Concern over coral bleaching in reef's 'tourism heartland'

Unprecedented back-to-back coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef’s ‘tourism heartland’ has sparked a call to action by scientists and industry leaders.

Severe to moderate bleaching of the reef between Cairns and Townsville was discovered by a six-hour aerial survey by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Parks Authority (GBRMPA) yesterday.

In announcing the findings today, Associated of Marine Parks Tourism Operators chief executive officer Col McKenzie said the bleaching was a continuation of last year’s bleaching event – the largest ever – which affected corals between Lizard Island and the top of the Cape.

“The reef simply hasn’t had a chance to cool down,” Mr McKenzie said.

“The water temperature has been consistently one to two degrees above average all year.”


Mr McKenzie said this ‘enormous amount of heat stress’ manifested in both fully-bleached coral and the less threatening fluorescing coral.

Yesterday’s survey found belts of bleached coral – known as Type 3 coral – in prime tourism hotspots between Cairns and Ingham.

“Fortunately the fully-bleached coral is very patchy,” he said.

“We’re not seeing big swathes of it like we did last year, and this event so far doesn’t look as if it’s anywhere near as bad.

"However, it is very possible that if we don’t get a good monsoonal event that we could see significant (coral) mortality off Cairns. It hasn’t occurred yet but I think we need to on our toes, to be closely monitoring it.”

Mr McKenzie said the reef was the “canary in the coal mine” for climate change.

“There is no doubt that if we don’t get our act together globally that we will have serious damage to the Great Barrier Reef, that we could potentially see the Great Barrier Reef lose an enormous amount of biodiversity.”


Mr McKenzie said it was time to “put politics” aside and get to work to save the reef.

“I know both governments are doing hundred million dollar type investments each year to try and address water quality, but at the end of the day, there’s still a lot more that we can do to save the reef.

“We can be out there dealing more actively with the Crown of Thorns starfish, put a third boat out, make sure that the coral that’s left after a bleaching event is not then being eaten out by the Crown of Thorns.

“We’ve got to meet those Paris Climate Change targets and if we can, we need to do better than that.

“If we can get the reef as resilient as possible, there is very good hope that we will save the Great Barrier Reef.”


Dr Suzanne Long, program director of the Reef and Rainforest Research Centre, echoed Mr McKenzie’s concerns.

“To our knowledge, this is the first time we’ve seen back-to-back bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef,” she said.

“Public appetite is for something a bit more active that just more monitoring.

“Hopefully the government will take this moment to take some leadership.”

Mr McKenzie said it was not only the reef itself that was at risk, but industry and individual livelihoods, noting the Great Barrier Reef tourism is a $6.4 billion industry employing 63,000 people.

“We have definitely over the last 12 months seen cancellations of tourists.

“We’ve seen a drop in the direct flights from mainland China to Cairns, we’ve seen a drop announced today in the direct flights from Hong Kong to Cairns.

“It will be interesting to do the analysis and find out whether that was driven by the thought that it wasn’t worth visiting the Great Barrier Reef, which is in my opinion is wrong.

“The Great Barrier Reef is as big as Italy or Japan, and having an event in one area doesn’t mean you have the event in the whole reef.”

AMPTO, GBRMPA and other organisations will continue to monitor the bleaching event.