Fighting to save my home reefs

Great Barrier Reef © Viewfinder

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.

Crown of thorns starfish, Great Barrier Reef, Australia © WWF-Canon / Jürgen FREUND


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Pollution from outdated farm practices.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?

No way!

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.

You can help – send a message to Queensland leaders and help us save the Great Barrier Reef!

Levitra reviews I am excited not really strongly by my destiny as I know that with me everything will be normal. But sometimes it is necessary to suspect this subject.

  • Nick Heath About Nick Heath

    Nick joined WWF-Australia in 2006 and works to protect the reef from farm pollution, fisheries and other impacts. Nick and his team have convinced the Commonwealth Government to invest $200m in farm reform, ban the dangerous pesticide endosulfan and to introduce new national pesticides legislation. Nick and his team have also convinced the State Government to invest $175m in farm reform, commit to halve pollution by 2013 and ban dangerous practices on over 13 million hectares of the reef catchment. View all posts by Nick Heath →
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  • Ashish Sachdeva

    How can we go beyond the hour? See this video created by Green Dream Foundation regarding Earth Hour 2012:

  • Kerry Hennigan

    The Reef and its life forms of all shapes and sizes is one of our great national (and international) treasures.  It would be criminal if we permitted it to be irreversibly damaged.

  • Elizabeth Deutscher

    The reef and its myriad of life forms is one of our great world treasures.  We need to act now to protect and return it to its pristine nature now and for the future


    “When the last tress has been cut, the last animal has been caught and the last fish has been caught, only then, the white man undertand that money can not eat…” PROPHESY OF THE NAVAJOS OF AMERICA.

    Thanks Nick and everybody working hard for our planet. :) ..

  • Paul Hai

    One pollutant destroying the Great Barrier Reef is fluoride via our municipal water supplies being fluoridated. Fluoride is a toxic poison which should never be ingested because it is a total body poison causing brittle decomposition of bones and teeth which are basically calcium. Well, the Great Barrier Reef is basically calcium also and we are seeing brittle decomposition here as we would expect via applied logic. Fluoridation is costing millions of dollars seemingly to befit only the Phosphate Fertiliser companies who can only dump fluoride into the sea through the fluoridation process and make huge profits this way. To understand more about fluoride via recent research Google Paul Connett.  

  • Conor

     Can you please link me to more evidence of this? With the recent fluoridation of brisbanes water supply do you think ‘freshwater’ run off into reef systems will now have even more adverse affects?

  • Diane Lorna Drayton Buckland

     Absolutely Paul – every ‘environmentalist’ should have jumped on this when it first started in 1953 in Beaconsfield Tasmania.    By the way Australia is in absolute dental crises as is other long term ‘fluoridated’ cities.  For instance Grand Rapids Michigan, first city ‘fluoridated’ in USA in l945 is also in absolute dental crises, our kidneys are also in harms’ way -  we have also a kidney disease crises.


    It is appalling  how any human being would want to consume
    these dangerously corrosive and cumulative hazardous waste pollutants  and also even more appalling and brings into
    serious question, the integrity and agenda of any Government  inflicting this on an entire population.

    Raw Fluoridation Chemical Analyses – Freedom of
    Information – South Australia Water Corp.

    fluoridation chemical analyses of South Australia’s drinking water, listed
    below. This data has been scanned from original documents provided to Sapphire
    Eyes Productions by Dr. Andrew Harms & Ann Bressington. These documents
    show the toxic, heavy metal contaminants contained in the chemicals used to
    fluoridate your drinking water. These include lead, arsenic, mercury, uranium


    fluoridation is not safe and not effective, end of story (as the dental crises
    in all long  time fluoridated cities will attest).  The population
    have been lab rats for decades and this must be stopped urgently, permanently
    and irrevocably for all time for the protection of the long term health and safety
    of the population and our environment.  The drinking water supplies of the
    population were not meant to be hazardous waste disposal areas nor are the
    kidneys of the population meant to be hazardous waste disposal/filtration
    units. End it now.

    Water suppliers throughout Australia
    must unite and take a stand and tell the ‘Health’ Departments of each State and
    Federal Health Minster to take a flying jump, do not threaten you with fines
    etc., for refusing to add this hazardous waste to the populations’ drinking
    water supplies, that you have all united as water suppliers, after carefully
    studying  all the evidence of cumulative harm from ‘water fluoridation
    chemicals’ and you will now end  permanently and irrevocably forever
    more,  the addition  of this hazardous waste fluorosilicic
    acid/silicofluorides  and co-contaminants of lead, mercury, arsenic,
    cadmium etc., to the drinking water supplies Australia wide. 

    Just a few more snippets before I go (there is so much evidence of cumulative harm !)


    By Dr Barry Durrant-Peatfield MBBS LRCP MRCS



    Fluoridation of the nation’s water supply will do little for our dental health;
    but will have catastrophic effects on our general health. We cannot, must not,
    dare not, subject our nation to this appalling risk.


    CAUSES CANCER – Dr John Yiamouyiannis
    “Our studies show that cancers of the gastrointestinal tract, kidney, bladder,
    breast  and ovaries are those primarily associated with fluoride
    intake”.  John Yiamouyiannis PhD, Cancer Control Journal, Vol. 5,
    no’s1 + 2, p. 75.   

    FLUORIDE CAUSES CANCER – Dr. Dean Burk – Former Chief of Cytochemistry at
    National Cancer Institute for 30 years




    on  CANCER link 



  • Stelmo7

    Nick a couple of years ago some farmers up there were being fined $30,000 each for fertiliser leeching into the reef.  What doubtl standards governments have.  Perhaps if you canvas the farmers you will get more support.  Fertiliser companies need be held accountable  also.

  • Bonita Poulin

    Many cities around the world are fighting to have fluoride removed from their drinking water. This toxic pesticide should not be used anywhere! It is destroying the habitats of fish and creatures around the world, as well as poisoning us. Keep the the good work, Nick. We Canadians stand behind you!

  • Favia

    Here’s another nasty reef problem: human gut bacteria from septic runoff has been linked to bacteria causing coral disease in Florida. Sewage nutrients also boost competition from macroalgae that outcompete and overgrow corals. Why is there so much coastal housing without tertiary treatment? Marina here on magnetic regularly has human faeces floating around. No wonder coastal reefs have become algal reefs.