GREAT SOUTHERN REEF, AUSTRALIA, (December 5th, 2019) – A dive off Australia’s wild southern coast reveals what is perhaps the continent’s best kept secret: the fascinating and intrinsically unique Great Southern Reef (GSR). Fueled by dense kelp forests that drive the productivity and life in the region, the GSR is one of the most pristine and unique temperate reefs in the world.
The Great Southern Reef has been named Mission Blue’s newest Hope Spot in recognition of the reef’s exquisite, raw beauty, immensely rich biodiversity, indigenous values and the important work local stewards in the area have dedicated to research, education and public awareness.
Dr. Sylvia Earle, Founder of Mission Blue elaborates, “The Great Southern Reef is a fantastic example of how the natural world can thrive when we leave it alone. However, more must be done because right now, the Reef faces extreme threats from climate change and oil drilling. We need to embrace the identity of the GSR so all can understand and appreciate this ecosystem. There is so much that remains unknown about the life on this magnificent temperate reef, and we must recognize our lack of knowledge so we can forge ahead and do everything possible to learn more and protect it.”
Fringing Australia from Kalbarri in Western Australia, down and around the rugged southern coast and up into northern New South Wales, the GSR is an interconnected network home to thousands of species; including whales, sharks, orcas, turtles, seals, seaweeds, sponges, crustaceans, chordates, echinoderms and molluscs – and scientists estimate that there are tens of thousands of species yet to be discovered.
Despite 16 million Australians living within 50km of the GSR, public knowledge of the Reef is scant. The southern coast is remote and exposed to the wild weather of the Southern Ocean, which in turn has allowed the Reef to flourish with minimal human interference. However, this phenomenon is a double-edged sword: as a consequence, rates of research investment and protection at a management level are also low.
What makes the Great Southern Reef such a distinctive and resilient ecosystem is its combination of high biodiversity and extremely high rate of endemism. For example, in some areas of the GSR up to 85% of the species are found nowhere else in the world. Every year the GSR acts as the highway for some of the largest creatures in the world: the humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae). Australia’s humpback whale population travels to the GSR to birth their calves, migrates north over the winter, on and up the east and west coasts of Australia (through the northernmost extents of the GSR) and into tropical waters. They utilize the entirety of the GSR, and are one of the only species to do so.
Perhaps the Great Southern Reef’s most important act of stewardship is from the indigenous population. Indigenous Australians have lived off the sea’s abundant resources for tens of thousands of years. Tidal fish traps and productive coasts would act as camping grounds where knowledge was shared through storytelling, including the sustainable fishing and preparation of local fish, shellfish and crustaceans. Jasan Billny, a representative of the Barngarla people in South Australia explains, “Part of our connection to land and sea is that every flora and fauna has a story to it, so you treat it with respect.” He continues, “This connection to our country is why these resources have survived for so long.”
The biggest threat to the Reef is all-too-familiar: the negative effects of a changing climate. The GSR covers two global warming hotspots – that is two areas where the rate of ocean warming has been in the top 10% globally over the past 5 decades. This warming has seen dramatic changes across all life on the GSR, and with impacts like this predicted to increase in the future the continued health of the Reef is unknown.
The GSR also experiences threats from the human population directly, with the most recent coming from Norwegian energy company Equinor who plan to drill for oil in the broader Great Australian Bight region. The consequences of an oil spill are unimaginable; the entirety of the Reef that passes through the Bight and the life within it would suffer irreparable damage if disaster were to strike, and polls show that the majority of Australians share this view and are vehemently opposed to oil drilling. In an age and country where renewable energy is vastly available, drilling for oil within this pristine, biodiverse area is simply unnecessary.
Bell and her team are optimistic that the Hope Spot designation will motivate increased protection and research efforts for the Great Southern Reef, especially in young students who can establish the framework for the next generation of stewardship for the Reef.
“People protect what they love, and they love what they understand. We want to help everyone recognize the GSR’s importance, and to wholeheartedly understand what a special place we have here.”
About the Hope Spot Champions
Sahira Bell is a PhD researcher at the University of Western Australia’s Oceans Institute, and Lead Marine Scientist for the conservation not-for-profit group, the Balu Blue Foundation. The Foundation was founded in 2016 with a vision to be a part of the environmental awareness movement, and has been crucial in supporting research like Sahira’s, along the GSR. Also on board are fellow marine scientists Stefan Andrews and Dr. Kingsley Griffin from the underwater photography and videography company, Ocean Imaging. Ocean Imaging was established in 2014 with the goal to shed light on often overlooked stories in marine science.
Featured image by Ocean Imaging