The widely publicised bleaching damage to sections of the Great Barrier Reef has largely spared the areas most visited by tourists.
Professor Terry Hughes of James Cook University confirmed that the reefs around Cairns and south down to Townsville “have relatively light levels of mortality from bleaching”.
Hughes told ABC News that surveys of 100,000 corals on 84 reefs, between Townsville and Papua New Guinea, had found that between 5% and 20% of corals had died.
North of Cairns, the Reef has been much harder hit, with Hughes saying that 24 of the reefs surveyed in that region had more than 50% mortality so far.
“When bleaching is that severe, it doesn’t only kill the species susceptible to heat, it also kills off the tougher 50- to 100-year coral,” Hughes said. That makes recovery much harder.
Overall, the effect on the Great Barrier Reef has been severe. Extensive aerial and underwater surveys conducted by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies show bleaching has killed 35% of coral in central and northern parts of the Reef.
The Reef is one of Australia’s great tourist attractions and provides a livelihood for thousands of Queensland-based tourism workers and tour operators.
Bleaching is not always terminal. It happens when adverse environmental conditions cause coral to expel tiny photosynthetic algae. Bleached coral can recover if the temperature falls.
Meanwhile, the Australian Labor Party is promising to spend big on tourism and the Reef if it wins office in the coming federal election to be held on 2 July 2016.
Labor leader Bill Shorten has pledged to take AUD 1 billion from the government’s AUD 5 billion northern Australia infrastructure facility and repurpose it for tourism projects in the north.
Shorten has already announced a AUD 500 million fund to help protect the Great Barrier Reef through improved research and environmental programs.
If problems with the Reef derive from climate change, there is only so much Australia can do. Then again, everything helps.
Written by Peter Needham