Australian Tourism Operators Prepare for Coral Bleaching

CAIRNS, Queensland, Australia, October 22, 2001 (ENS) - Scientists are collaborating with the Australian tourism industry to help reef based operators to prepare for coral bleaching events as the planet warms up. Rather than questioning whether or not global warming is real, these marine scientists are taking protective measures against the warmer temperatures forecast for coming years.

Scientists across a number of research agencies Monday addressed tourism operators and other interested groups at a special briefing on climate change in Cairns.

Dr. Terry Done, leader of the Sustaining Marine Living Resources Project of the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) is a principal speaker at the regional briefing, organized by the Australian Greenhouse Office and the Queensland Environmental Protection Agency.

Dr. Done said that Great Barrier Reef tourism industry generates more than A$1 billion annually, and it is important to find ways to protect reef based tourism operations in the coming decades, with rising temperatures likely to cause coral bleaching episodes.


Coral that has cast out its algae, and so turns white. (Photo S. Miller courtesy U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
"Coral bleaching can progress to mass coral death, thus undermining the main natural drawcard for reef based tourism," Dr. Done said.

Bleaching occurs when corals expel their symbiotic algae during periods of stress caused by unusually high summer temperatures. Death results if the stress is extreme or prolonged, marine experts explained.

In a collaborative study involving AIMS, the Department of Natural Resources, CSIRO Atmospheric Research, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the Australian government's reef section of the Cooperative Research Centres (CRC), scientists are now helping to estimate the likely economic implications of future coral bleaching episodes.

The CSIRO team is developing regional projections of sea temperatures over the Barrier Reef and applying these to a bleaching risk model using biophysical data collected by AIMS.

"The Reef is not one big homogeneous bathtub. Just like a bushfire is patchy, coral bleaching events do not impact uniformly across the Barrier Reef, and we need to develop regional projections of the likely costs of coral death across different sectors of the Reef," said Dr. Done.

These costs would range from minor reductions in visitation rates and income, to collapse of a tourism enterprise.

Scientists are confident they can predict where hot and cooler patches of water will occur during summer months in a decade or more.

A second key element of the research is the need to determine the economic value of each reef based enterprise at risk over a specified period. This aspect of the research is being facilitated by CRC Reef, in which the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators is a partner.

The CRC Reef Research Centre is a knowledge based partnership of coral reef managers, researchers and industry. CRC Reef provides research that can help to protect, conserve and restore the world's coral reefs by ensuring industries and management are sustainable and that ecosystem quality is maintained.