Keeping the Reef Alive

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Developer Keith Williams ignited one of Australia's fiercest environmental fights when he announced his plan to build a marina resort at Cardwell, 120 km north of Townsville, in 1993. Conservationists claimed the proposed Port Hinchinbrook would destroy the World Heritage-listed area's seagrass beds and wipe out the local dugong population. Most residents disagreed: the $100 million development was a boon for an economy in the doldrums. A year after the Federal government finally gave Williams the go-ahead, Townsville's ecologists wonder what the fuss was about. Says James Cook University environmental science professor Helene Marsh: "The campaign's been a distraction. There are more serious issues affecting the Great Barrier Reef."

Like coral reefs across the globe, the 340,000 sq.-km marine park is being damaged by the water that drains from townships, aquaculture ponds, farms and grazing land. Runoff containing sediments and nutrients-levels of which have quadrupled since European settlement-can stress and even suffocate corals and seagrass. Coral bleaching, caused by rising sea temperatures, has also hurt the reef. But Queensland's reef ecosystem is one of the few still in good health, says Clive Wilkinson, the Townsville-based coordinator for the Global Reef Monitoring Network-thanks to its immense size, relative isolation, Australia's environmentally aware population, and the "world's best reef management."

Managing a 2,500-km-long natural treasure that borders towns, ports and tourist areas is not easy. Says Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority chair Virginia Chadwick: "When neither trawler fishermen nor committed conservationists are totally happy, we are probably striking the right balance." While it may be impossible for a single agency to solve all the problems, reef managers agree that if one of the world's most diverse ecosystems is to survive, protected zones must be extended beyond corals. "It's a pitiful effort for an Australian icon to have only 5% of its area listed as protected national park," says North Queensland Conservation Council coordinator Jeremy Tager.

Laws regulating runoff from the aquafarms springing up along the Townsville coastline, and an education campaign encouraging farmers to replace cane burning with green tillage, are helping to limit pollution sources. But the iconic status of Queensland's primary industries has discouraged the state's politicians from tackling the greatest source of agricultural runoff-over-grazing by cattle during drought conditions, says Marsh. The huge plumes of sediment washed into the reef by seasonal floods and cyclones may even be partly to blame for the plagues of coral-devouring crown-of-thorns starfish that have invaded the reef in recent years.

The Great Barrier Reef did not escape the bleaching that affected reefs across the globe after sea temperatures rose by up to 1°C in 1997-98. The threat of further temperature rises has led scientists like Queensland University Marine Studies Centre head Ove Hoegh-Guldberg to predict that Australia's reefs could die out within a century. Chadwick is more optimistic, noting that even severely bleached Queensland corals have almost fully recovered.

It's easy to get people concerned about the plight of coral reefs, says Wilkinson: "They're the pandas of the environment-everybody loves them." But Queensland's marine park managers worry that areas with less appeal, like the estuaries and grass beds-also critically important to the Reef's rich biodiversity-are being ignored. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has proposed that a section of each of 71 areas in the park be declared off-limits to activities like fishing and mass tourism-so long as that makes social and economic sense. But the sections in question won't be made "no-go" areas. "An extreme protection model just isn't practical at this stage," says Marsh. If the measure is approved by the Federal government, Townsville locals won't lose their favorite fishing spots or picnic grounds. But Keith Williams-who also developed Hamilton Island-may find he's built his last Barrier Reef resort.