier Reef, and an awakening awareness by Australians that the GBR was not something to be handed out as mining leases.  It deserved protection.  This was a new perspective.
  3.  In the heady days of the mid 1970s, Australia developed the legislation, built the management structure and began the task of creating what was then the largest marine managed area on the planet.  Decisions were largely science-based, and the GBR became the best-managed marine system on the planet.
  4.  The first mass bleaching of corals (Panama) caused only tiny ripples beyond coral specialists in Australia, where expertise in coral reef science was growing rapidly.  There was confidence that the GBR was important and that Australia had the capacity to, and was managing it well.  I left Australia in the late 1980s and the Great Barrier Reef settled into my past, as a hazy image of wondrousness, a profoundly impressive ecological system that I had been privileged to study and to know, one that was being well managed by the nation within which it rested.
  5.  During the 1990s there were bleachings in Australia, more crown-of-thorns outbreaks, and growing evidence of other problems.  But it was the 1997-1998 circumtropical bleaching that really woke me up to how seriously threatened the GBR and other reefs really were.  The idea that the Great Barrier Reef, that magnificent example of coral reef development, might actually be at real risk of becoming degraded into a depressing mass of eroding limestone covered by algal turfs despite Australia's management efforts became my 5th perspective.
  6.  Through the first decade of this century, GBR management struggled with how to control water quality being impacted by fertilizers and pesticides from farmland far from the coast, how to manage rapidly intensifying tourism, and how to deal with broader issues like climate change.  My sixth perspective on the Great Barrier Reef was one in which management of the marine park continued to be strengthened, all while threats to that park multiplied and signs of ecological stress became too obvious to ignore.  Despite the excellent park management, Australians were failing at the task sustaining the Great Barrier Reef.
  7.  Australia, like Canada, has a major part of its economy tied to extraction and export of fossil fuels.  Also like Canada, Australia has dragged its feet at global climate conferences despite the evidence in droughts, fires and GBR bleachings that climate change will be very bad for Australians.  Recent investigative research has detailed the ways in which the powerful fossil fuel corporations in Australia have been leaders in the efforts by the wider business community to sustain/expand fossil fuel extraction, reduce support for alternative energy sources, and diminish the importance of climate change in the minds of the Australian people.  My current perspective on the Great Barrier Reef is as a treasured icon, a national treasure, managed successfully, if not perfectly, since the 1970s, that is being guaranteed a continuing decline by governments seduced by the fossil fuel industry into believing that there is no way forward for Australia that puts this coral reef marvel ahead of a continuing worship of the money to be made from digging up fossil fuels and shipping them out.  This is a depressing perspective, signaling a national rejection of informed, inspired environmental management.  It is also one that risks collapsing the enormous success that environmental science has had in that nation.  Why spend money on learning how to better protect national icons like the Great Barrier Reef when protecting them prevents you continuing traditional carbon-intensive resource extraction?

I hope for an eighth perspective soon, when Australia reasserts the importance of the Great Barrier Reef, and makes real changes in national policy to properly address climate change, and to ensure the GBR has a chance to get through this century retaining at least some of its former glory.  A more fleshed out version of this rant is at http://www.petersalebooks.com/?p=2904

Peter Sale

sale at uwindsor.ca

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