The Great (Dwindling) Barrier Reef Loses Half Its Coral Cover In Under 30 Years

by Michael Conathan

If half the Grand Canyon crumbled to nothing in less than three decades, would we stand up and pay attention? If Teddy and Abe’s heads eroded off Mount Rushmore would we step in to save George and Tom?

Sadly, that’s what is happening to one of the world’s great natural treasures.

A new study released yesterday by the Australian Institute of Marine Science shows that in just the last 27 years, the Great Barrier Reef has lost half of its coral.

Coral reef degradation is unfortunately not a new phenomenon. A 2011 report from the World Resources Institute found that three-quarters of the world’s coral reefs are threatened by increased stress from pollution and climate change. Corals are very sensitive to temperature, but because they are stationary, they cannot migrate to find their prime habitat. So as ocean temperatures warm, the coral organisms die, leaving just the white skeletal structures, a phenomenon known as bleaching.

Yet according to this new study, the degradation is less directly linked to these usual suspects. Just 10 percent of the loss was attributable to bleaching. The study found coastal storms were the leading culprit that caused 48 percent of the damage, and the remaining 42 percent was a result of an exploding population of the crown of thorns starfish that preys on coral.

Don’t mistake these causes for reason to think climate change isn’t responsible. After all, an increase in intensity of coastal storms is undoubtedly a symptom of planetary warming.

Controlling the starfish problem, it turns out, would allow the reef’s degradation — pegged at losses of between four and eight percent of coral cover per year — to reverse. Even at current levels of temperature and acidity, we could see slow coral growth. The starfish problem may be slightly easier to manage than reversing global emissions of greenhouse gasses, but it will require action sure to be unpopular with agricultural interests. As CNN reports:

According to the study, the starfish in its larval stage feeds on plankton, populations of which surge when fertilizer runoff floods the coastal ocean waters with nutrients. So plentiful plankton can lead to swarms of hungry starfish.

The last time the starfish bloomed in 2003, the government spent more than $3 million to try to control the population. No easy feat. But the motivation to succeed may be as great as the Great Barrier Reef itself. In addition to the inherent value of protecting a tremendous natural resource, and the environmental benefits it provides from fish habitat to protection against storm surges, the reef is also a major economic engine in northeast Australia. According to Nick Heath, a spokesman for the World Wildlife Fund Australia, “Sixty thousand jobs in the tourism industry depend on us acting with urgency over the next few years.”

Oddly, the Australian government is also planning coal and natural gas export facilities that would bring a constant stream of ships across the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.

With all these environmental threats and new industrial activity, apparently we’ll have to be content with renaming one of our most spectacular natural wonders the Incredibly Shrinking Barrier Reef.

Michael Conathan is the Director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress


11 Responses to The Great (Dwindling) Barrier Reef Loses Half Its Coral Cover In Under 30 Years

  1. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Release of this report shows exquisite timing coming as it does just when the people of Qld are discovering exactly what they have done in electing the new ‘Can Do’ Newman govt – imagine your worst nightmare and then double it. This could be as big a stoush as the carbon price, ME

  2. squidboy6 says:

    In spite of the era of Cousteau and easy scuba diving (I’ve seen people who were obese doing it) most people don’t understand nor want to know what goes on underwater.

    Corals will be gone before the public understands their importance. Deep water corals, cold water corals, and a few odd species will survive in remote settings but not the great reefs.

    Rudist reefs filled the same niche and they disappeared the same way. They had more time to evolve too!

  3. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Newman, in my opinion, did what is now de rigeur for all hard Right zealots facing elections. He lied about his true positions, or misrepresented them or gave deliberately misleading impressions. Just like David ‘Greenest ever Government’ Cameron in the UK, and, in my opinion, just like Tory Abort Federally. Abort’s position vis-a-vis climate change ( that it is ‘crap’) is well known, and I do not believe his disavowals for an instant.

  4. Merrelyn Emery says:

    The LNP’s importation of Tea party policies and tactics is so unlike our national demeanour that many are still shell shocked but as we have seen recently, common sense will prevail, ME

  5. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Oh, Merrelyn, I very much admire your steadfast optimism, but, regret to say that I cannot share it. I rather imagine that there is much, much, worse to come from the deranged Right. I hope you prove to be the more perceptive.

  6. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The corals will hang on, and come back, after the Anthropocene mass extinction has passed away, along with its architects.

  7. Vic says:

    ” Controlling the starfish problem, it turns out, would allow the reef’s degradation… to reverse”

    Huh??? If you remove 42% of the problem then the rate of decline will fall by 42%, not the 100% + that you are claiming here. Please explain your weird math Mr Conathan.

  8. Solar Jim says:

    When corals, phytoplankton and forests finally succumb to numerous lethal and profound ramifications of carbonic acid and carbonic acid gas, released by us in a geologic instant of time, higher life forms will find it difficult to obtain oxygen from air.

  9. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    This sort of weird, Panglossian, hyper-optimism, is a form of soft denialism, in my humble opinion. Let’s pretend that all these wretched disasters, all synergistic with scores of others, all inexorably worsening for decades, can simply be fixed by some act of enlightened governance. This despite the complete absence of enlightenment, rationality and intelligence in public policy for aeons, and the over-abundance, in its stead, of idiocy, service to power, ignorance, spin and outright bulldust.

  10. Mat says:

    Vic, I believe that what Conathan is getting to is that these problems compound. By removing one of the factors, you are easing the compounding effect of the other factors.

  11. Goldfish says:

    I just finished Jared Diamond’s Collapse. He writes quite a bit about Australia and it’s environmental issues. One of the biggest problems is deforestation and agriculture both of which are big drivers of the degradation of the Great Barrier Reef. Deforestation! Too much agricultural run off! These are fixable. Come on Australia.