1 Sept 2016


From today there are just three months left before Australia must report to UNESCO demonstrating that the investment strategy to save the Great Barrier Reef has been established.

With the December 1 deadline looming, WWF-Australia today released new images showing just one example what’s been lost in just six decades.

A recently discovered picture from the early 1950s shows rich coral gardens just offshore at Port Douglas with the famous old sugar wharf clearly visible in the top right corner. In a picture of the same location, taken this year, the coral has been replaced by rubble and algae. 

WWF-Australia spokesperson Sean Hoobin said while there was no scientific study on what killed coral in this specific area, the pictures were indicative of what was happening along the Reef’s coast. 

“Inshore reefs along the coast are deteriorating and studies say sediment, fertiliser and pesticide run off are taking a toll on coral,” Mr Hoobin said. 

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s 2014 Outlook Report said: 

“Data from an inshore marine monitoring program … indicates that on average, cover on inshore reefs has declined by 34 per cent since 2005,” and

“Large areas of the Region continue to be exposed to elevated concentrations of suspended sediments, excess nutrients and pesticides, which are significantly affecting inshore areas along the developed coast”  

The Great Barrier Reef Water Science Taskforce’s Final Report in May 2016 said: 

“Agricultural land uses are the main source of nitrogen, sediment and pesticides to the Reef and its ecosystems”.

An independent report released in August estimated it would cost $8.2 billion to achieve most of the water quality targets for the Reef that governments have committed to deliver by 2025.

“Stopping water pollution will help restore the beautiful coral gardens chocked by runoff. This image drives home what a big job we face,” Mr Hoobin said.

“Australia must commit the $8.2 billion as a national priority to protect the Reef and the tourism jobs that rely on it,” he said.

Professor J.E.N. “Charlie” Veron, known as the ‘Godfather of Coral’, is a world authority having discovered and described about one third of coral species. He viewed the photographs and told WWF:

This is a very interesting comparison – one of the best I have seen. That said, I have seen many and they all tell the same story. This was taken 20 years before my time but in the early 70s, corals were as illustrated here for most places I worked on. From all that I have seen the coral gardens of the entire coastal margin of the Great Barrier Reef have been destroyed.

BACKGROUND: 1928-29 British Expedition study

This section of the Great Barrier Reef offers a rare opportunity to look back in time to scientific data from more than 80 years ago, when the Reef’s waters were much cleaner. In 1928-29, Low Isles - just 15 km off the coast of Port Douglas - was the base for the Great Barrier Reef Expedition of the Royal Society which “created great excitement in Australia and Britain”[i].

A study compared water visibility data from 1927 with conditions in 1997 and stated:

If the water visibility near Low Isles in 1927 was typical of historical conditions for this region of the Great Barrier Reef, we can only conclude that human activities already have halved the visibility. If true, this is an alarming result because it is a clear indication of a serious pollution of the Great Barrier Reef by mud following land clearing, intensive farming, dredging, removal of mangroves and other human activities increasing the discharge of mud in coastal waters.[ii]

WWF-Australia Media Contact: Mark Symons, Senior Media Officer, 0400 985 571, msymons@wwf.org.au


[i] Celmara Pocock, A playground for science: Great Barrier Reef, Queensland Historical Atlas, 15 October 2010, Queensland Historical Atlas

[ii] Eric Wolanski and Simon Spagnol, 2000, Pollution by Mud of Great Barrier Reef coastal waters, Journal of Coastal Research, 16(4), 1151-1156. West Palm Beach (Florida), Wolanski and Simon Spagnol report