Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Coal Mining: The Final Straw for Coral Communities?

Picture this:  You’re sitting on a beautiful sandy beach in Cairns, Australia enjoying the warmth on your feet and face.  After half an hour you get a little too warm and decide to go snorkeling to experience the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef.  You’re gearing up to dive in, anticipating the spectacular colors of all the different fish and corals that call the place home, but once you get out there all you find are the remains of a coral massacre, not a fish in sight.         
This wondrous place, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, has recently been headed in this direction.  According to the article “‘Death By a Thousand Cuts’: Coal Boom Could Destroy Great Barrier Reef” by Samiha Shafy, the Great Barrier Reef has lost almost half of it’s corals in the last 27 years, and the death rate seems to be increasing (Shafy, 2013).  Due to rising temperatures, increasing ocean acidification, and various other factors, coral communities all over the world have been experiencing constant disturbances and are under serious amounts of stress.  One major factor is the increasing sedimentation due to mining that is directly degrading coral tissues.  But perhaps the most devastating of these disturbances is a phenomenon known as coral bleaching.  This is when corals lose most of the symbiotic algae, called zooxanthellae, that live within their tissues (Buchheim, 1998).  Since corals are extremely sensitive organisms, they are not capable of living in waters that are high in nutrients.  This is because nutrient rich waters are also rich with sediment that can degrade the corals’ tissues.  Thus they tend to thrive in places that have low nutrient concentrations.  This is where the zooxanthellae come into play.  They provide the corals with a portion of the energy that they produce through photosynthesis in return for a home and protection from the organisms that eat them.  However, when conditions aren’t just right, concentrations of zooxanthellae decline and the corals lose their little helpers.  Since coral tissue is transparent and the zooxanthellae are the ones who provide the spectacular colors, when the algae dies the corals look as white as bone (image 3).            
Image 2 (left): Comparison of healthy coral to coral that has expelled it's zooxanthellae (from http://serc.carleton.edu/eslabs/corals/6a.html)
Thankfully, corals don’t die right away when they lose their symbiotic zooxanthellae.  They can survive on their own for a while, but if the conditions don’t return to normal the corals will eventually die.  This is a big problem because without corals, a lot of organisms lose their homes and their food supply, resulting in a huge loss of biodiversity.  In the article, “Changes in Biodiversity and Functioning of Reef Fish Assemblages Following Coral Bleaching and Coral Loss,” Pratchett et. al. state that “Coral loss and degradation of coral reef habitats have a significant influence on the abundance and diversity of coral reef fishes” (Pratchett et. al. 2011).  On top of the major ecological issues that coral reef destruction causes, it would also cause a lot of economic issues throughout Queensland, Australia.  According to Hughes et al. it brings in about $4 billion each year through tourism (Hughes et al., 2007).  This means that, with the loss of the reef and it’s beautiful inhabitants, people will no longer have a reason to visit and spend their money in Queensland, having a strongly negative impact on the economy.
Image 3: Tourists snorkeling near the Great Barrier Reef (from http://www.boatinternational.com/destinations/features/post/the-great-barrier-reef/)

  Recently, the Great Barrier Reef has been experiencing more bleaching incidents than usual.  In her article, Samiha Shafy discusses the fact that Australia is becoming a leader in coal mining, as well as the mining of many other natural minerals, which is strongly contributing to the loss of the reef (Shafy, 2013).  This is because the mining corporations are dumping the excess silt into the ocean, which directly contributes to degradation of the reefs, and ultimately affects all of the organisms that live there (Shafy, 2013).  In the study “Coral bleaching: one disturbance too many for near-shore reefs of the Great Barrier Reef ”, A.A. Thompson and A.M. Dolman state that this increased “CO2-driven climate change” is a having a direct effect on increasing ocean temperatures and is contributing to the “mass bleaching events” that are occurring in the area (Thompson, 2009).  So not only do the waste products of mining directly degrade the reefs, but these mining corporations are also contributing to global climate change through the burning of fossil fuels which is warming the oceans and causing widespread coral bleaching events.                           
There are many efforts being made by the Australian government, as well as many national and global organizations, to conserve the reefs.  In her article, Shafy says that “Queensland is contributing $35 million a year to the effort,” (Shafy, 2013).  However, they aren’t doing the most important thing that they could be doing: discontinuing their coal mining efforts.  This would be the number one thing that would help the health of these coral communities, but it isn’t likely to happen.  UNESCO has requested that the Australian government at the very least implement some regulation on the mining industry that would require "first, no ports in untouched regions; second, no port expansions that could impair the universal value of the reef; and third, a moratorium on port projects until 2015," (Shafy, 2013).  This would help to prevent sedimentation of nearby reefs, reduce pollution in waters near reefs, and ultimately reduce human impact on these communities.  Sadly though, the Australian government, for the most part, has ignored these requests and have continued their expansion of the coal mining industry.  This video made by GetUp! Action for Australia clearly outlines the issue:
As devastating as this is, all hope isn’t lost.  Thanks to people like Larissa Waters, part of the Queensland Legislative Assembly, there will constantly be a fight to save the Great Barrier Reef due to its wondrous quality and it’s economic strength (Shafy 2013).  Because of all of the efforts to stop the extraction of coal and other minerals and ores, the Great Barrier Reef has a chance to survive.  Organizations like Oceana, the World Wildlife Foundation, and the Australian Conservation Foundation are constantly making efforts to conserve coral reefs.  To learn more and to get involved in these efforts, check out some of the links below.
Get Involved:

(Coral Reef Bleaching by Jason Buchheim-1998)

(‘Death By a Thousand Cuts’: Coal Boom Could Destroy Great Barrier Reef by Samiha Shafy-2013)

(Coral bleaching: one disturbance too many for near-shore reefs of the Great Barrier Reef by A.A. Thompson, A.M. Dolman-2009)

(Changes in Biodiversity and Functioning of Reef Fish Assemblages Following Coral Bleaching and Coral Loss by Morgan S. Pratchett et al.-2011).

(Adaptive Management of the Great Barrier Reef and the Grand Canyon World Heritage Areas by Terence P. Hughes et al.-2007)