Coral reefs around the world have been suffering for decades from loss in live coral cover. Until recently, the Great Barrier Reef had fared better than most. However, three threats to coral reefs, warming water, severe storms and Crown of Thorns starfish outbreaks, have had a serious impact on average coral cover (AIMS Long Term Monitoring).
Following the back-to-back global bleaching events of 2016 and 2017, a meeting was held in Townsville to assess the situation and help plan a way forward. As a result of that meeting, GBRMPA and the Government changed its approach to allow the investigation of interventions to help reef recovery as part of a strategy for building resilience. This led to the formation of Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program (RRAP); a national framework to consider whether and how interventions may have a role in reef management.
The consensus of opinion is that whilst coral reefs are resilient and able to recover by themselves, under the right circumstances, current impacts from climate change are too large and too closely spaced together, so that reefs have insufficient recovery time between damaging events. This lack of recovery is compounded by the many other stressors from agriculture, as well as industry and urbanisation locally affecting reefs. Intervening to help recovery and build resilience are now very real options, but a situation we hoped would never be required.
Whilst some believe reef-wide interventions won’t become affordable, most see that all options are worthy of some level of investigation to determine ‘feasibility’, so different intervention ideas are all in various stages of research and development. Intervention options are broad and range from mapping and monitoring, to help management decision-making, to eco-engineering improved reef conditions and facilitating coral biology that promotes resilience, such as larval enhancement, to finding or breeding heat tolerant corals. In the meantime, two things are clear: (1) good policy to limit climate change is the only long-term hope for coral reefs, (2) there are still huge logistical and financial constraints that restrict the ability to grow and plant corals affordably on a large scale.
From a tourism operator’s view-point, an important gap has been identified: reef adaptation and/or rehabilitation can be deployed at scale that is not enough for reef-wide significance, but enough to influence the sustainability of the tourism industry. This can be activated straight away. At this scale, intervention has an important localised ecological effect, but potentially an enormous socio-economic effect. The patchiness of recent bleaching, COTS and cyclone impacts means that there are still many excellent sites for tourists to visit. However, whereas in the past choosing a reef area at random would likely be healthy, it is now increasingly likely a random choice will be a reef area of poor health. The risk of deterioration of tourism sites, and a subsequent reduction of visitors due to climate change is very high, unless adaptation options are increased. The best ecological outcome will result when an intervention starts before a reef has deteriorated too far.
Our local solution through the Coral Nurture Program does not create an alternative to these other interventions, but is one that can act with others. For example, there is limited use in studying and finding heat tolerant corals if there isn’t a realistic mechanism in the pipeline to plant them out; economically high value sites that have high visitation (i.e. tourism sites) are priority areas to do this. The true reef-wide ecological value of reef tourism is in both providing the economic incentive to conserve the GBR and in educating visitors to the reef, about the threats and solutions. If tourism diminishes then that relevance, and opportunity to inform, will be lost along with the jobs and economic benefits.