Up for Debate: The Future of the Great Barrier Reef

Made up of almost 3,000 individual reefs, 900 islands, and sprawling over a staggering 2,600 kilometers of ocean, the Great Barrier Reef is truly one of the great natural wonders of the world. For years it has been a magnet, attracting tourists from all over the world to the coast of Queensland, Australia. With Great Barrier Reef tours found in numerous cities up and down the coastline, there is no shortage of ways to experience the goliath gem of the Coral Sea. Despite the beauty associated with the reef, the government of Queensland will soon be finalizing the Queensland Plan, a state government initiative that will set the state’s priorities for the next 30 years. The initiative has launched fresh debate between industry and environmentalists over the future of the Great Barrier Reef.

A Reef in Crisis

The debate between environmentalists and industry over the condition of the Reef is nothing new. Over the past 30 years scientists estimate that over half of the Great Barrier Reef has disappeared, and this sizable coral die-off has been the focal point of environmental activism for years in the region. The timing of the most recent initiative, coupled with the current health of the Reef has elevated the level of discourse though.

A spokesman for the World Wildlife Federation, Sean Hoobin, has expressed concern over the language used by the Queensland Government in reference to addressing the issue of the Reef. In question is the idea that the government will “balance” the interests of the environment and mining industry, a proposition that Hobins claims will ultimately lead to the environment losing out. In his opinion, balance is a term that implies a “trade-off,” which is something that the Reef cannot afford at this point. He hopes that the issue can be reframed, and the mining industry, with their substantial financial resources, can be made into a partner in protecting the reef through the right investments and implementation of more sustainable practices.

More than a Reef at Stake

Hand-in-hand with the threat to the environment is a threat to the economy of the whole northern Queensland coast. The Great Barrier Reef represents one of the cornerstones of the regions tourism business, and Great Barrier Reef tours are a booming trade in cities such as Cairns. Further reef die-off could have huge ramifications on the tourism industry, which is a major concern for many local residents. The tourism industry supported by the Great Barrier Reef is so substantial that the Australian government has published papers on the importance of the link between a healthy reef and healthy industry.

As popular as Great Barrier Reef tours are, tourism is not the only industry that relies on a healthy reef environment. The Reef supports a vast array of marine life, and substantial damage to its health could also impact the valuable fisheries off the Queensland coast. Almost all species of marine fish rely on the Reef for at least some aspect of their life cycle, which means that the fishing industry also has a hefty stake in ensuring that the Reef stays healthy.

Prognosis Unknown

The Queensland Resource Council (QRC), which is the primary mining organization in the state, stated that they can be “responsible” towards the environment while continuing to contribute to the region’s economic activity. The organization has said that they want their legacy to transcend minerals and energy endowment, and to encompass sustainable, energy efficient technologies as well. Despite this rhetoric, the status of the Reef’s future is still unknown. Given the tremendous loss of coral over the past three decades, it will take a substantial shift in current practices to not only cut the rate of environmental damage, but to actually begin healing and repairing the damaged sections of the Reef.

The Queensland Plan will cost an estimated $4.6M, and once finalized it will be voted on by the Queensland parliament in 2014. Until then the fight continues to carve out the protection needed to save the Reef. With the future in limbo, there has never been a better time for tourists to head to Queensland for one of the many Great Barrier Reef tours on offer. From scuba diving to snorkeling, glass-bottomed boats to helicopters, this may be the last time the Reef is at its current size.