60pc of Barrier Reef damaged
Nick Squires in Sydney
Conservationists are urging the Australian Government to sign up to the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions following a report which shows up to 90 per cent of coral in some parts of the Great Barrier Reef has been destroyed by bleaching.
The report, by a group of scientists, found nearly 60 per cent of the marine park had been affected to some extent. Bleaching is at its highest level on record and could soon become even worse.
Coral bleaching is caused by abnormally high sea temperatures, which some scientists link to global warming.
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) called on the Government and Prime Minister John Howard to sign the Kyoto Protocol and urgently reduce Australia's greenhouse gas emissions.
'The message is very clear. If the federal Government continues to duck serious and urgent action to cut greenhouse gas emissions, the reef will burn' WWF's reef campaign manager, Imogen Zethoven, said.
'There simply won't be a Great Barrier Reef, as we know it today, in the future.'
The Great Barrier Reef, a World Heritage area, extends for more than 2,000km along the east coast of Queensland. It is home to 400 types of coral and 1,500 species of fish.
Scientists fear it could go the way of coral reefs in Sri Lanka, the Seychelles and the Maldives, which have been destroyed by bleaching.
The worst previous bleaching event on record was in 1998, but this year's damage has affected a far greater area, and has hit reefs further offshore.
Dr Terry Done, from the Australian Institute of Marine Science, said: 'The heating we saw in 1998 was primarily coastal and local. This time it was part of a general warming of the Coral Sea.
'It just sat there for weeks on end and this was terribly stressful for the corals. We may be witnessing the beginning of a slow-motion degradation of the reef system that will only get worse in the coming decades.'
In the largest study of coral bleaching yet undertaken, scientists carried out aerial surveys of more than 640 individual reefs and found few had escaped unscathed.
Dr Paul Marshall, from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, said: 'Very few reefs escaped bleaching altogether. Even the reefs that looked reasonably OK from the air we found to have some level of coral bleaching.
'What this says is that few areas of the Great Barrier Reef are immune from bleaching.'
He said many of the reefs probably would recover, as long as sea temperatures did not rise again, although other areas were devastated.
Bleaching occurs when the microscopic algae which live inside coral and give it colour are expelled due to higher water temperatures, often leaving the coral bone white.
Among the worst affected areas were the Whitsunday Islands and the Keppel group of islands, both popular with recreational sailors and tourists.
The survey's findings match the grim projections for the Great Barrier Reef put forward by the world's top climate scientists in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last year.
Their report said there was a medium to high degree of certainty that in the next 20 to 50 years, the Great Barrier Reef would be severely damaged by the death of large swathes of coral.
Bleaching is not the reef's only problem. It is also being damaged by the run-off from fertilisers and pesticides used by Queensland's beef and sugar-cane industries.
Scientists are also concerned there will be growing pressure to drill for oil. The reef and adjoining areas are believed to hold at least five billion barrels of oil - Australia's largest reserve.