May 28, 2014


By Dr. Sylvia Earle

Hooray for the stay of execution for the Great Barrier Reef!  Maybe common sense will prevail as the full extent of the economic, ecological and security impacts are more widely recognized.  One aspect that gets little attention is this:

It is not just the dumping of the spoils from dredging that matters here.   

Putting aside the rationale for the channel — to facilitate shipping coal mined in western Australia to be burned in China, and the consequences of traffic through the channel (noise, wave action, spills, wastes, other ship-related impacts.) 

There is a perception that there is no downside to having the channel as long as it does not cut through the reef itself. 


But mud-sand and other “soft bottom” areas are as full of life as a rain forest and are critical to the existence of the more conspicuous reef systems.  Burrowing organisms fortify their tubes with sticky materials that hold their homes in place, algae lace across the surface, stabilizing the sand and mud, and wondrous communities of  mollusks, polychaetes, crustacea, kinorhyncs, nemerteans, nematodes, priapulids, burrowing anemones, sand dollars, sea biscuits, many echinoderms, garden eels, flounders, rays and numerous other animals are most at home there.  Why is their existence not given weight side by side with life on the reefs — reefs filled with creatures  that forage in the open spaces or depend on them for sustenance either directly or through the zooplanktonic larvae they produce?

As my oceanographer  friend Ellen Prager says, “Sand is grand! — not an empty wasteland.  Mud rocks! Check out the  work of Fred Grassle and others who for decades have been diving into muddy places emerging with news concerning how lively they are.  Soft-bottom areas are three-dimensional ocean prairies filled with abundant life that must be respected  — and protected — if the reefs themselves are to survive.

I hope we can add protection for these vital places to our quiver of sharp reasons for keeping the reef system intact.

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This June, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee will vote on the fate of the reef. Now through our partners at WWF, you can too!


Feature photo: Amady/Telegraph UK


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