My connection to the Great Barrier Reef was formed at a very early age.
My dad was a dive boat captain and my early years were often spent swaying (and yes often green or retching!) on a pitching deck during a strong south-easterly.
One of my earliest memories is of riding a big old turtle on the beach when I was about three years old.
Fortunately dad’s work meant there was also a lot of snorkelling, fishing and days and days steaming between the reefs and coral islands between Mackay and Cooktown, chatting to travellers from all over the world.
From the age of 12, diving became an obsession and thankfully my parents let me do it a lot, despite the numerous sharks, the currents and decompression limits. By 16 I’d racked up hundreds of dives on some of the worlds best reefs off Cairns and along the outer ribbon reefs north of Port Douglas.
I never considered something that was so much fun, that brought with it so much aching beauty and spiritual freedom could become my career. I’d seen my dad lose so much money on his business I decided pretty early it wasn’t a path to financial security.
So I became an accountant. And then a consultant to big business. Mining, banking, construction. Money was my new obsession.
Fast forward a decade and I made the fortunate mistake of going back to the Reef.
It was terrible, truly heart breaking to see what I saw then. The reefs I’d grown up on were dead, or at least more than half dead. Coral cover had declined and the colours had disappeared from the rainbow to the grey and brown corals that remained.
The reef was turning into rubble.
There were fewer sharks and less big fish, and the schools of little colourful fish had turned into loners here and there. The only thing that was happier was the algae and a ferocious spiky animal called the Crown-of-Thorns Starfish, a sea-star with a stomach of acid that eats its body size in coral each day.
I didn’t know it then but now, 13 years after I turned my back on business to fight for the Reef, I now know with certainty what killed the Reef that I knew as a child.
Pollution from outdated farm practices. Overfishing. And a host of other pressures including climate change .
When I started fighting for the Reef, I was told all I had was an ‘anecdote’ and that the Great Barrier Reef was the best managed reef in the world. That my experience was not evidence for any concern, that coral and fish were abundant as ever and the Crown of Thorns Starfish was ‘natural’.
We have since learned that 50% of the Reef’s coral cover has gone, and that the richness – the variety and biodiversity – of the coral cover that’s left where I grew up has also contracted by 50%. That three unusually large ‘outbreaks’ of Crown of Thorns starfish are the single largest causes of coral mortality.
We’ve learned that outdated farm practices cause 14 million tonnes of mud, fertilizer and pesticides to pollute up to 700 reefs within the World Heritage Area every year, where the mud kills the inshore seagrass habitats of turtles and dugong. A thousand turtles died last year from causes related to seagrass loss.
We’ve learned that pesticides have been detected on over a third of the Reef, and in concentrations toxic to coral up to 60kms from shore , where fertilizer pollution ignites ‘algal blooms’ ensuring exponentially greater survival of the larvae of Crown of Thorns Starfish and triggering ‘outbreaks’ when other wind, current and coral conditions allow.
We’ve learned that the numbers of key fish like Coral Trout have reduced by up to 90% on reefs open to fishing, compared to reefs closed to fishing. That predators like Coral Trout are vitally needed to keep the reef in balance. That Starfish plagues are more likely to happen on reefs open to fishing.
We’ve learned that dugong numbers are so precariously low between Bundaberg and Cooktown that if one breeding female is killed each year as bycatch in commercial fishing nets, or by any other human source, we can expect local extinctions of dugongs.
It would be easy to feel overwhelmed in the face of these challenges.
Yet thankfully we have also learned that ‘anecdotes’ turned into professional science by passionate researchers and the sheer weight of evidence has become powerful in the hands of a network of relatively small numbers of organisations.
One of those organisations, arguably one of the most critical, is WWF-Australia.
I first observed the power of WWF from the ministerial office where after my business career I had become an adviser. An incredible campaign led by Imogen Zethoven and Rick Leck had mobilised thousands of people into action, action that eventually saw fishing banned in 33% of the Reef .
While that achievement could not have been secured without a network of brave scientists, community members and public servants to fight the industry and the status quo, WWF was the catalyst, the driving force, the mobiliser and the entity that held the governments feet to the fire to ensure long term gains were locked in.
Since then WWF and its allies have gone on to extract about a billion dollars in conservation programs for the Reef.
Does that mean the job is done?
The fish have started coming back in areas closed to fishing, outdated farm practices are starting to turn. Governments are improving their policies and investments. Big companies want to help.
But there is still so, so much more to do so that my home reefs can once again look like they did in 1982.
WWF and I will fight on until they do.