Media Release Climate Change

AIMS data shows limited reprieve for the Reef but unless climate action is taken, the Reef’s future is ‘in danger’

July 19, 2021

Data released by the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) today should not change UNESCO’s recommendation before the World Heritage Committee to list the Great Barrier Reef as ‘In Danger’.

While the information shows that some species of corals of the Great Barrier Reef can regrow following severe coral bleaching, the ongoing threat of global warming means any rebound may only last as long as the next marine heatwave.

The Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS) said it is critical that UNESCO’s science-backed recommendation to list the Reef ‘In Danger’ drives our government to take the action desperately needed to tackle climate change.

David Cazzulino, AMCS Reef Campaigner, said: “The data shows what we already knew: that our Great Barrier Reef is still beautiful, but is in danger from rising temperatures unless we take urgent climate action.”

Coral reef scientist and AMCS board member Dr Selina Ward, said: “Given a period free from cyclones and heatwaves, some coral species can come back quickly following bleaching events. The latest AIMS data are promising, but it is important to note the recovery of hard coral cover in the surveys has largely been driven by fast growing branching and table corals, which tend to be the most susceptible species to bleaching events in warmer waters as well as being easily broken in cyclones and the preferred food for crown of thorns starfish. Given the increased frequency of bleaching events recently, another heating event could wipe away this good progress.

“Thankfully the past year has been relatively benign for the Reef with a reprieve from mass coral bleaching events and severe cyclones, so it’s welcome news but not a surprise that coral cover has increased on many of the surveyed reefs.”

A recent long term study on Lizard Island in the northern Great Barrier Reef showed that while the amount of coral is recovering from severe coral bleaching, the reefs are becoming less diverse, with 16% of coral species now missing locally.

The AIMS data doesn’t overturn the conclusion of the five-year Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report which found the Reef’s outlook was ‘very poor’.

Mr Cazzulino added: “The bottom line is that climate change will continue to threaten the health of coral reefs unless we urgently reduce carbon emissions, halt new coal and gas developments, and limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees or lower.

“With climate change continuing unabated, more severe and more frequent marine heatwaves are around the corner which are likely to undermine coral recovery. The interval between severe coral bleaching events is getting shorter and the impact becoming more severe.

“The Australian government needs to take responsibility for protecting our Reef by developing a plan to do our fair share to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees or lower and turbocharging local efforts to improve Reef water quality,” Mr Cazzulino said.

The 21-member World Heritage Committee will decide later this week whether to ratify UNESCO’s science-based recommendation to add the Reef to the World Heritage ‘In Danger’ List, due to three climate change-driven mass bleaching events in just five years, the Australian government’s lack of action on climate change, and slow progress towards achieving water quality targets.