Coral reefs are found in more than a hundred countries: Globally, they are home to over 4,000 species of fish, 700 species of coral, and thousands of other animals and plants. Reefs are considered a treasure chest for medical researchers; act as a living breakwater, sheltering coastlines from the open ocean; and provide income and food for millions of people.
The threats to coral reefs are as numerous as the benefits they provide: overfishing, coastal development, untreated sewage, agricultural runoff, and global warming foremost among them. Eleven percent of the world's reefs are already destroyed, 20 percent are considered seriously damaged. Scientists estimate that another 32 percent may be lost over the next 30 years if human threats are not reduced.
Which is what the new legislation in Australia aims to achieve in a big way.
Cordoning off the Reef
"Our goal, when we began this process in 1998, was to improve protection of the entire range of plants and animals in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park," explained the manager of the rezoning effort, biologist Leanne Fernandes of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority in Queensland. "Our mechanism was to create no-take zones within every type of habitat within the marine parkcoral reefs, sea grass beds, sponge gardens, the continental shelfwe wanted them all represented."
"We also recognized that we're not working in a biological vacuum. There are people working and playing in this national icon, so we implemented the largest community environmental-consultation program Australia has ever seen."
The most vocal opponents were fishers, who feared the short-term consequences of reduction in their access to fishing. "However, even they acknowledged the need to protect a minimum amount of each kind of habitat," Fernandes said.
Fishers stand to benefit from the protection over the long run.
"No-take zones serve as sources of new larvae that can eventually seed other places," said biologist Gisele Muller-Parker of Western Washington University in Bellingham. Muller-Parker is a scientific advisor on the recent IMAX film Coral Reef Adventure.
Fishers target the biggest fishwhich are also among the most reproductiveleaving behind a reef populated primarily by smaller, often juvenile fish.
"Large, mature females release more eggs and larvae into the water column at one time than juveniles do. Depending on the species, it can be an increase by a factor of 4 to 15," Fernandes said. By providing a place where fish can live and reproduce throughout a full life span, no-take zones create robust ecosystems. Some of the inhabitants inevitably drift away or migrate, thereby restocking surrounding areas where fishing is permitted.
Fishers will still have access to 66 percent of the marine park. Different zones allow different types of fishing, some more destructive than others: Thirty-three percent of the marine park will still be open to commercial trawlers.
Fun in the Sun
But fishers are not the main users of the park. About 800,000 people fish recreationally each year in the marine park. Another 2,000 fish commercially. Together they generate around 430 million Australian dollars a year for the national economy.
The biggest users of the parkin both numbers and economic importanceare the tourists. There are about two million visitors a year, directly and indirectly generating around a billion dollars annually for the Australian community, according to Fernandes.
"Australia is pioneering an economy based on a healthy, thriving reef rather than one being slowly mined away," Huse said. "They are looking at how they can live in concert with their reefs, such that the income they generate is not damaging those reefs, ensuring that future generations will still have a Great Barrier Reef to enjoy."
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