Parts of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef now have the highest levels of coral cover seen in decades, a government report said Thursday, suggesting the aquatic wonder could survive if given a chance.
Parts of the huge UNESCO heritage site showed a marked increase in coral cover last year, reaching levels not seen in 36 years of monitoring, the Australian Institute of Marine Sciences said.
The scientists, who surveyed 87 sites, said the northern and central parts of the reef recovered from the damage faster than some expected, largely thanks to the rapid growth of Acropora, a branching coral that supports thousands of marine species.
“These latest results show that the reef can still recover during periods without intense disturbance,” Australian Institute of Marine Science CEO Paul Hardisty said.
But without declaring victory, Hardisty warned that the gains could be reversed by cyclones, new discolorations or crown-of-thorns outbreaks.
He pointed to a change in the fortunes of the southern part of the reef, which seemed to be improving a year ago, but has now fallen into decline again.
“This shows how vulnerable the reef is to sustained, acute and severe disturbances that occur more frequently and continue,” he said.
Coral cover increased by 36 percent in locations observed in the northern part of the reef, compared to 27 percent in 2021.
But the picture was less encouraging as the scientists moved south, with a smaller increase in cover in the central strip of the reef and a marked decrease in coral cover in the south.
The spread of spiny starfish, which destroys corals, has also taken its toll.
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Only fierce lobbying by the Australian government prevented UNESCO from labeling the reef as “at risk” – a potentially devastating blow to the country’s multi-billion dollar tourism industry.
Many fear that the rate of damage could lead to the complete destruction of the reef.
Marine scientist Terry Hughes said it was “good news” that corals were recovering, but warned that the species helping to recover were very vulnerable to a warming ocean.
Replacing the large, old, slow-growing corals that defined the reef is likely “no longer possible,” he added. Instead, we observe a partial assembly of fast-growing weedy corals before the next disturbance.”
Zoe Richards, a researcher in the Coral Conservation and Research Group at Curtin University, also cautioned against over-optimism.
“This recovery trend is driven by several Acropora species that often grow in a boom-bust pattern,” she said. “This means that the next thermal stress could destroy these coral communities again.”
“We already find evidence that each mass bleaching event leads to the local extinction of rarer species, so the short-term success of a small number of fast-growing coral species masks the full story of largely hidden biodiversity loss.”
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