The Australian Labor Party announced that another $200 million would be spent to improve the health of the Great Barrier Reef over the next five years, but environmentalists question whether the money—the amount of which they hardly find sufficient—is being allotted wisely.
Federal Environment Minister Mark Butler on Friday revealed which projects would be funded under Labor's Reef Rescue program: $64 million for farmers to reduce sediment and nutrient run-off into the reef and generally improving water quality, $26 million to protect and restore wetlands and $21 million to track the health of the reef.
The Reef Rescue program has been running since 2008. In June, the government proudly proclaimed that since its introduction, the program has stopped approximately 628 tons of nitrogen, 77 tons of phosphorus, 92,000 tons of sediment and nearly 1,300 kilograms of pesticide from leaching into the reef.
But according to Dermot O’Gorman, the CEO of WWF-Australia, the newest iteration of the program isn’t playing to these strengths, leaving the reef vulnerable.
“The funding package has shifted 35 percent of funding away from farmer support – the part most critical to cut Reef pollution.” O’Gorman said.
Agricultural run-off was named as a specific threat to the reef by Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke, and it’s a problem haunting water worldwide. Phosphorus run-off from Canada and the United States is causing huge disgusting algal blooms in Lake Erie that are hazardous for humans and lake ecology alike. Nitrogen-rich run-off is creating a 5,800 square mile “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.
Coral reefs are vulnerable to run-off as well. A 2003 study found that Queensland farms were damaging the reef. Coral cover and biodiversity decreased as the dose of pollutants increased, so reefs close to agricultural areas had less diversity of hard coral. The coral reefs forming in run-off laden waters of today is less robust and diverse than it was in the past.
While humans are the ones contributing to a changing ocean climate—a long-term threat to the viability of the reef—and did drop some bombs that didn’t explode on the reef earlier this year, the immediate scourge of the reef is the crown-of-thorns starfish. Feeding on the fastest growing coral, crown-of-thorns starfish are an important and helpful part of the reef ecosystem in moderation. But the run-off has also created the conditions for crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks to occur more frequently, when there are too many starfish for the coral to recover from, and reefs are left looking like ghost towns.
Aftermath of a crown-of-thorns outbreak and a storm, via Wikimedia Commons.
"It is the crown of thorns which is having more significant short-term impact, any plan to protect the reef must include that as a priority," said Greg Hunt, a Liberal party member of the Australian House of Representatives, and a critic of Labor’s plan.
From an American perspective, it’s encouraging to see money being pledged and more pledges being called for. It seems like the Australian conservationist movement has done fantastic job of selling the protection of the reefs—making the project a priority for all by playing up the $5 to $6 billion dollars that the reefs contribute to the economy via fishing and tourism and the 63,000 jobs they create.
With the government already prioritizing the Great Barrier Reef and UNESCO's recognition, it's clear that the Great Barrier Reef is capable of holding our attention. But given that the ocean is warming to the point where coral can no longer flourish in it, just getting attention from a single state's government does seem pretty inadequate.