Updated: Aug 22, 2022
“This is one of the most spectacular, complex but fragile ecosystems in the world”, stated Sir David Attenborough, paramount British scientific editor, writer and naturalist who witnessed the evolution of that specific ecosystem which is again the subject of media attention, these days. The Great Barrier Reef is the largest colony of corals existing on Planet Earth extended for 348,000 square kilometres in the north-east coast of Australia. This spectacular marine environment includes more than 400 different species of coral, about 1,500 species of fish, 4,000 kinds of molluscs and about 240 birds as well as a variety of further emblematic fauna. Not by chance, the overall ecosystem was officially included in 1981 as United Nations World Heritage site, for its uniqueness and vital role in maintaining liveable conditions on our planet, and the Australian national and Queensland state governments spend about 200 million Australian dollars ($150 million) every year to protect it.
According to a recent study by the Australian Institute of Marine Sciences (AIMS), two-third of the Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has increased as the presence of coral at the pace of 1980’s but its existing is still very vulnerable been attacked on several fronts. Bleaching is always round the corner, happening more and more often. In these cases, corals are turning white after expelling symbiotic algae (Zooxanthellae) as a consequence of severe stresses due to rising temperatures, light or nutrient modification. The proliferation of enemy species, notably the crown-of-thorns starfish, represents another serious danger that is destroying 40 percent of over hall corals. Consequently, UNESCO is considering including the Great Barrier Reef as ‘in danger’. The survival of this unique ecosystem is of fundamental importance for the entire Planet and it would be a mistake to consider it a distant problem from us.
The amazing biodiversity of that environment, in fact, has long been under the spotlight of the international public opinion and scientific research. The Great Coral Reef is therefore fundamental not only for its beauty and fish concentration. The benefits for us, human beings, and for nature are many. If the Coral Reef disappeared, we would lose one of the most important existing natural habitats and a large number of human communities living on the coastline would have to face strong waves and storms without being adequately protected. Furthermore, formations of coral and other creatures have been studied for a long time to select anti-viral and anti-bacterial elements as well as to provide medical treatments for various human diseases like: asthma, arthritis, heart disease and cancer.
Moreover, many of the existing corals act as filters for sea water, their extinction would lead then to a severe impoverishment of water quality. We should not forget that corals are mostly colonial organisms, formed by small animals (polyps) able to secrete a robust calcareous skeleton (coral). Their contribution to recycle carbon dioxide and maintain normal levels of it in the atmosphere and in the oceans is crucial. The algae which grow in the coral reefs, in fact, absorb CO2 from the air using the photosynthesis process while coral polyps are capable to deposit it in the form of limestone, building up the supporting structure of the reef. That prevents also from ocean acidification, resulting from the sudden change in the chemical composition (and decrease in pH) of the seas. Last but not least, by studying different substrates scientists have been increasing their knowledge on the climatic trend in the centuries for a long time.
The rapid pace of change of the terrestrial atmospheric conditions are inevitably impacting on the barrier. Without thinking that Human Beings are the sole architects of the future of the Planet Earth, some concrete actions are being carried out to avoid Humans being an endangered species in the next decades. A series of new management plans aimed at reducing over-fishing and drastically reduce commercial ship traffic in the vicinity of Great Coral Reefs. Targeted actions to reduce anthropic water pollution as a consequence of massive agriculture runoff will minimize coral-killing starfishes population fed up by the increase in nitrogen, prior nutrient for the most preferred plankton eaten by crown-of-thorns starfish larvae. Environmentally friendly technology has already conceived a hunter-killer starfish robots developed by the Queensland University of Technology named COTSbot (Crown-of-Thorns Starfish Robot) and RangerBot (smaller device) able to intercept the species and inject a lethal liquid. All that and the commitment of many international organisations offer hope and confident that the Great Barrier Reef will strengthen its resilience to all changes on Planet Earth. Our role is to be more eco-responsible in our daily routine actions (see Infographic by NOAA), support researchers in their scientific missions and sustain any association seriously engaged in preserving that vital ecosystem through concrete actions shown via periodical reports and data. ***
Main Sources: UNESCO, United Nations World Heritage, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration - US Department of Commerce (NOAA), David Attenborough, Museo di Storia Naturale di Trieste, BBC, AlJazeera, Sightseing Tours Australia. Bibliography: 'Communicating the Environment to Save the Planet. a Journey into Eco-Communication' - Springer International Publishing, 2019.
By Maurice Abbati