National Geographic Channel
The Great Barrier Reef is the largest living organism on the planet, a colossal colony of limestone-secreting coral polyps stretching 1,430 miles (2,300 kilometers) off Australia's east coast. The national park surrounding the reef shelters 128,960 square miles (334,000 square kilometers) of oceanan area roughly the size of Japan.
The reef is home to thousands of species of fish; a breeding ground for whales, seabirds, and turtles; and a favorite romping ground for dolphins.
As of July 1, 2004, monumental new legislation will ban all types of extraction in one-third of the park, making it the largest fully protected stretch of ocean in the world.
Traditionally, most of the marine park was open to commercial fishermen, including trawlersboats dragging nets across the bottom of the ocean, destroying whatever is in their path.
"Many people thought the Great Barrier Reef was already fully protected," explained biologist Sylvia Earle, an explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C., and former chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "After all, terrestrial parks are not places where one expects to be allowed to cut trees, pick flowers, or kill the wildlife, and certainly not where large-scale commercial taking of the natural resources is considered normal."
Yet the concept of roping off parts of the ocean to conserve resources is relatively new. Worldwide, more than 12 percent of the land is protectedcompared to less than 1 percent of the ocean.
"When the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park was established in the 1970s, there was a widespread belief that the ocean was essentially infinite in its capacity to yield fish and other wildlife, and that it could assimilate infinite quantities of waste from the land," Earle said.
By the end of the 20th century, collapsing fisheries, dying coral reefs, and polluted coastal waters proved otherwise.
The Reality of Reefs
Coral polyps are small animals, each less than half an inch (one centimeter) across that secrete calcium carbonate or limestone. Over millions of years the original corals and their descendents build gigantic reef structures. Those in turn shelter thousands of other species.
"Coral reefs are arguably the most complex ecosystem on the planet," said biologist Brian Huse, the executive director of Coral Reef Alliance in San Francisco. "They occupy less than 1 percent of the ocean, yet they are home to fully 25 percent of all marine species. And we don't even know what all is there yet: we're still identifying new species."
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