Coral Reef Conservation: 2016 Great Barrier Reef Bleaching Event cover

Coral Reef Conservation: 2016 Great Barrier Reef Bleaching Event

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In spring 2016 scientists found evidence of mass bleaching on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, resulting in the loss of up to half of the coral in the northern portion of the 1,400-mile-long reef.
The Aquarium of the Pacific
All images courtesy ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies / Terry Hughes





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Coral Reef Conservation: 2016 Great Barrier Reef Bleaching Event

In spring 2016 scientists found evidence of mass bleaching on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, resulting in the loss of up to half of the coral in the northern portion of the 1,400-mile-long reef.

More than 90 percent of the reef experienced some level of bleaching, according to aerial surveys conducted by Australia’s National Coral Bleaching Task Force (coralcoe.org.au).

The New York Times reported in May that this was the most extreme bleaching event scientists have ever recorded.

Bleaching occurs when ocean water temperatures rise and cause corals to expel the symbiotic algae living in the corals’ tissues. This prevents the coral from feeding on nutrients the algae produce via photosynthesis and could eventually cause the coral to die.

If water temperatures drop quickly enough, the algae may recolonize and save the coral. Bleaching can also be a reaction to extreme weather events.

Scientists point to El Niño and climate change as the causes of the increase in water temperature that led to the bleaching event in the early part of this year.

The southern portion of the reef was protected to some extent by cloud cover that kept water temperatures lower in March.

While El Niño and tropical storms are regular, natural occurrences, the increased ocean water temperatures and rising sea level attributed to climate change increase their frequency and impact, making it harder for corals to recover.

The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change calls coral bleaching the most widespread and conspicuous impact of climate change.

Bleaching events can take decades, even centuries, to recover from.

Coral reefs provide food and shelter for a wide variety of marine species, from fishes, crabs, and sponges to sea turtles and seahorses. The loss of corals means the animals that rely on them may also disappear.

Local fishermen suffer because reef-based fisheries collapse during bleaching events.

Tourism economies are also impacted when reefs are bleached, and coastlines are exposed to greater damage caused by waves and storms. Tourism to the Great Barrier Reef generates $3.9 billion in income and employs nearly 70,000 people, according to CNN.

A study published in Nature in June looked at reef conservation around the world and found several “bright spots” where coral reefs are thriving in the Solomon Islands, parts of Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Kiribati. These areas had one attribute in common: Fishing rights were given to traditional local fishers and not outsiders.

In places where local people were dependent on the reef for fishing, those people were better reef stewards. The study’s authors encouraged governments to regulate markets for better ocean stewardship and consumers to demand sustainable seafood.