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Experts support listing barrier reef as 'in danger'

By KARL WILSON in Sydney | China Daily Global | Updated: 2021-06-24 10:21

This photo taken on November 20, 2014 shows an aerial view of the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of the Whitsunday Islands, along the central coast of Queensland, Australia. [Photo/Agencies]

UNESCO meeting to discuss status of natural wonder may help its survival

Moves to place Australia's Great Barrier Reef on UNESCO's List of World Heritage in Danger may help rescue the environmental wonder, which has been severely hit by the impacts of climate change, experts said.

The organization's World Heritage Committee will meet in Fuzhou, Fujian province, for its 44th session from July 16 to 31 where the future of the reef will be discussed. A draft report of the committee recommended the listing because the reef faces "ascertained danger", a move that has disappointed the Australian government.

Professor Peter Harrison, director of the Marine Ecology Research Centre at Southern Cross University said the proposed endangered listing is a fair assessment, given the extreme threats to the reef.

"It faces a perfect storm of potentially severe impacts that continue to erode its resilience," he said.

Harrison said the reef had experienced three mass bleaching events in 2016, 2017 and 2020, plus two more in 1998 and 2002.

"The science behind the modeling shows the threat to the Great Barrier Reef is real and has been intensifying since the 1980s as global temperatures increased. Other threats include water quality issues leading to chronic outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish and increased intensity and severity of cyclones also associated with climate change," he said.

Harrison, who has worked on environmental issues related to the Great Barrier Reef for more than 40 years, said he had seen the health of the reef diminish.

"Greenhouse gas emissions are leading to a warming of the planet which increases ocean temperatures. This causes more extensive, longer and more frequent coral bleaching events, which kill corals at a faster rate than they can naturally recover," he said.

"Each year, the risks of another marine heat wave and mass coral bleaching are increasing as the baseline sea temperature increases. We need urgent action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and global consensus on how to more effectively implement international agreements to reduce emissions."

Associate Professor Scott Heron from the coral reef studies center at James Cook University said the news was "in some ways a surprise but not completely unexpected".

"These cards have been stacking up over the years," he said.

He cited the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority 2019 Outlook report, which stated the future of the reef looked "very poor", as an example.

He also said the International Union for Conservation has described the reef's health as "critical" citing repeated broad-scale coral bleaching, cyclone damage and issues around water quality.

Heron said: "It is important to note that this is a draft decision, which will be discussed next month at the World Heritage Committee meeting. It certainly shows that the world is watching-in terms of both the main threats of climate change and water quality."

William Figueira, an associate professor of marine animal biology at the University of Sydney, said the decision is "unfortunate, but probably not surprising".

He said the Great Barrier Reef has been hit by three consecutive bleaching events in the last five years and there are now only a few places on the reef that have avoided any damage. "While there are a host of programs aimed at addressing problems, some as part of the Reef 2050 plan and more recently the work being done as part of the Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program, the most important issue is also the most challenging; to tackle… ocean warming driven by climate change," he said.

"Bleaching events are becoming more frequent and thus there is little time for recovery."

He added: "It would seem it's our lack of coherent leadership, combined with our position as a major global supplier of fossil fuel products, that raises concern about how committed Australia is to tackling the major issue affecting this very special place, the Great Barrier Reef."

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