Saving Great Barrier Reef has been an uphill battle

Published June 22, 2015 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2015 Susan Scott

Bundaberg, Australia » My co-captain, Craig, and I flew Down Under last weekend to collect our 37-foot ketch, Honu, which we stored here in October. We have a month to explore some of the 900 islands and 3,000 coral banks that make up the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

To fully appreciate this 1,200-mile-long marvel of nature, I did some research on the history of the reef as a national park.

Because the GBR is so famous, most people assume it has long been protected from commercial fishing. Not so. When the Australian government created the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in 1975, only 4 percent was off-limits to anglers, leaving most of the reefs, islands and inside waters open to commercial fishing. This included everything from hand-collecting aquarium fish to trawlers dragging nets across the ocean floor.

UNESCO named the GBR a World Heritage Site in 1981, but that didn’t give it more protection. By the end of the 20th century, overfishing, toxic discharges from nickel and coal mines, agricultural runoff and ship harbor dredging caused failing fisheries and gasping corals. The celebrated reef was in trouble.

Australian lawmakers rose to the challenge — and it was a challenge because fishing interests strongly opposed the creation of no-catch zones. Eventually, in 2004, the legislature increased the protected area of the park from 4 percent to 33 percent and created long-term conservation plans.

One-third of the GBR roped off (figuratively) for the recovery of fish stocks, corals and other invertebrates was, at 134,000 square miles, the largest protected ocean area in the world.

A year later, it became second largest. The first, at 139,000 square miles, is our own Northwest Hawaiian Islands, designated in 2006 the Papahanaumokuakea National Marine Monument.

The protected part of the GBR isn’t one solid piece, but consists of separate zones based on ecosystems. Color-coded maps, widely available, show users what kind of fishing and collecting is allowed in each area.

Judges are serious about these rules. One commercial angler caught fishing in a restricted “green” zone received a fine of AU$40,000, or $31,000.

Like all large wilderness areas in the world, controlling human activity on the GBR is a continual uphill battle for Australian lawmakers and managers. Environmental organizations and people with tourism concerns pull one way; big business and fishing industries pull the other. And even when compromises are struck, there are cheaters.

When delving into the debates and disputes currently raging around protection of the GBR, or nearly any environmental issue, it’s easy to get caught up in the negative and believe that all is lost.

I choose to focus on all that’s left. I’m about to sail into a park that hosts thousands of fish and invertebrate species as well as being breeding grounds for seabirds, sea turtles and whales. Coral reefs, sea snakes, dugongs, mangrove forests and fantastic life forms I don’t even know (yet) thrive here.

I appreciate what people are doing to keep the Great Barrier Reef great. It is, after all, still very well-named.

Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean
Watch”, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser,

©2015 Susan Scott