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May 2016    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 42, No. 5   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Controversy

science versus commerce?

from the May, 2016 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Evidence that Australia's Great Barrier Reef is experiencing its worst coral bleaching on record has renewed calls for the UN to list it as 'in-danger.' The National Coral Bleaching Taskforce says 95 percent of reefs from Cairns to Papua New Guinea are now severely bleached, with only four reefs out of 520 showing no signs of bleaching.

Experts say it is too early to tell whether the corals will recover, but scientists are already reporting up to 50 percent mortality of bleached corals.

"What we're seeing now is unequivocally to do with climate change," Professor Justin Martin of University of Queensland told the Australian ABC.

World Wildlife Fund (WWF) spokesperson Nick Heath told the BBC that "We have been working to save the reef in [recent] years, and we always took for granted that we had the bank in the northern quarter that was safe, and seemed resilient in previous bleaching episodes, but now it's cooked to an inch of its life."

It's not just Australian reefs, either. The New York Times reports Kim Cobb, a marine scientist at Georgia Tech, being stunned at the devastation of the reefs of Kiritimati in the Pacific. Researchers believe that bleaching, which they attribute to heat stress compounded by climate change, is threatening more than a third of the planet's reefs.

The Cairns Post reports Australian Museum's Lizard Island Research Station director Anne Hoggett as saying "80 - 100 percent of the reefs around Lizard Island were bleached and many corals were already dying."

On the other hand, Chris Jones of Calypso Reef Cruises in Port Douglas is reported as saying they were not seeing this bleaching apart from "a few patches up in the shallows, but that's it." He stated that the recent hysteria was harmful to the region and that the condition of the reefs off the Queensland coast in the far north was "being blown out of all proportion." Tourism Port Douglas executive officer Tara Bennett said it was important to note the last significant coral bleaching incident occurred in 1998, with high recovery levels.

"More than a thousand visitors are currently experiencing the reef daily from Port Douglas," Bennett said. "We're currently seeking daily feedback from operators on the sites they are visiting and what, if any, level of coral bleaching they are seeing. To date, there has been minimal bleaching reported.

The Cairns Post reports that following the efforts of research teams and work conducted by two tourism organizations during the first week of April on 32 reefs between Cairns and Lizard Island, spokesperson Col McKenzie said the reefs off Cairns showing bleaching average less than 5 percent."

Mike Ball of Mike Ball Dive Expeditions says his business is thriving despite global negative publicity.

So, while the scientists find coral bleaching widespread, dive boats may not be seeing it that much, but just because a dive boat finds a relatively pristine reef doesn't mean the problem doesn't exist. Go to Undercurrent's Insider Blogs page to read British journalist Tim Ecott's blog on the subject. Meanwhile, 56 Australian-based scientists say they are so fed up with Queensland's biggest newspaper, the Courier Mail, not covering the worst bleaching event to hit the Great Barrier Reef that they have taken out a full page ad to get the message publicized.

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