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WWF’s Living Planet Report echoed on the Great Barrier Reef

This article is brought to you by the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). Read our other articles on the National Geographic News Watch blog featuring the work of our iLCP Fellow Photographers all around the world.

Text and photos by iLCP Fellow James Morgan

A small island and fringing reef seen from the air. The Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef ecosystem on the planet composed of almost 3000 individual reefs. Queensland, Australia. © JAMES MORGAN / WWF - CANON
A small island and fringing reef seen from the air. The Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef ecosystem on the planet composed of almost 3000 individual reefs. Queensland, Australia. ©JAMES MORGAN / WWF – CANON

For decades, the Great Barrier Reef has enjoyed World Heritage Status and been synonymous with diving, tourism and with Australia. But in May of this year, UNESCO threatened to downgrade the Great Barrier Reef to the World Heritage ‘In Danger’ list; a category populated predominantly by war-torn and developing nations. The final decision will be made in February 2015.

UNESCO’s concerns are focused on the issue of industrial development along the reef. Queensland has one of the largest deposits of coal, and with developed markets slowly turning their back on dirty energy, there’s huge momentum to dig it up and ship it out as fast as possible before falling prices make it no longer viable. To do this requires unprecedented amounts of dredging, both to expand existing coal ports and create new ones, many inside the Barrier Reef Marine Park.

Gladstone harbour has been the focus of the debate around port expansion in Queensland. The port of Gladstone has permission to dredge 32 million tonnes of sea bed in order to expedite the shipment of coal and LNG from Curtis Island. Reports from fishermen of diseased fish, as well as an environmental disaster which coincided with a leaking bund wall in 2011 resulted in dead turtles and dugongs washing up on the beach and millions of tonnes of dregde spoil spilling out into the harbour and inner reefs. The local fishing industry has collapsed as a result. Queensland, Australia. © JAMES MORGAN / WWF - CANON
Gladstone harbour has been the focus of the debate around port expansion in Queensland. The port of Gladstone has permission to dredge 32 million tonnes of sea bed in order to expedite the shipment of coal and LNG from Curtis Island.  Queensland, Australia. ©JAMES MORGAN / WWF – CANON

Dredging is problematic for a few reasons. Firstly it digs up seagrass meadows, removing valuable grazing areas for dugongs and turtles, secondly it creates a toxic soup of heavy metals which can severely impact on the health of marine life. And lastly, the dredge spoils are then dumped back out onto the Barrier Reef and can travel for miles up the coast clogging coral polyps and smothering entire reef systems.

Tony Fontes, a dive instructor in the Whitsunday Islands, says his business is being impacted by the coal industry and is concerned about UNESCO's threat to remove the Great Barrier Reef's World Heritage Status.  Queensland, Australia. JAMES MORGAN / WWF - CANON
Tony Fontes, a dive instructor in the Whitsunday Islands, says his business is being impacted by the coal industry and is concerned about UNESCO’s threat to remove the Great Barrier Reef’s World Heritage Status. Queensland, Australia. ©JAMES MORGAN / WWF – CANON

The Great Barrier Reef is unique in that most of its threats come in the form of onshore industry. Before the recent push to expand coal ports, the main industry in the firing line was agriculture. Rainwater falls inland, travels across farms picking up pesticides and fertiliser and washes down the rivers, through deltas and out onto the barrier reef. Of particular note is the relationship between increased nitrogen in the water and the catalysing of Crown of Thorns Starfish (COTS) cycles. Traditionally COTS would spawn on the north of the reef, around Cairns, once every 20 years or so. But in recent years the numbers of these starfish, whose primary food source is coral, has got out of control and boats are now patrolling the reef specifically tasked with eradicating them using a toxic injection.

There are an estimated 100,000 farms in Queensland, minimising their impact is critical to protecting the Great Barrier Reef. Australia. © JAMES MORGAN / WWF - CANON
There are an estimated 100,000 farms in Queensland, minimising their impact is critical to protecting the Great Barrier Reef. Australia. ©JAMES MORGAN / WWF – CANON
Cane fires burning in Queensland. Depending on the soil type, burning can release a lot of nutrients back into he soil, particularly potash, which helps prepare the soil for planting. The sugar industry has made many improvements to look after the environment including reducing burning of the crops before harvesting. Mount Inkerman, Queensland, Australia. ©JAMES MORGAN / WWF - CANON
Cane fires burning in Queensland. Depending on the soil type, burning can release a lot of nutrients back into he soil, particularly potash, which helps prepare the soil for planting. The sugar industry has made many improvements to look after the environment including reducing burning of the crops before harvesting. Mount Inkerman, Queensland, Australia. ©JAMES MORGAN / WWF – CANON

Agriculture, however, has taken huge strides forward in both accepting its responsibility for deteriorating water quality and in trying to do something about it. Farmers, state government and conservation groups such as WWF, have been working together to develop new farming methods that limit the run-off from farms and, in doing so, also help farmers’ businesses.

Gerry Deguara and his sons, Sam and Joe, at their sugarcane plantation outside Mackay. Gerry has been working with WWF and others to implement new farming practices which reduce the amount of pesticides and fertilisers which are getting out to the reef. Queensland, Australia. ©JAMES MORGAN / WWF - CANON
Gerry Deguara and his sons, Sam and Joe, at their sugarcane plantation outside Mackay. Gerry has been working with WWF and others to implement new farming practices which reduce the amount of pesticides and fertilisers which are getting out to the reef. Queensland, Australia. ©JAMES MORGAN / WWF – CANON

The tourism industry, one of the largest employers in Queensland, bringing in $6 billion annually, is also actively engaged in trying to protect the reef. For every tourist who visits the reef, tour operators pay an environmental management charge which ostensibly goes to ensure that the reef is protected. Understandably, both tourism operators and farmers feel there’s a real equity issue on the reef. They are making sacrifices, both practical and financial, to protect the reef’s natural capital and the sustainability of their businesses; whilst the coal export industry is dumping millions of tonnes of dredge spoil onto the reef and receiving tax incentives for the privilege.

A Humphead Maori Wrasse visits tourists at a floating platform on the Great Barrier Reef, Australia. ©JAMES MORGAN / WWF - CANON
A Humphead Maori Wrasse visits tourists at a floating platform on the Great Barrier Reef, Australia. ©JAMES MORGAN / WWF – CANON
Fish being fed whilst tourists snorkel off the coast of Cairns. Tourism is one of the largest industries on the Great Barrier Reef and many argue it's future is threatened by on-shore industry. Queensland, Australia. ©JAMES MORGAN / WWF - CANON
Fish being fed whilst tourists snorkel off the coast of Cairns. Tourism is one of the largest industries on the Great Barrier Reef and many argue it’s future is threatened by on-shore industry. Queensland, Australia. ©JAMES MORGAN / WWF – CANON
A young girl looks out from a submersible room suspedned over the barrier reef. Queensland, Australia. ©JAMES MORGAN / WWF - CANON
A young girl looks out from a submersible room suspedned over the barrier reef. Queensland, Australia. ©JAMES MORGAN / WWF – CANON

I took these images to coincide with the recent release of  WWF’s Living Planet Report which strongly echoes the voices of people I met on the Great Barrier Reef. But the Barrier Reef is just one example; around the world many of our most iconic ecosystems are under threat, often as a direct result of bad industry. The Living Planet report clearly illustrates that we must find the solution in the problem, and create political paradigms in which industry is coerced into taking a stewardship role.  The Great Barrier Reef is more than capable of generating substantial sustained annual revenue. But if our financial and ecological decisions remain unaligned, everyone stands to lose; and what’s at stake is much more than just World Heritage status.

A manta ray swims off Heron Island research center. Manta rays are notoriously difficult to study and no real estimates exist for how many are left in the wild. Queensland, Australia. © JAMES MORGAN / WWF - CANON
A manta ray swims off Heron Island research center. Manta rays are notoriously difficult to study and no real estimates exist for how many are left in the wild. Queensland, Australia. © JAMES MORGAN / WWF – CANON
A shovel nosed shark takes off in the waters around Heron Island. Originally identified as a shark on account of its prominent dorsal fin, the shovelnose is know classified in the ray family. Queensland, Australia. ©JAMES MORGAN / WWF - CANON
A shovel nosed shark takes off in the waters around Heron Island. Originally identified as a shark on account of its prominent dorsal fin, the shovelnose is know classified in the ray family. Queensland, Australia. ©JAMES MORGAN / WWF – CANON

Check out James Morgan’s video about dredging the Great Barrier Reef. 

Take a look as well at WWF’s Case Study of the Great Barrier Reef in the context of the 2014 Living Planet Report.