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Sceptics respond to Australia’s latest efforts to save Great Barrier Reef

8th Jun 2018
Sceptics respond to Australia’s latest efforts to save Great Barrier Reef

Coral Bleaching (Photo Wiki Commons)

The Australian Government recently pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in an effort to save the Great Barrier Reef, the world largest reef system. They have agreed to invest most of these funds into a non-profit called The Great Barrier Reef Foundation, a small organisation with a handful of full-time employees.

The decision to invest the large sum took lawmakers by surprise, as the agreement did not go through the normal tender process. Some of the issues they plan to address are coral bleaching from warmer water, the coral consuming crown-of-thorns starfish, which has become a pest in the reef, and farm runoff that affects water quality.

Normally, such a decision would make environmentalists giddy, but many have doubts about whether the funds will be spent to actually reverse some of the negative effects the reef has undergone due to climate change. Some are upset that nothing is being done to hold polluting industries accountable, or even asking them to scale back operations. Many lawmakers are in shock at the decision because there was no bidding process, and government agencies that already protect the reef got only a small fraction of the funds.

The Great Barrier Reef  Foundation has supported many projects since its inception in 2000, including mapping the reef, sequencing coral genomes, and sending out a ship to collect data on the ocean’s chemistry. Still, many are sceptical about whether the organisation is adequately equipped to handle such enormous funds. It has also been pointed out that some of its supporters include big polluters, i.e. those who have put the Great Barrier Reef  in danger. During a hearing with the Senate Estimates Committee, the explanations of how the funds would be spent to actually save the reef were vague and did not satisfy most on the panel. Some believe that there is something fishy behind the deal and that the small organisation should not be trusted with close to half a billion dollars. A small fraction of the funding dedicated to reef protection was allocated to a government-run organisation, The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, which has been charged with protecting the reef for over 40 years, but the majority ($444 million) went to the Foundation.

The Great Barrier Reef  Foundation described receiving the funding as akin to “winning the lotto;” a comment that turned off many. The Government argued that one upside to giving the funds to the non-profit is that they could also seek private funding to support projects, but it is not yet known whether seeking additional funding will be a mandatory part of the deal.

Separate from Government-funded initiatives, some cattle grazers just north of Queensland are stepping up with the help of a non-profit called Greening Australia, to help the reef by containing sunken gullies and sediment flow into a nearby river catchment to contain erosion, which diminishes water quality in the reef. The pilot program has shown excellent results, exponentially reducing the amount of sediment flow and erosion. Now, they hope that more farmers will open up to the idea of remediating their erosion sites.

The Great Barrier Reef  is an international treasure. It supports Australia’s tourist economy and acts as a major carbon sink for the world. It is home to thousands of species of flora and fauna, including 1,500 species of fish; and over 30 species of whales, dolphins, and porpoises have been recorded there.

A marine heat wave in 2016 killed off one-third of the coral in the reef, alarming researchers who then realised that they had underestimated the reef’s fragility. Its decimation has mobilized organisations from around the world to act to save it.

The Great Barrier Reef  is like the ocean’s Amazon Rainforest – an ecological gem that is being destroyed before humans have even scratched the surface of understanding what it can offer the planet. Many who are pessimistic about the current efforts say, “too little, too late,” believing that irreversible damage has been done and that without extreme policy measures, not just funds, put in place immediately and enforced, the reef will inevitably die off. It is good to see that the Australian Government is taking the reef’s health more seriously, even if there is a debate about how. Only time will tell if this new funding allocation, along with the sediment recovery project, will make a difference and save one of the world’s great wonders.

Sarah Sakeena Marshall, English Language Teacher, Environmental Columnist

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