Australia Brands Outlook at Great Barrier Reef as ‘Very Poor’

Fish swim along the edges of a coral reef off Great Keppel Island in Australia on Nov. 25, 2016. The government agency that manages Australia’s Great Barrier Reef downgraded its outlook Friday for the corals’ condition from “poor” to “very poor,” due to warming oceans. (Dan Peled/AAP Image via AP)

WASHINGTON (CN) – Climate change is devastating Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, one of the world’s natural wonders, and a report Friday from Australian officials says warm waters and species competition in the whitening coral seascape could deteriorate conditions further.

The Australian government’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has published the report every five years since 2009. In a downgrade from the “poor” outlook given in 2014, this year’s report rates the reef as “very poor.”

Already warmer waters have bleached 932 miles of the 1,400-mile reef system, which covers a 133,360 square-mile area. Roughly 89% of all new coral development has plummeted in the last five years. Officials say water quality, inshore and off, has improved but “too slowly.” Attempts by the government to reduce pollution from agriculture have been slow as well but most habitats on the reef are now considered in poor condition, forcing several dependent species to rely on a smaller habitat to survive.

The report attributes the bleaching to record-breaking sea-surface temperatures, and as of Thursday, the United Nations World Heritage Committee said it would consider reclassifying the Great Barrier Reef as “in danger” in 2020.

With bleaching so severe, the report notes most species are in an overall worsening state. Success rates are better, however, for marine animals like the duogong, a rare relative of the manatee, and for turtles and whales, thanks to recovery programs already in effect.

But those conditions may not be sustainable for long.

Australia’s Environment Minister Sussan Ley vowed Friday that the nation will continue its commitment to meeting greenhouse gas emission goals established in the Paris Climate Accord. Australia agreed to a 26-28% reduction below 2005 levels by 2030. 

As for overall pollution by shipping and trade ports near the reef, regulatory changes over the last five years have led to a decrease in pollution but local ports still often fail to keep up.

Of 31 ecosystems on the reef the government assessed 60% as in good condition but the remainder were still designated as “very poor.”

“Given the global scale of human-induced climate change, the size of the property is becoming a less effective buffer to broad-scale and cumulative impacts,” the report states.

It says coral reefs diversity will fall compared to a decade ago, as will fishes species enjoyed by snorkelers and fishermen.

“Reef-dependent users need to prepare for this change,” the report says.

Imogen Zethoven, the director of strategy at the Australian Marine Conservation Society, told the BBC Friday that the only way conditions could turn around would be if Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison “cares enough to lead a government that wants to save it.”

“And saving it means being a leader here and internationally to bring greenhouse gas emissions down,” Zethoven said.

Scientists say the reef is unlikely to survive another major die-off if it occurs in the next decade.

For now, according to NASA, a massive flat pumice – a hunk of land ejected upward from an undersea volcano – is currently drifting nearby the Great Barrier Reef. The 58-square mile island may never actually drift into the reef, but even if it did, some scientists, according to Scientific American, say it would be a rare event for coral larvae that have drifted with the pumice on its journey to successfully colonize on a reef already struggling to survive.

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