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Coral Reef Bleaching Case Study

Reef rescue plan

One of the jewels in Australia’s ecological crown, the Great Barrier Reef is a vast interlacing web of organisms, all of which have a vital role to play in keeping the ecosystem healthy. Sadly, declining water quality in nearby catchments, much of it brought about by human activity, is now posing a long-term threat to the Reef.

Fertilisers, pesticides, sediments, nutrients, toxic chemicals, sewage, oil, heavy metals and detergents running into the Great Barrier Reef lagoon all endanger those indispensable plants and animals.

Burdekin River flood plume. Image Courtesy of Robert Packett, Queensland Department of Natural Resources and Mines

To address these threats, the federal and Queensland Governments developed the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) Rescue Plan and a Reef Water Quality Protection Plan which aims to dramatically improve the quality of water entering the reef by 2013.

Achieving those goals means both halting and reversing the decline in water quality entering the reef in the next 10 years, as called for in the Reef Plan, and rehabilitating and conserving areas so they can play a role in removing water-borne pollutants.

Fortunately those ambitions are now looking considerably more feasible with the aid of eWater CRC’s Source software.

The Queensland Department of Environment and Resource Management (DERM) has been working with eWater and the Source team to figure out how the targets set in the Plan are achievable using current river conditions and land management efforts.

They are developing a framework that helps gauge how far we are towards achieving the 2020 goal and which forms a key component of an overall 'paddock-to-reef' integrated monitoring, modelling and reporting program.

Professor Gary Jones, CEO of eWater, says protecting the Great Barrier Reef was one of the biggest water quality improvement schemes implemented in Australia and he was pleased eWater CRC was a critical part of the team. He said that the enhancements to Source would tackle the critical issues of sediment and nutrient run-off from local catchments into the GBR lagoon, and identify the best sites for remediation and restoration.

Identifying hotspots

Rehabilitating the Reef begins with identifying the hotspots in the catchment that are the sources for sediment (TSS), nitrogen (TN) and phosphorus (TP), then developing management scenarios in consultation with local landholders and catchment groups.

Runoff after rain is natural and desirable, and a certain amount of contamination in runoff is also natural: any bare ground will lose top soil in heavy rainfall, and Australian rivers experienced turbidity long before the introduction of introduced species. But by tailoring Source to the unique needs of an individual catchment managers can take action – such as revegetation of earthworks – with a high expectation of preventing sediment flow entering stream channels, both urban and rural. This is critical in areas like the GBR where the single largest threat to water quality is the introduction of containments via runoff.

The trial involved monitoring and modelling water quality and management practices across a range of scales including paddock, catchment and marine to estimate the changes to water quality leaving the catchments as a result of the adoption of better land management practices.

Source proved a robust tool for measuring and predicting water quality changes and highlighting and forecasting trends in data in the short to medium term. Those trials have proved so successful that both the Federal and Queensland Government have now recommended that the Source modelling framework be used for whole-of-reef catchment modelling.

This is a hugely significant endorsement of Source and its underlying science, and an Australian first for any catchment modelling product.

Source helps users model the amounts of water and contaminants flowing through a catchment and into rivers, wetlands, lakes and estuaries. The software gives access to submodels, data and knowledge that simulates the effects of climatic characterisations (including rainfall and evaporation) and catchment characteristics (such as land-use, vegetation, topography and soil type) on runoff and contaminant loads.

Linking component models and other ‘plug-ins’ together, users can predict the flow and load of constituents at any location in a catchment over time.

Not only is the product highly adaptable, but it retains all adaptations made to suit local situations and challenges to be used as capabilities when the model is applied elsewhere.

A groundwater prediction module accounts for change of water between surface water (creeks) and groundwater in small upland catchments. This addition greatly enhances the model’s predictions of daily outflows from tributaries into larger rivers to improve water yield accounting.

The product is also highly innovative in focusing on small areas of the catchment. These ‘function unit’ areas are defined by their topography, soil type, rainfall characteristics and land use. Source works on a sort of patchwork of the various types of functional units within a catchment, with each of the runoff, sediment and nutrients generated at each functional unit being modelled as moving to the outflow point.

Source is also useful as a communications tool. It has been used in southern Queensland, for example, to encourage and stimulate landholders who were improving their land management practices at the head of the Darling River. In addition, it helps ensure systems to address declines in water policy are as sustainable as possible. By pinpointing places where erosion must be halted and thus improving paddock sustainability it can help prevent sediment washing off land and out into the reef.

About the plan

In 2003, the Australian and Queensland governments put in place a Reef Water Quality Protection Plan (Reef Plan) to address the issue. The Reef Plan is a framework for the two governments to work together, along with industry, regional natural resource bodies and others to improve the quality of water flowing into the Reef. The Reef Plan was recently updated with a refreshed Reef Plan announced in September 2009. The updated Reef Plan reflects a more concerted and accelerated approach by the governments.

The Australian Government is supporting the Reef Plan through its Caring for our Country initiative, which includes the $200 million Reef Rescue package.

Through Reef Rescue, the government is providing assistance to farmers and land managers in Reef catchments to increase the adoption of improved land management practices that reduce runoff of nutrients, pesticides and sediment from agricultural lands.

Image courtesy of NASA Visible Earth project.

The more northerly coastal area in this image shows the vast extent of sugar cane cultivation, this being the largest sugar producing area in Australia, centered on the city of Mackay.

Other industries in the area include coal, cattle, dairying, timber, grain, seafood, and fruit. The large island off the most northerly part of the coast visible in this image is Whitsunday Island, with smaller islands and reefs extending southeast, parallel to the coast. These include some of the better known resort islands such as Hayman, Lindeman, Hamilton, and Brampton Islands.

River Plumes

In late February 2007, NASA satellite images revealed that even the outer portions of the Australia’s Great Barrier Reef can be bathed in land-based pollution carried far offshore by plumes of river water.

Conventional thinking was that river plumes affected only the lagoon and the inner portions of the reef. But images from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite verify a new theory that not even the outer reefs are spared the impact of land-based pollution, which includes excess sediment, fertilizers, and pesticides.

This image from February 9, 2007, shows plumes of sediment flowing into Princess Charlotte Bay, which is about halfway down the east coast of Queensland’s Cape York Peninsula.

Capricorn Print

Coral bleaching may be one of the greatest threats to the Great Barrier Reef. Coral bleaching is a stress response that often occurs when the surrounding waters become too warm for the corals. In the stressful situation, the corals expel their brownish zooxanthellae and lose their color.

Zooxanthellae are unicellular yellow-brown algae that make it possible for the corals to grow and reproduce quickly enough to create reefs. Without the zooxanthellae, the coral cannot obtain sufficient nourishment. If conditions remain difficult, the corals may die. Major coral bleaching incidents on the Great Barrier Reef in 1998 and 2002 led to widespread death of corals in some areas. Researchers in the Barrier reef of Australia are using NASA's resources to help identify troubled coral

Baseline situation

Coral reefs around the world are threatened both by natural and anthropogenic factors, with tourism having an important role in the latter. Direct impacts in coral reefs are related with badly managed tourism activities, such as snorkeling, diving, and sailing. Indirect impacts of tourism related to waste, pollution, and unsustainable uses of natural resources are also critical.

Along the coastline of the Great Barrier Reef, tourism is a major industry with up to two million visitors contributing greatly to local, regional, and national development. However, unlike other coral reef destinations around the world, in this World Heritage site, appropriate tourism management strategies have changed tourism from a threat in the past to a strong conservation ally in the present.

What did they do?

In 1997, tourism operators started collecting coral observations during their visits to the Great Barrier Reef and reporting them for analysis by the Marine Park Managers and scientific researchers. This data provided them with regular and up-to-date data on reef health status and tendencies, the presence of protected and iconic species, and early alerts of environmental impacts. This initiative, currently named ‘Eye on the Reef – Tourism Weekly Monitoring Programme', was the origin of the ‘Eye on the Reef Programme’, which now overarches this and three other sub-programmes, all aiming to monitor the health of the Great Barrier Reef through the participation of different key local stakeholders.

Strategic priorities

  • To create synergies between tourism operations, conservation, research, and heritage management at the Great Barrier Reef.
  • To increase knowledge and conservation awareness among the tourism businesses and promote their participation in the governance of the World Heritage site.
  • To obtain regular, relevant long-term data about the ‘health’ of the Great Barrier Reef, which supports strategic, not reactive, management.

What worked?

  • Establishing conditions for participation, including the commitment to survey the same reed site on a weekly basis at least 40 times per year, allowed site management authorities and researchers to collect relevant data, on a regular basis, and from specific reef locations.
  • ‘Hiring’ tourism operators to carry out reef monitoring was a great idea – they are often the people who know the different reef sites best due to their regular, first hand tourist operations.
  • Creating standard tools for collecting information (a survey form) and reporting information (single online data management and reporting system), made it possible to standardise the information coming from different sources.
  • All participants receive a complete monitoring training, providing them with the capacities needed.
  • While providing regular information to Marine Park Managers and scientists, tourism operators improve their knowledge and the quality of their tour management, reef interpretation, and tourism product design capacities.

What was tough?

One of the challenges of the ‘Eye on the Reef –Tourism Weekly Monitoring Programme’ was to make it easy for local tourism operators to participate, with monitoring training being a critical stage of the process.

How did get buy-in?

A three-step training programme was developed and adapted to the different schedules, backgrounds, and locations of tourism operators. This adaptability made it more feasible for them to participate. The first step was a two-hour online introduction to monitoring on the Great Barrier Reef. This was followed by two-hour workshops in different local areas four times a year, in which programme coordinators and guest researchers addressed important issues and present relevant topics regarding the Great Barrier Reef. The last part consisted of a full day of in-water training. Combining short online training sessions, nearby face-to-face training workshops, and the need to commit to just one day of full training, made the programme accessible for tourism operators.

What are the results?

The ‘Eye on the Reef — Tourism Weekly Monitoring Programme’, is one of the largest tourism-based coral reef monitoring collaborations on the planet.
The Reef Health Incident Response System allows the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to predict and detect reef health incidents such as coral bleaching, and act accordingly. This is made possible thanks to the information from ‘The Eye on the Reef — Tourism Weekly Monitoring Programme’.

What lessons can others take from this?

The Eye on the Reef – Tourism Weekly Monitoring Programme is an example of tourism businesses acting as conservational champions of the Outstanding Universal Value at World Heritage sites. It shows that appropriate, adapted, and flexible training programmes, combined with the development of innovative, participative monitoring tools and reporting platforms, can lead to a successful inclusion of tourism operators into monitoring and conservation strategies in World Heritage sites. This illustrates a huge potential in those World Heritage sites such as the Great Barrier Reef, whose large extensions mean they can only be monitored by relevant authorities' or scientists’ resources. Finally, it showcases how commitment and long term-cooperation between the tourism sector, scientists, and World Heritage management authorities can benefit the overall management performance of a World Heritage site.