Frying Nemo: The Australian government dredging up controversy in the Great Barrier Reef

37

The Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef in the world. It’s so big, in fact, that you can see it from space!

!GBRSPACE.jpg
Corals are the only living structure that can be seen from space. (Source: NASA)

The Great Barrier Reef stretches for over 1,600 miles along the east coast of Australia, consisting of a staggering 2,900 individual reefs and over 900 islands. This natural wonder is supported by one major living animal – the coral polyp!

Screen shot 2014-02-08 at 1.09.13 PM.png
Anatomy of a coral polyp. (Source: NOAA)

Coral polyps fabricate the hardened coral structure of the reef by secreting limestone, creating the hard structure to protect them and allow them to grow into diverse shapes and sizes. A symbiotic relationship with algae allows millions of tiny polyps make up one single coral, and as an ecosystem they support the lives of millions of other marine species.

brightly colored reef fish
Look at all those critters! (Source: ACF)

Corals have crazy processes that are continuously being explored by scientists. Dr. Pim Bongaerts of the University of Queensland recently set up a time lapse camera to show coral processes that are too slow to be observed in real time. What he found was amazing – his video shows corals extending themselves to take over different colonies, moving themselves by inflating and deflating their structures and extending their tentacles to feed.

Corals are very picky about their habitats, requiring warm, clear water that allows light to facilitate photosynthesis and growth. If too much sediment is present in the water, the corals can be suffocated by the suspended particles, blocking their mouths and preventing feeding.

Sea turtle
Turtle chilling out on the Great Barrier Reef. (Source: Beyond Gorgeous)

This lovable reef is about to change, and for the worse.

Think of the oceans that surround the equator as a desert – there are limited life-supporting materials that allow life to survive, much like there is scarce water in a desert to support land animals. Coral reefs provide the structure for life and without them, the diverse and unique ecosystem found on reefs would not exist. Compare this ecosystem with that found off of our own coast in Southern California – there is abundant plankton in the chilly coastal waters, providing lots of nutrients to sustain marine life. If corals are suffocated or otherwise threatened, every organism that finds its home on the Great Barrier Reef will find itself in danger.

Human impacts on the coast of the Great Barrier Reef have been a threat to corals for decades – however, new legislation passed in Australia has the potential to devastate this ecosystem more than ever before. This law has approved the dredging of a deep channel through the Great Barrier Reef, creating a deep water port for coal mining exports to be transported. The sediment removed from the channel will be deposited inside of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Area.

Environmental groups have stated that a risk exists for suspended sediment to smother and kill corals. With huge ships carrying coal in and out of the newly established port, the risk of accidents including oil spills and boat collisions with the reef is highly increased.

!shiphelp.jpg
Container ship stranded on the Great Barrier Reef. (Source: Australian Government)

Clownfish enjoying their home on the threatened reef (CC Source)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While the government has given the go ahead, scientists and environmental groups such as Greenpeace have remained vehemently opposed to the plan. A letter sent to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority was signed by 223 scientists urging the agency to reject the plan to dump sediment within the Marine Park before the decision was made. Greenpeace spokesperson Louise Matthiesson has related the dumping of dredge spoil in the World Heritage Site as akin to “dumping rubbish on the Grand Canyon”, stating that the approval of the plan was an “international embarrassment for the Queensland and federal governments.”

The plan to dredge the reef is yet another international example of governments ignoring scientific data in favor of economic interests. The loss of the Great Barrier Reef would be devastating to not only the organisms that call it home, but also the people who make their living on the two million tourists that visit the reef annually, contributing an astounding $2 billion AU to the Australian GDP.

To save this natural wonder, it is critical that globally conscious citizens become aware of governmental decisions that could put the reef in jeopardy.

Jill Goatcher is a senior politics major and marine biology minor. She can be reached at goatcher@oxy.edu or on Twitter @WklyJGoatcher.