Undersea 'graveyard' disappoints Great Barrier Reef tourists
Monday May 26, 2003. By CHRIS BARCLAY in Sydney
Copyright New Zealand Herald/NZPA
This article reviews a documentary illustrating the degradation of the Great Barrier Reef. It is an important document because tourists could see all along the degradation of this vast coral reef, while scientists did not. It gives important support to the content of the Seafriends web site, where degradation from erosion of the land, is considered our number one coastal threat, reason for a very large section on soil and erosion. Even now, Australian scientists and community leaders are groping in the dark as to what to do. They fail to acknowledge climate change bringing heavier downpours than ever before. They also fail to acknowledge the link between pollution and Crown of Thorns starfish outbreaks, and coral bleaching. Read this article with care, and read between the lines. - Floor Anthoni

They wear floppy white hats to guard against the sun and point video recorders to document one of the wonders of the modern world. But after 10 minutes of peering through the blurry floor of a glass-bottomed boat, interest is starting to wane; a couple of the Japanese are starting to nod off. The Great Barrier Reef may be one of Australia's prime tourist attractions but scientists fear the colourful coral is dying from a combination of tourism, commercial and recreational fishing, shipping, global warming and, surprisingly, sugar cane farming.

The Great Barrier Reef extends for more than 2000km, covering 350,000sq km - about the same size as Great Britain. It is home to 400 species of coral and 1500 types of fish, from tiddlers to the great white shark. It is the only living organism to be seen from the moon and is protected as a world heritage area. But, increasingly, tourists trying to catch a glimpse of the coral and sea life are let down after tour guides pump up the attraction. They peer through the glass to see some of the 1500 types of fish or anything to match the superlative buildup. Instead, they see a bed of rocky rubble, seaweed and the occasional fish. It resembles a graveyard and the tourists are confused. Where is the coral they've read and heard so much about?

If this is the Great Barrier Reef - which attracts a staggering 5000 tourists a day and generates an industry worth A$2 billion ($2.28 billion) a year - then either the guides and the brochures are lying or something is desperately wrong. German-born reef ecologist Dr Katharina Fabricius, of the Australian Institute of Marine Science in Townsville, says coral reefs are under threat worldwide and the Great Barrier Reef is no exception. Some scientists believe that by 2030 half the reef will be gone.

Blame is attributed to various factors. River pollution, caused by the excessive use of farm chemicals, is grabbing current attention. The pollution damages coral reefs close to the coastline. Areas considered most at risk include those near the popular tourist destinations such as the Whitsundays and Dunk, Fitzroy and the Frankland islands near Cairns.

"We're dealing with nutrients, sediments, pesticides, herbicides and heavy metals," says Fabricius in Sally Ingleton's documentary Muddy Waters: Life and Death on the Great Barrier Reef. Fabricius spends several hours a day collecting data at various sites. Since 2000 she has monitored the survival and growth rates of more than 200 young corals. More than half of her corals have died in the last six months. Inshore reefs should contain up to 150 species of coral, but now she struggles to find 50.

Like many North Queensland towns, Tully was built on the sugar cane dollar. In the 1940s farmers were given land on condition it was cleared for agriculture. But clearing ground was not enough, says Ingleton. They also had to make sure water was siphoned off from the wetlands to prevent the cane rotting. A network of drains was the solution, but the drains reverse the natural cycle of how a wetland is meant to function. Wetlands filter the water but the drains hasten the process, dragging any loose topsoil, fertiliser and other chemicals out to sea in a muddy flood plume. As soon as any nutrient from the rivers enters the marine environment it changes into sticky balls of mud and suffocates the coral.

Fabricius urges more farmers to follow the lead of farmer Ross Digman, who has built lagoons to catch the run off on his low-lying areas. To halt erosion, he has planted trees and dumped tonnes of rock to stabilise the river bank on his farm. "Farmers know they must address the legacy of past mistakes and make moves towards managing their land in a more sustainable way," Fabricius says.

In response to the documentary, the Queensland and Federal Governments have announced a joint plan for protecting the reef. Federal Environment Minister David Kemp said important areas of the reef were in danger unless something was done to make development on the land more sustainable. Queensland Premier Peter Beattie said major agricultural developments such as feedlots would need to have an environmental impact study under the draft plan.

The next audit of the reef would be in 2005, he said, and further action might be taken to penalise industries that contributed to pollution. Fabricius is not all doom and gloom because many of the remote sections of the reef are still in good shape. "We have the economic resources to manage the reef properly but it can't be done without managing the land - and that means getting the sediments and nutrients out of the river plumes."


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