Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef is a living wonder of the world and a tourism powerhouse for Australia.
It is worth billions of dollars and supports tens-of-thousands of jobs, but UNESCO wants to see the famous reef listed as “in danger”.
An expert UNESCO research expedition to the reef in 2022, found the reef faced serious challenges from climate change.
But in Queensland’s far north, the very people who survive off reef tourism say some parts are looking better than ever.
Glen Macdonald is the CEO of Fitzroy Island Resort, which is about 45 minutes from Cairns.
“The reef is really going well,” Macdonald told A Current Affair.
“I think that would be very unfair to call the whole Great Barrier Reef in danger.”
A Current Affair travelled to Fitzroy Island, where there’s been a major leap forward in reef conservation.
For the first time, at the end of 2022, coral that was grown at the island and planted back into the reef spawned, showing the re-growing process is working.
Corals are being grown by not-for-profit group the Reef Restoration Foundation, in an underwater nursery made up of tree-like structures.
“There’s high tech solutions, but at the end of the day it all comes down to elbow grease,” Ryan Connelly from the Reef Restoration Foundation said.
Loose corals are saved from the ocean, cut up and then hung in the nurseries until they are ready to plant out.
“We leave it on there for three to four months and in that time it regains its health vitality and starts to get growth tips on it and we’ll plant them in clusters, so they’ll grow together and they fuse and then they grow as a single colony.”
While very optimistic about the health of the reef, those who work on the reef and see it up close every day say there are pockets that need a little more help, where there have been bleaching events in the past.
But, many are quick to point out, those areas are isolated to smaller pockets of the reef.
“It’s very hard to blanket the whole Great Barrier Reef, it’s 22,000 square kilometres,” Macdonald said.
“When you’re looking at such a large footprint … you can’t quantify the whole footprint as the same.”
The goal for reef researchers and the caretaker, is to make sure it can recover faster when the temperatures do rise and corals face stress.
“The idea is that we increase resilience. Resilience is that ability to get back up after you’ve been knocked down and we need to put the reef in the best place it can be, to adapt to a warming environment,” Connelly said.
Jennie Gilbert runs Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre on Fitzroy Island.
Gilbert and a team of volunteers save turtles that have been found injured, nursing them back to health in a purpose built facility on Fitzroy Island.
“All animals rely on the reef and the condition of the reef and it’s looking fantastic out there,” Gilbert said.
“The outer reef and also the in-shore reef, is looking absolutely amazing in this area.”
The Great Barrier Reef is much more than a living breathing ecosystem, it’s very survival depends on the financial viability of reef tourism.
With tourists spending billions each year to see the reef, that money not only pays the tourism sector, but also funds tourism-led research on the reef.
“Tourism is paramount for the region, primarily this region’s built around tourism,” Macdonald said.
“But as custodians of the land we need to make sure that we look after it.”
If the reef is healthy, tourists will come, if they come they will spend money and the money will help future proof the survival of Australia’s most famous tourist destination.
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