Bleaching damage on the Great Barrier Reef is being assessed after back-to-back bleaching events in the past two years.
Bleaching damage on the Great Barrier Reef is being assessed after back-to-back bleaching events in the past two years. GREG TORDA

Reef to never be same again

THE man in charge of the reef recovery program at the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Mark Read, concedes the biggest jewel in Australia's tourism crown will never look the same again.

Although some corals will build up a resilience to warmer temperatures, some species are facing extinction.

Already back-to-back coral bleaching episodes have wiped out nearly 600km of coral mostly in the far north.

"I think it's going to end being a real mosaic,” Dr Read said.

"Some parts of the Reef are going to look more classic - hard coral dominated that we're familiar with - while other parts will be less dominated by hard coral and more dominated by soft coral and algae.”

While natural habitats are destined to change over time, Dr Read said in the Reef's case, humankind had contributed to the "current accelerated period of heating” causing coral bleaching.

"We are talking about a global phenomenon,” he said.

"It (coral bleaching) is happening all around the world where you have hard coral. The Great Barrier Reef has been hit particularly hard, so it's front of mind.”

Among the strategies being used by his team to aid in the reef's recovery are ensuring activities do not impact the delicate marine environment; tackling the insidious crown of thorns starfish; improving water quality and reducing the debris that finds its way into the massive water park.

Together those initiatives would make a difference but Dr Read admitted they would not prevent more episodes of coral bleaching.

"In terms of dealing with the warming per se, that is something that needs to be tackled at that global level,” he said.

"What we do, and what we can do is reduce as many of the direct pressures on the Reef to enhance its capacity to bounce back.”

The Reef supports a $6billion tourism industry that employs 69,000 people - all of which is in strife if environmental degradation causes significant, widespread harm.

Despite chalking up their best tourism season since 1997 in 2016, long-term operators know the back-to-back coral bleaching events that have received global coverage will take their toll.

Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators' executive officer Col McKenzie said businesses are understandably worried.

"We haven't yet felt the effect of the 2016 bleaching because that occurred in April-May last year and the people who were coming out in June, July and August had already booked their tickets,” Mr McKenzie said.

"Inevitably, there is no doubt we're going to see a slow down in the growth of tourism.

"I don't think we're going to go into negative territory, but a lot of people out there are convinced the reef is dead and gone as a result of media coverage and politicians playing politics.”

Even if all greenhouse gas emissions cease today, it is a scientific fact the ocean will continue to warm for the next ten or more years, Mr McKenzie said.

"It is a worldwide issue and it's not something Australia can do anything about on its own,” he said.

"Even if we meet the Paris climate change targets, we might still not be able to stop regular bleaching events on the Great Barrier Reef and we will see certain species extinct.”

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