The Australian Government closed a third of the GBR to fishing at the beginning of this month, giving it the highest level of protection seen on any reef system yet. This monumental move came after countless studies indicating massive declines in coral reefs in Australian waters and around the world. Banning fishing will relieve one of the pressures on reefs, allowing them to cope better with other major threats like climate change, pollution and storms.
The GBR and other coral reef ecosystems are well known for being home to an incredible array of marine species, full of vitality and color. The GBR itself is inhabited by 1,500 species of fish, 359 types of hard coral, 175 species of birds and more than 30 species of mammals, including dugongs and six of the world’s seven threatened species of sea turtles.
Yet, contrary to what common sense might tell you, the waters in which the GBR makes its home are actually very poor quality. From a nutritional standpoint, they are like marine ‘deserts’. So how do the reefs survive? Scientists have found that reefs and the myriad species that depend on them are all part of incredibly finely tuned ecosystems, in which nutrients are continually recycled. There is continual turnover of life as animals are born and die, but there is very little new input of nutrients. Thus they are not very ‘productive’ areas, in the way that the North Atlantic and Pacific Oceans are, with their once seemingly endless populations of cod and other fish. These waters, though now massively overfished, can cope with much higher levels of fishing than the poorly productive reef waters. Removal of any of these finely tuned elements could result in big changes in the reef ecosystem. For example, the crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks that have left enormous areas of the GBR dead might well be as a result of man’s removal of their natural predators.
The GBR is a global treasure. In protecting it, the Australian government has done a service not only to Australians, but to the entire world.