Bleaching, News Coverage and Politics

Watching how the media covered the 2016 bleaching was depressing, almost like a child watching their parents argue. The timing of the election made the bleaching news even more partisan. Reporting was a bit more accurate in the 2017 event.

It’s very clear that the global bleaching event was really serious. Huge areas of previously pristine coral died and almost no other environmental deterioration has such a clear link with human carbon dioxide emissions. However, both sides made mistakes.

On the one hand, because tourist areas were mostly not badly affected in 2016, there’s been a political tendency to not take it seriously enough. The economic value of the reef has not been significantly jeopardised so far, so the difficult solutions to the problem aren’t felt to be so urgent by politicians, and probably won’t be until it’s too late.

On the other hand some environmental groups have been guilty of exaggerating, making themselves easy targets for criticism from their opponents. Maybe this counter-productive behaviour is done because a major role for them is to appeal to their existing membership. In order not to appear “soft” to their own supporters they lose some of the strength of their arguments and their ability to persuade those they really need to.

The tourist industry response to the bleaching could have been much better. The main tourism marketing body tried to counteract bad publicity with positive messages and social media, helping to unfairly create the impression that the scientific monitoring and reef surveys were questionable, before gaining a more cohesive message in-line with those responsible for monitoring the reef’s health. There is some excuse for this though. Based on our own checking out of coral reefs in the area, it’s clear that inner reefs and reefs just south of here off Cairns, such as Moore Reef, were only slightly affected by the 2016 bleaching. Likewise, in the Whitsunday’s there hasn’t been a problem. So it is fairly understandable that there was a defensive reaction. Cyclone Debbie has since impacted the Whitsundays, 2017 bleaching impacted the area between Cairns and Townsville and some patchy impacts from 2020 bleaching.

There was some distracting reporting of disagreement among scientists, combined with some confusing media releases and different bodies presenting data in different ways with different boundaries. There’s also the background of the Carmichael Coal Mine in Queensland and the impossible dilemma for the State Government that they want to protect the reef, reduce carbon emissions, and expand coal mining all at the same time.

A reason for writing this is firstly that we hope a better job can be done with good coordination between scientists, tourism bodies and government. This is really important to avoid fuelling sensationalist media whose reporting damages the public credibility of the scientific reports.

Secondly, and most importantly, the threats to the reef are still there and at the mercy of politics. Climate policy is a critical aspect, but also it’s acknowledged that the main locally manageable threat to the reef is catchment management. This very much involves whether the State Government can enact policies desired by the Federal Government.

One example is land clearing laws. Good land use is vital in reducing sediment runoff to the reef. The coral has grown for six thousand years since the last ice age in stable conditions with clean water. Since European settlement the rivers and creeks entering the marine park now carry vastly more sediment to sea compared to when the coast was forested.

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