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Coral bleaching – three eye witness accounts from the Great Barrier Reef

The recent severe coral bleaching event has not only devastated coral reefs, but is impacting other living things that rely on the Great Barrier Reef.

AEGN members Rob Purves, Professors Lynne Madden and Tom Healy have longstanding connections with Lizard Island and recently visited the Lizard Island Research Station to see for themselves what the Reef looks like and if there are any signs it will recover.

Here are their accounts of what is happening and some suggestions for what philanthropy can do to help save the Reef and build its resilience to withstand continuing threats.

Our thanks to Dr Anne Hoggett AM, Dr Lyle Vail AM and XL Catlin Seaview Survey for the photographs of the reef accompanying this article.


Rob Purves

Coral bleaching and its impact on biodiversity 

Rob Purves, Purves Environmental Fund

I’ve been going to Lizard Island for some 28 years. I am a Trustee of the Lizard Island Research Station and a great supporter of the amazing work carried out there. I’ve taken great pleasure in engaging with this world-class research facility which hosts scientists from all over the world. The amazing blue lagoon full of crystal clear water, extraordinary coral and abundant marine life has been the jewel of the Reef.

After hearing about the effects of the recent mass bleaching event I wanted to see the impact first-hand. So, in July I travelled to the Research Station to take a look.

The impact on the northern part of the Reef is very clear to see, with much of the hard and soft corals now dead and covered in brown algae. While there are signs of some new corals starting to grow again I was left wondering how the Reef could possibly cope when the next bleaching event hits.

Whilst there has been considerable media attention focused on the impact of the bleaching event on the corals, what has been overlooked is the impact on fish populations. Scientists I spoke to at the Research Station suggest upwards of half of all fish species around Lizard have been impacted. Some fish species have seen their numbers reduced to just 10-20 percent of their pre-bleaching numbers.

This left me thinking that whilst we, as environmentalists, have elevated climate change on the agenda, little attention is still given to the likely impacts on the other species we share the planet with and whose survival is so interwoven with our own.

We need to push harder to ensure that the impacts of climate change on biodiversity are not ignored but communicated loudly and clearly.


Lynne Madden

Health and climate are inextricably linked

By Professor Lynne Madden, Madden Sainsbury Foundation and University of Notre Dame

I am also a Trustee of the Lizard Island Reef Research Station, although my association has been over a shorter, more recent period and I also visited the Island in July to ‘see with my own eyes’ the results of the recent coral bleaching event. It was a very sad and disturbing experience.

During our visit we were surrounded by the evidence of the extensive coral bleaching that the Great Barrier Reef (in particular the northern part of the Reef) has experienced; since January over 90 percent of the corals are severely bleached and dead, dying or damaged. These corals, their skeletons covered in algae, are now brown or black. The vibrantly coloured fish that rely on the corals for habitat are also reduced in numbers, demonstrating the complexity of ecological systems, and how vulnerable they are to change. This damage has occurred since January this year. The coral bleaching is a potent indicator of the significant effects of climate change on our environment and the need for urgent action to reduce carbon emissions.

There are tiny signs of hope as small isolated colonies of the coral seek to re-establish themselves and a small percentage (< one percent) of corals appear unaffected. We need to ensure that these corals are protected and can recover and flourish. The reduction of carbon emissions would limit the rise of ocean temperatures and ocean acidification and help protect the Reef.

From Lizard Island we flew on to an Australian Wildlife Conservancy property in the Gulf called Pungalina-Seven Emu Wildlife Sanctuary. Here we saw the mass dieback of mangroves that happened at the same time as the coral bleaching. The explanation of the dieback is that prolonged warm sea water temperatures  – combined with a series of dry wet seasons in the north which has affected the level of the fresh water table – was too much for some of the mangroves and they died.

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The Paris COP21 Agreement seeks to limit temperature rise to 20C and aims for 1.50C. We have currently reached 10C degree of warming and are already experiencing periods of 1.50C.

The actions that protect the Reef and the mangroves are the same actions required to protect human health. The Second WHO Global Conference on Health and Climate was held recently in Paris, following on from the COP21 Paris Agreement where health is formally recognised. The conference was convened to maintain the momentum and develop an action plan for health ministries and the health sector across the world to support the implementation of the Paris Agreement to build healthy, more sustainable societies. It is unfortunate that the Australian Health Minister was not present nor was there a representative of the Australian Department of Health and Aging. The Action Agenda from the conference is a contribution to COP22, which will be held in Morocco in November this year. Segolene Royal, French Minister of Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy and the current President of COP21 stated explicitly that health is the key subject related to climate change, that health is a cross-cutting concern for all environmental issues and that health and climate are interdependent.  Our survival is interwoven with the survival of the biodiversity that supports this planet.


Thomas Healy

A disaster zone…with glimmers of hope

By Professor Tom Healy, Ian Potter Foundation and University of Melbourne

During my recent visit to Lizard Island, we were taken to four sites – Mermaid, Clam Gardens, the Lagoon and the South West Corner of the Lagoon. Director of the LI Research Station, Dr Lyle Vail, pointed out the dead coral covered by brown algae. Mermaid is a disaster zone, partly because the branched corals were destroyed by the cyclones and also because of massive coral bleaching.  I could not find any hard or soft coral still alive. The fish population was hard to find. In 2004 when I dived in the same place I saw many colourful coral and marine life.

At another site called Clam Gardens, the clams seemed to be surviving, but again there was little evidence of surviving hard corals; some soft coral seemed to survive, and some small fish were present.

At the top of the Lagoon there were a significant number of small fish associated with the dead, hard coral and somewhat more soft corals than at the Clam Gardens.

The final dive at the edge of the reef near the station was a more positive experience. I found a few signs of tips of small branched corals showing colour, and quite a large population of small and large fish. I found one site of bleached (white) coral.

In all, it was a depressing set of discoveries.

My overwhelming thought was that my grandkids and others in the future will never get to see the way the Reef was.


Saving the reef – what you can do

How can grantmakers help arrest the devastating impact that warming sea levels has on the Reef and support community groups, advocates, scientists and others to make policy change to protect this extraordinary world treasure and its abundant biodiversity?

While the threats seem overwhelming, a number of eNGOs, research entities, trusts and foundations are working and funding to address these threats.

The main threats to the Reef are:

  • Climate change – which causes unnaturally high sea surface area temperatures
  • Increase in severe storms
  • Catchment run-off into the ocean
  • Pollution
  • Overfishing
  • Outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish

Trusts and foundations can and are funding organisations to address these threats such as:

  • Advocacy groups that encourage government, industry and the community to take action on climate change, pollution and run-off, land clearing and overfishing
  • Community groups and researchers who are finding ways to decrease run-off, pollution and the impact of the crown-of-thorns starfish
  • Research institutions that need funding quickly or to address gaps in knowledge
  • Impact investment ideas that help to catalyse change.

The Ian Potter Foundation is funding the protection of the Reef is several ways. Firstly, it is  helping groups along the Queensland coast to develop, with farmers, a long-term strategy for limiting run-off into near shore reefs. Secondly, there is al focus on  “fostering biodiversity” as the Reef system loses its ability to be resilient in the face of unchecked warming due to climate change. One example of this is the Lizard Island Research Station postdoctoral researcher scholarships which focus on ecosystem sustainability and resilience in the face of bleaching of the northern reefs. Another example is that the Potter Foundation is supporting research into understanding ways to respond to present and future outbreaks of the crown-of-thorns starfish.

Rob Purves says that his Foundation has funded climate change advocacy, community groups to stop broad scale land clearing, marine plastic pollution and species loss.  His recent experience on Lizard Island has led him to remind us all that we should be continuing to fund stories and work that focus on the impact of climate change on our plants and animals.

According to Professor Madden, there is also a need for researchers to use historical data to establish longitudinal studies that can help monitor the recovery of the Reef, what helps that recovery and what sustains it.  But traditional research funding can take time to get off the ground and there is a need now to provide quick seed funding to begin the monitoring process for Reef recovery.

Want to know what you can do? Contact the AEGN and we can give you ideas for projects to fund, put you into contact with other philanthropists who are funding in this area or put you in touch with  an expert.