That comic saying about “how much can a koala bear?” has become a lot less funny as our iconic species is pushed to the brink in many parts of its range. But I’ve had a similar saying running through my head in recent weeks – just how much grief can we give the Reef?
This is surely the critical question in the wake of UNESCO’s worrying report on the Reef’s conservation status. We are often told that the Reef is resilient, that over the 500,000 years of its existence (less than 8000 years in its current form) the Reef has proved that it can sustain and recover from dramatic changes and disasters. Some assure us that it will continue to show this resilience no matter what we do to it.
Certainly the Reef’s resilient capacity is the key to its survival – but resilience is not an infinite or immutable quality. Yes, the Reef can, and has, come back from the impacts of cyclones, floods, Crown of Thorns outbreaks, coral bleaching and the like. But can we really continue to apply pressure upon pressure, and at an accelerating pace, on this (or any) ecosystem and expect it to just keep on bouncing back as healthy as ever after a few bad years, or a century or two? Especially when ‘the big one’ – climate change – is no longer just over the horizon, but well within sight.
The message I’ve been getting is that a well-managed reef, maintained in the best possible health, does indeed have a natural resilience to help it recover from, or adapt to, such events. But by the same token, a reef whose health has been compromised by a complexity of other damaging impacts – whether natural or human-induced – will no longer have the capacity to recover from major impacts such as the rising sea temperatures and ocean acidification that climate change will bring.
What the UNESCO report highlighted was the multiple and rapidly accelerating activities which are already impacting the reef, and with the potential for far greater damage, as a result of the resources boom. Specifically these include the massive program of port expansion along the coast from Gladstone to the far north; the associated dredging operations which will see tonnes of spoil, including heavy metals, dumped in reef waters; an increase of carrier shipping through those waters, from 2000 to 10,000 over the next ten years; and the run-off of sediment from major infrastructure works on land which will be carried out to sea by the rivers.
UNESCO is not an alarmist body nor, despite some of the wilder claimants, does it have any control over Australian sovereignty. But it can, and should, sound justifiable warnings just as it can and should ask the nation, as a willing signatory to the World Heritage Convention, to manage the Great Barrier Reef to the highest standards and take every precaution to safeguard its future.
In 1981 the Great Barrier Reef was one of the first three Australian properties to be inscribed on the World Heritage List. This was a matter of great pride at the time and came after a long struggle by our own organisation, and others, to save it from mining and drilling. In 2012 Queenslanders and all Australians have an obligation to safeguard the Reef’s capacity for resilience and recovery by offering it the greatest possible protection.
Let us urge all sides of politics to act with responsibility to ensure the Reef’s resilience is not compromised by a headlong rush for resources at any cost. What the Great Barrier Reef needs right now is not more grief but some urgent relief from these increasing pressures.
The initial UNESCO report, released on June 2, is available online – scroll down to page 22 for the GBR section. You can also download the full reactive monitoring group’s Mission Report, released June 20 – click here then scroll down to the last date in the box.