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Case Study The Great Barrier Reef (Eastern Australia)


The Great Barrier Reef, off the eastern coast of Australia, is one of the wonders of the
natural world - it is the world's largest coral reef ecosystem. It was declared a World
Heritage area in 1981 and added to the National Heritage List in 2007.

The reef covers more than 300,000 square kilometres. The Great Barrier Reef system
consists of more than 3000 reefs which range in size from 1 hectare to over 10,000 hectares
in area.

Protecting the Reef is the responsibility of the Marine Park Authority. In 2003, the previous
Australian Government and Queensland Governments, in partnership with a wide range of
industry and community groups, developed the Reef Water Quality Protection Reef Plan (the
Reef Plan) as a combined effort to protect the Reef.

Of particular concern is wetlands - which have decreased by over 50 per cent since
European settlement. The Great Barrier Reef Coastal Wetlands Protection Program is
developing measures for the long-term conservation and management of priority wetlands.

Coral consists of individual coral polyps tiny live creatures which join together to form
colonies. Each polyp lives inside a shell of aragonite, a type of calcium carbonate which is
the hard shell we recognise as coral. The polyps join together to create forests of coloured
coral in interesting fan, antler, brain and plate shapes.

The ideal environment for coral is shallow warm water where there is a lot of water
movement, plenty of light, where the water is salty and low in nutrients. There are many
different types of coral, some are slow growing and live to be hundreds of years old, others
are faster growing. The colours of coral are created by algae. Only live coral is coloured.
Dead coral is white.


1. Crown of Thorns Starfish

Since the 1960s the Crown of Thorns Starfish has been destroying the corals which make
up the reef. Crown of Thorns outbreaks go through a series of stages which can take from 1
to 15 years. The impact of a Crown of Thorns infestation on sea and bird life can be
significant as the corals die.

Its not clear what causes outbreaks, but it is likely to be a mixture of overfishing of natural
predators and plankton blooms (a food source of the starfish) caused by nutrient enrichment
during spawning
2. Coral Bleaching
This phenomenon is not exclusive to Queensland's Great Barrier Reef, and has been
observed on reefs throughout the world. Bleaching is caused by increased sea temperatures
resulting from climate change and is exacerbated by the El Nio Effect. This is a periodic
natural phenomenon in which warm water rising off the coast of Peru has a big effect on
weather patterns and water temperatures throughout the Pacific. When the water is too
warm, the corals expel the algae with which they have a symbiotic relationship
(photosynthesis in the algae provide the corals with nutrients and in turn the corals provide a
safe habitat for the algae). The corals turn white and die.

3. Runoff of pollutants from coastal areas

These include nutrients, pesticides and sewage. There is a river catchment of approximately
400 000km2 along the Queensland coast adjacent to the Reef. Runoff to rivers (of which
there are results from the over-application of fertilizer to farmland and waste from animals
being washed into rivers. Changes in water quality affect the biodiversity of reef systems. For
example, higher concentrations of pollutants such as suspended sediments, nitrogen and
phosphorus, may result in more macroalgae and less hard coral diversity. Such a shift affects
the overall resilience of the ecosystem.

4. Changes to Coastal Habitats

Extensive areas of habitats that support the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem have been infilled,
modified or cleared. This loss of coastal habitats is concerning as they are important feeding
and breeding grounds for marine species and sediments traps and nutrient filters for water
entering the Great Barrier Reef.

Coastal development is affecting coastal habitats that support the Great Barrier Reef. Human
population increases within the Great Barrier Reef catchment are projected to be nearly two
per cent per annum. This will place greater pressure on the ecosystem and increase the use of
the Great Barrier Reef Region.

5. Fishing Practices
Poor management of commercial, recreational and Indigenous fishing is increasing the
threats to many of Queenslands threatened species including dugongs, turtles and inshore
dolphins. Fisheries management needs to be supported by investment into expanded data
collection and compliance programs. Trawling occurs in some parts of the reef.
6. Ecotourism
There are obviously many upsides to encouraging ecotourism. It raises awareness of issues
and provides income which can be used to protect the Reef. It reels in about $AU 2 billion
per year and supports about 70 000 jobs. However, many tourists are uninterested in how
their activities can be harmful. Many snorkelers and divers remove corals for souvenirs, and
merely touching the corals can severely damage or kill them. Many sunscreens are xeno-
oestrogens which may affect the hormone systems of animals and plants within the reef.

Habitat and Biodiversity

The World Heritage Area hosts many habitats or native environments where animals and
plants naturally live.

Different degrees of protection are provided for different habitats in the World Heritage Area.
One of the main aims of the Reef Plan is to maintain biodiversity within the larger ecosystem
of the Reef as well as different habitats to help sustain the biodiversity of species and
population levels.

The Great Barrier Reef area abounds with wildlife, including dugong and green turtles,
varieties of dolphins and whales, more than 1500 species of fish, 4000 types of mollusc and
more than 200 species of bird life.

However, in 2006 it was reported that over the last 40 years, 'numbers of nesting
loggerhead turtles have declined by between 50 percent and 80 percent; and 'estimates of
dugong populations ... indicate that they are currently only about 3 percent of what they
were in the early 1960s'.

How can IGOs, GOs and NGOs contribute to solving the problems caused
by each of the six threats listed above?