Tony Fontes first went scuba diving at the Great Barrier Reef in 1979. A native Californian, he was so amazed by the experience that he decided to stay in Australia and work as a dive instructor. “The marine life and the quality of coral [were] unmatched,” he told TIME.
Over the decades, Fontes has seen the reef’s health decline. So he was disappointed on July 23, when the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) made an announcement. It had decided to delay labeling the reef as “in danger.” This label would have granted the reef “the kind of protection it needs,” Fontes says. Could a delay in protections cost the Great Barrier Reef its future?
Behind the Decision
The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef ecosystem . It stretches for 1,430 miles along the northeast coast of Australia. It can be seen from space. The reef is a UNESCO World Heritage site (see “Around the World”).
On June 21, UNESCO recommended that the reef be placed on a list of “in danger” World Heritage sites. UNESCO called climate change “the most serious threat” to the reef. But Australia’s government argued against the “in danger” label. The reef is one of the country’s top tourist spots. Before the pandemic, it attracted nearly 3 million visitors a year. That may change if the reef is listed as endangered.
The day after UNESCO’s announcement, Sussan Ley made a statement. Ley is Australia’s minister for the environment. “This draft recommendation has been made without examining the reef firsthand and without the latest information,” she said. Ley pointed out the country’s investment of $3 billion Australian (about $2.2 billion U.S.) in reef protection.
In response, UNESCO announced on July 23 that it would delay its decision. It asked the Australian government to deliver a report on the state of the reef. That report is expected by February 2022.
Climate Change Concerns
Environmentalists and scientists are worried about UNESCO’s delayed decision. For years, many have warned of the danger that climate change poses to the reef.
In 2020, researchers from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, in Queensland, Australia, released a study. It found that from 1995 to 2017, the Great Barrier Reef had lost more than half of its corals. And there were three mass bleaching events from 2016 to 2020. (Bleaching happens when corals are stressed by changes in conditions, such as warming waters.)
In July, several top scientists sent a letter to UNESCO. They said the reef should be considered “in danger” partly because Australia “has so far not pulled its weight” in the fight against climate change. Now, with its reef report due early next year, Australia has a short time to prove its commitment to taking action.
Fontes hopes action comes quickly. “It’s still the most incredible reef,” he says. “But it’s in serious trouble.”
Around the World
The Great Barrier Reef is one of 1,154 World Heritage sites. UNESCO says a place must be “of outstanding universal value” to make the list. It must meet at least one of 10 criteria. These are natural, cultural, and historical reasons a site can be seen as important. The Porticoes of Bologna (below), in Italy, were one of the sites UNESCO added in 2021. Being on the list attracts tourism. It also draws attention to places that are environmentally important.
Scientists have completed the first detailed online map of the world’s coral reefs. The Allen Coral Atlas was made using more than 2 million satellite images. It provides data for conservationists working to protect these delicate ecosystems. Coral reefs are…