Is the Great Barrier Reef Dead?Reading time: 7 minutes
On Oct 11 outsider online posted an article titled Obituary: Great Barrier Reef (25 million BC- 2016). The article went viral leading to 1.4 million shares, widespread coverage by various new channels and a worldwide debate on the topic. In fact, a quick google search returns over 1.8 million results.
But the question remains… is the Great Barrier Reef dead?
Well before answering the big question I want to discuss what this viral article is really about.
The article starts with a shocking opening statement. It reads “The Great Barrier Reef of Australia passed away in 2016 after a long illness. It was 25 million years old.” It then continues with a review of the importance of the GBR in past tense and the history of the GBR; eventually leading to the current health of the reef and the occurrence of large-scale disturbances such as mass bleaching events. This is all under the pretence that the GBR is gone.
I understand the intent of the article with its aim of bringing attention to recent large-scale bleaching whilst gaining site traffic and engagement and was certainly successful in doing this. The image is powerful; the GBR, a flagship of the marine environment, has been destroyed.
But is this shock tactic useful? The saying goes any publicity is good publicity, right?
Well in some ways I would have to agree with that saying…
Does this article benefit coral reef conservation? – Yes
SATIRE – I want to start by stating something that many people may have missed in the all the spinoff news articles and media uproar. The article is not a serious piece. The topic is serious however the style certainly is not. In fact, the entire article should be taken as satirical and the last paragraph, in particular, is meant to be subtly sarcastic in tone – “The Great Barrier Reef was predeceased by the South Pacific’s Coral Triangle, the Florida Reef off the Florida Keys and most other coral reefs on earth. It is survived by the remnants of the Belize Barrier Reef and some deep-water corals”. The higher purpose of satire, other than to entertain, is to infuse it with “the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, government, or society itself into improvement”. You can’t deny that in that sense, this is exactly what the article delivered and what the coral doctor ordered.
AWARENESS – People have been invited to engage, comment and debate the topic and are perhaps more aware of the gravity of the situation which is certainly important
PREPAREDNESS – the article can also be seen as a predictive “future” obituary with the idea to promote a proactive response to the situation and engaging the next generation of scientists and stakeholders into action.
VIRAL FUNDING – the power of viral fundraising has become more and more important and the article does use the end of this article to ask for donations to OAA – a non-profit Australian organisation which supports, sponsors and promotes marine education and the conservation of oceanic environments with a focus on fragile ecosystems such as coral reefs (‘In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to Ocean Ark Alliance.’)
COMMUNICATION – Reactions to the article has provoked some introspection regarding what it is that scientists want to say and what forms of expression are best suited to getting their message about the immediate and long-term future of coral reefs out there with clarity and purpose
ACTION – “Something is Better Than Nothing” may not always be true but it cannot be denied that this article has had a positive impact on the engagement in global coral reef issues, however, has the right message been put out and are the positives outweighed by the negatives?
Do this article benefit coral reef conservation? – No
HEADLINE – My major issue with this article is that the dramatic and sensationalised headline is the only thing that most people will see and it becomes and issue when no context is given as seen in many subsquent articles.
CLARITY – The article is also set up in a way in which the sarcastic or satirical elements are either in some way cloaked or, in the case of the final paragraph, require some assumed previous knowledge and context about the current situation of coral reefs which many people have no reason to know already particularly if it means having to wade through the swamp of misinformation about coral reefs that is found in mass media. With this being one of the countless worthy causes that someone could put time and effort into understanding; message clarity becomes all the more important. Perhaps the clouding of the satirical nature of the article was a conscious decision to improve the article’s shock factor and hyperbole.
EXPLANATION – The situation in the GBR is now more difficult to explain. People are armed with a huge exaggerated untruth and effort has to be made to dispel this view. It is then difficult to emphasise the dire danger that coral reefs are in and at the same time explain that reefs aren’t dead and that their predicament was exaggerated. It is easy to lose subtleties and balance in such conversations.
PROMOTE HOPELESSNESS – Does this article hurt legitimate science? Does it fuel indifference and hopelessness? I would say yes. There are going to be a lot of people after hearing about this story that give up on reefs as a lost battle and now believe that there are no positive actions that we can take to salvage our reefs.
TOURISM DAMAGE – This articles virility has made it global with a huge reach. It seems inconceivable to me that it will not have some form of impact on the tourism of the GBR. The Australian government successfully suppressed information about the unhealthy state of the reef, worried that it would drive away tourism, a $5.2 billion industry. This has blown that out of the water – a positive sign for transparency but perhaps an obituary for GBR tourism as we know it will be needed soon. A change in the reef’s 2 million visitors a year could not only be devastating news for the many jobs that rely on this income but the value of GBR tourism makes it easier to justify government investment in reef management and this could suffer. Interestingly, a survey in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism released earlier this year found that nearly 70 percent of visitors to the Great Barrier Reef list the desire “to see the reef before it’s gone” as the primary reason for their visit so perhaps we could see sharp increase in tourism numbers in the short term which could cause the overpopulation of dive and snorkel sites leading to damage. Of course, diver damage is nowhere near as big a threat as cyclones, bleaching, and crown-of-thorns starfish to coral however due to the current vulnerability of bleached and recovering coral the damage could be more prominent than usual
CRY WOLF – Major conservation issues are all too often presented with this level of exaggeration. If this action X is not done now consequence X will be final. These messages are often used to gain more attention for pressing issues and grow funds however these benefits are often to the detriment of integrity, truth and transparency surrounding the issue. The satirical nature of the article may, therefore, be justified but is its use beneficial in this case? People hearing about these issues which are continually presented with phrases of finality can become desensitised to the issues and can immediately either consciously or unconsciously dismiss the claims made as they will almost certainly hear the same or similar claims a year on. People can then rationalise shrugging off the need for real change as those making the claims have lost credibility and ultimately damaged the confidence of people in their campaign.
Nothing is black and white and the value of this article certainly falls in a grey area. However, it is clear that there should be an effort made to ensure that wide-scale coverage of a key conservation issue leads to an overall positive impact on public attitude and action
Now let’s get back to the question in the title – Is the GBR dead?
No, but it is on life support.
Coral get their colour from algae which live inside their tissue. This algae is known as Symbiodinium or zooxanthellae. Coral are particularly sensitive to changes in temperature and will expel the algae during severe temperature changes thus losing their main means to produce glucose, glycerol, and amino acids through photosynthesis. This leaves behind the vulnerable white calcium skeleton of corals and vastly reduces their ability to grow and survive. Bleaching does not mean immediate coral death as coral can often find replacement zooxanthellae and regain their colour. However, some level of coral death is unavoidable and the bleached corals left are also more vulnerable stressors. This includes cyclones, crown-of-thorns starfish, lionfish, marine pollution, sedimentation, and oxybenzone in sun cream to name a few.
Due principally to a cyclical environmental phenomenon known as El Nino a distinct warming of ocean waters occurred between November 2015 and spring 2016. This is not the first time this has happened, in fact, the ’97-’98 El Nino was bigger, however, the damage of the 2015-16 el Nino is far more extensive. 93% of the reef has been affected by bleaching with a mix of very severe, moderate and little damage that changes dramatically along the 2300km length of the Reef. Most severe and irreversible damage is seen in the northern parts of the great barrier reef with 81% of the northern reef classed as severely bleached. The end result is predicted to be the death of nearly a quarter of this unique ecosystem.
There is a point in the foreseeable future where we could see the loss of the GBR in its entirety and the subsequent loss of all of its ecosystem services which is, to put lightly, unthinkable.
There is a role for the media to maintain awareness and develop support to combat this herculean issue, however, to maintain sustainable support in the issue and not just inciting a spiked interest in the topic the coverage has to be engaging, clear in message, truthful and transparent.