Government silent as marine heatwave threatens biggest reef

Great Southern Reef scientists say they are “concerned and alarmed” at the Government’s lukewarm  response to a request for urgent funding to set up monitoring before a forecast marine heatwave.

The scientists wrote to Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen and Environment and Water Minister Tanya Plibersek on October 20, but have been told by the department that the letter is being considered.

Stefan Andrews, who is a marine biologist and one of the founders of the Great Southern Reef (GSR) Foundation told Cosmos: “Despite the gravity of the situation and the immediate nature of the marine heatwave and its potential catastrophic impact on both the environment and the economy, the silence is alarming.

“With the summer’s marine heatwave already upon us, the government’s inaction is a matter of national concern.”

The GSR spans 8,000 km around Australia’s southern coastline, from Kalbarri in Western Australia to the NSW/Queensland border.

The CSIRO’s research vessel RV Investigator, off the Sydney coast, has recently tracked the formation of what was called a “severe subsurface ocean heatwave”.

Harlequin fish
A Harlequin Fish, Othos dentex, in Jurien Bay, Western Australia. Source: Graham Edgar / Reef Life Survey.

That heatwave, extending deep beneath the surface, is, according to voyage leader Professor Moninya Roughan, “enormous and hot” and more than 3°C above average for the area.

Andrews says the repercussions are “far-reaching, affecting not only the marine ecosystems but businesses and livelihoods of Australians.”

He says the scientists want, among other things, a national monitoring program for the GSR with a committed investment of $40 million over 10 years, to provide “critical, emergency funds” to assess impacts of climate driven events like this year’s marine heatwave and establish a coordinated national monitoring program to assess changes in the reef over the next decade.

“These funds are not to address this specific heatwave, the funding ask is for a lifeline to establish a national integrated monitoring program for the Great Southern Reef.

Golden weedfish
The elusive golden weedfish is a cryptic fish rarely sighted due to their ability to mimic algae, specifically the golden kelp found all along the Great Southern Reef. Image John Turnbull GSR

“We need national leadership to help understand these national phenomena. By tracking changes we can have greater power to proactively intervene where necessary.

“Monitoring information will be a crucial first step to help develop targeted restoration programs that increase the resilience of habitats. This can be achieved using promising methodology being developed such as outplanting warm adapted seaweeds species, intervening in ways akin to drought tolerant crops on land.”

The scientists are frustrated by government priorities for marine research funding, noting hundreds of millions of dollars of recent funding for the Great Barrier Reef.

Impact of marine heatwave on ocean predators

“Recent announcements, such as the $200 million for the Great Barrier Reef, further highlight the imbalance in funding,” says Andrews.

“Additionally the Australian Government just announced a $15 million investment in CQUniversity’s Coastal Marine Ecosystems Research Centre, to support science for the long-term resilience of the Great Barrier Reef.

“The funding is part of the Australian Government’s $1.2 billion investmemnt to protect and restore the Great Barrier Reef.”

Professor Adriana Verges, a climate scientist at the University of New South Wales, says: “The disparity of funding doesn’t reflect the value of these ecosystems.” 

Professor Gretta Pecl, the Director of the Centre for Marine Socioecology at the University of Tasmania added: “Everyone knows that the Great Barrier Reef is in trouble but most people haven’t even heard of the Great Southern Reef. Yet findings from the latest Climate Council Report on Australia’s oceans unequivocally demonstrates that the GSR faces risks as severe as those confronting the GBR.”

The nudibranch, or commonly called “nudi,” is one of the most beloved sea creatures to spot underwater. Image GSR

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