Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest coral reef ecosystem and one of the most biodiverse, is highly threatened by climate change and should be placed on a list of endangered World Heritage Sites, a recommended a mission supported by the United Nations.
The mission’s report, released on Monday, said current conservation efforts were not sufficient to protect the Great Barrier Reef, “largely due to the scale of the challenge” presented by climate change, the development and deterioration of water quality.
The sprawling Great Barrier Reef stretches over 2,400 kilometers along the northeast coast of Australia, has some 2,500 individual reefs and can be seen from space. Known for its “exceptional beauty”, it is home to around 400 species of coral and 1,500 species of fish, according to UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural agency, which said “no other World Heritage property contains a such biodiversity”.
The report’s authors said climate change was an “ongoing and increasingly serious challenge” and stressed the “urgency” of concrete actions such as adding the natural wonder to the list of dozens of sites World Heritage sites deemed to be in danger. The designation is partly symbolic, intended to raise awareness and “encourage governments to take action,” according to UNESCO.
In March 2022, two experts, one from UNESCO and the other from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, were commissioned by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee to assess the state of the Great Barrier Reef and the viability of the Australian government’s existing long-term sustainability plan for the site, UNESCO said. With government support, they spent nine days meeting with experts, officials and community leaders.
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A UNESCO spokesperson pointed out that the mission’s findings represented a time-limited snapshot months ago.
But the agency has long supported the “endangered” designation. The mission’s findings echo past recommendations from the 21-member World Heritage Committee to place the site on the “in danger” list, a move the Australian government has strongly pushed back against.
In their report, UN mission experts listed nearly two dozen recommendations to better protect and conserve the Great Barrier Reef. They marked ten of these suggestions as ‘high priority’, including setting out ‘clear government commitments to reduce greenhouse gases’, reducing ‘excessive use’ of fertilizers and pesticides in nearby cultivation. sugarcane and bananas and eliminating gillnet fishing, a method of catching fish using vertical panels of nets, which can entangle other marine species such as sea turtles.
The report says the World Heritage Committee has become more concerned about the increase in mass bleaching events on the Great Barrier Reef. Warming ocean waters can cause coral bleaching, which is when algae living on coral reefs die off, leaving them white and under more stress, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. About 25% of fish in the ocean depend on healthy coral reefs, especially for seeking shelter and food, NOAA said.
Last year, the committee concluded that the Great Barrier Reef’s ecosystem “has further deteriorated from poor to very poor” and issued the same recommendation for the reef to be labeled “endangered”.
Sussan Ley, the country’s former environment minister, said last year that officials had been “blindsided” by the recommendation, which she said Australia would “defy”, according to reports from the ‘Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Tourism at the Great Barrier Reef supports more than 60,000 jobs, according to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, which said declining reef health was among several factors that have dramatically reduced tourist numbers.
Reef tourism operators have also expressed concerns that the designation will diminish interest in visiting the area, according to the latest report.
The report’s authors wrote that “the mission understands these concerns”, but added that they believe the listing of the property on UNESCO’s List of Danger Sites represents an opportunity for Australia to position itself as a “a world leader in the conservation of globally significant natural heritage”.
The country’s Department of Climate Change, Energy, Environment and Water could not immediately be reached for comment.
Australian officials said in a statement to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that they had “made a number of significant steps forward” since the March mission. It was unclear what action had been taken.
There are a few more steps that need to be taken before the site is given an official Endangered designation. The UNESCO World Heritage Center will decide whether to endorse the report’s recommendation to add the Great Barrier Reef to the list of World Heritage Sites in Danger, a UNESCO spokesperson said. If approval is made, the final decision will be made by the World Heritage Committee, which will most likely meet in mid-2023, the spokesperson added.
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