Government’s reef monitoring stalled during crisis bleaching event as funds dried up

Exclusive: Marine Park Authority scaled back surveys in 2017, when mass bleaching occurred in successive years for first time

Mass bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef occurred in 2016 and 2017.
Mass coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef occurred in 2016 and 2017. The government-funded body which monitors the reef’s health had to scale back its surveys of the bleaching in 2017 when funds ran low. Photograph: Nette Willis/AFP/Getty Images

The Australian government-funded Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority drastically scaled back surveys of coral bleaching in the middle of an unprecedented two-year marine heatwave, as its monitoring program almost ran out of money.

The authority’s field management program conducted more than 660 in-water surveys of reefs in 2016, during the first of two consecutive mass bleaching events. The program’s annual report said those surveys “played a key role in determining the extent of mortality caused”.

In 2017, when mass bleaching and coral deaths occurred in successive years for the first time, the survey work was largely stopped.

The authority conducted only “opportunistic” studies in 2017 and instead relied mainly on aerial surveys conducted by other well-regarded research bodies.

Government spending on the Great Barrier Reef remains under scrutiny.

The Senate will hold an inquiry into the federal government’s decision to grant $443.8m to the not-for-profit Great Barrier Reef Foundation, a group with ties to the fossil fuel industry. The foundation’s chairman’s panel, a corporate membership group, is made up of chief executives and directors of companies including Commonwealth Bank, BHP and Shell.

When the government announced the grant to the foundation, it also allocated $42.7m over six years to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) joint field management program, which monitors the extent of bleaching events, among other work.

GBRMPA released a comprehensive glossy report on the 2016 bleaching event in June last year, based on the 663 in-water reef health and impact surveys conducted by the field management program, and supplemented by other research.

A similar report on the 2017 event has been promised, but not yet released.

The authority told Guardian Australia it is a “management agency”, not a research body, and that it regularly works with other experts and uses external studies. It is understood the authority used to perform more research, but shed some scientific staff prior to the 2016 bleaching.

Within the scientific community, data from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, the Australian Institute of Marine Science, GBRMPA and others is regularly shared to allow researchers to gain a more significant picture of events.

The authority said in a statement it conducted an aerial survey, in conjunction with the Australian Institute of Marine Science, in early March 2017 to confirm anecdotal reports of a second wave of mass bleaching.

“From there, the Marine Park Authority worked with its network of research partners and citizen scientists to provide further information on the location and extent of bleaching.”

The authority said its staff accompanied other researchers as they carried out surveys and studies in 2017.

“As we were able to source credible and accurate information from others, our attention in 2017 turned to looking at what management actions can be done to improve reef resilience.”

The statement, which addressed the reasons why monitoring was wound back in 2017, did not mention funding pressures.

The Australian Academy of Science, in a submission to the Senate inquiry, said that in the aftermath of back-to-back coral bleaching and mass mortality events, it was “concerned with the direction of attention away from curbing the escalation of the major stressors on the reef in favour of small-scale restoration projects such as underwater fans, coral sunscreen and coral gardens”.

“The academy is also concerned about the redirection of funding from experienced and well-established commonwealth agencies such as the Australian Institute of Marine Science, the CSIRO, and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, in favour of a nongovernmental organisation.”

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