Environments everywhere are challenged, but the GBR is leading the world in reef management.

The two greatest threats to natural environments around the world are climate change and loss of biodiversity. Here in Far North Queensland, we live in David Attenborough’s favourite place in the world where two World Heritage areas meet - the Great Barrier Reef and the world’s oldest rainforest.

The Great Barrier Reef is the best managed reef in the world, is extensively monitored and is supported with outstanding research. And, we share it with the world through the most regulated, safe and accessible tourism operations anywhere. It is the #1 driver of visitation to Australia.

The institutional and community ecosystem that has evolved to support these two natural assets has become a leading light for reefs - and rainforests - around the world. The Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), Wet Tropics Management Authority(WTMA), research agencies, tourism and community groups are all working together to ensure the best possible local resilience to the global threats that challenge all nature. We look after it with passion, professionalism and integrity and unlike many tropical environments, we can resource this effort because we are a wealthy, stable democracy.

This collective effort is something for us to be proud of and enables us to say with confidence - if you are going to see any reef in the world, or rainforest, come see ours.

This empathy with the environment is our story, but it is not something new. We have been growing into this space here in the north for decades. And before that the proud indigenous cultures of our region have connected with, and nurtured their home in nature forever.

Now though, this is the story that we need to remind ourselves of, not buying in to polarising black and white headlines.

Not that the reef is dead or alive.

The reef is very much alive, is constantly changing in space and time, and we are working towards the best possible local conditions for it to thrive for the long term.

Without a story and strategy that is resilient to whatever happens in our unfoldingworldwe will be doomed to being tossed as flotsam and jetsam on the tides offuture crises.

Our management agencies, GBRMPA and WTMA are central to the institutional ecosystem and need to be adequately resourced to do their job - for example controlling pests like Crown of Thorns Starfish or feral pigs. Research agencies and the cross-portfolio approach and philanthropy of the GBR Foundation add valuable capacity and capability to the network. Often overlooked are the place-based, feet-on-the-ground army of people from NFP’s such as Reef & Rainforest Research Centre, Terrain NRM and the many environment focussed community groups that give local context to the collective effort.

Conservation groups also have a key role to play in achieving success. Speaking to a broad church that turns people everywhere to a way of living that treads lightly on the earth is a transition that will take time and multiple players all going in the same direction. Getting people to see the reef for themselves is the key to this deeper understanding. Seeing a reef for the first time is like Alice going through the Looking Glass or falling in love. It changes your life forever.

You’ve read the headlines and seen the documentaries. Now come and see the real thing.

While Cairns is the gateway to World Heritage nature, the deeper layers of our community are growing a flourishing diverse economy beyond tourism. Tropically focussed education is thriving. We have the #1 university in the world for Marine Biology in James Cook University, offering a “living lab” on its doorstep for research and students, and Central Queensland University embraces community, bringing new opportunities for young people in the tropics.

Business and innovative manufacturing role models are sprouting up all over the region. Ecobiotics on the Tablelands is creating world leading cancer treatments from a rainforest tree; Prof Alex Loukas is one of several from JCU making breakthroughs in tropical medicine; ReGen Plastics is building products from recycled plastic; Renewable energy projects and tropical agriculture are expanding.

How can we better share this great story with the world? We can each spread the word but we can also dream big. I commend Wet Tropics Management Authority for a proposal they have had on the table for some years for a World Heritage Gateway centre. I wonder though if this could be something much bigger that we can all be a part of - a statement to the world that epitomises what we stand for. An iconic structure that represents the DNA of our region - both World Heritage nature and the interwoven role of First Nations people. A window that connects the world to the deeper tapestry of our sustainable tropical economy and community.

Tasmania has a MONA that has changed the face of Tasmanian tourism. Perhaps this centre is the feature that transforms the Global Tourism Hub location - or an alternative prominent position in Cairns - into not just a piece of major infrastructure, but represents for us all a resilient strategy born from our past to deliver our future.

The magic of our local reefs a few days ago - a story about natural reef regeneration.

The magic of our local reefs a few days ago. We were all shocked at the bleaching damage of 2016/17. The innovative science and reef management being undertaken is a shining light around the world. The recent Reef Restoration Symposium in Cairns showcased dozens of home-grown ideas to assist resilience and restoration of damaged areas. We should be very proud of the local efforts on the GBR - including our tourism operators, many of whom have been nurturing and caring for their reef sites for decades. We recognise that climate change is a global issue - but many people along the whole Queensland coast are doing a huge amount locally for reef health; scientists, managers, farmers, schools and communities. 

But there is also a great story not being told about natural regeneration that is happening on many of our reefs that were damaged.  I was so thrilled to see the old “Beginners area” at Agincourt 2D was flourishing - absolutely the best I’ve seen it look in many years. It struck me once again that one part of a reef can be in a very different state to those corals just tens of metres away. Change over space and time is what reefs do. 

No matter what the actual state of reef health, its difficult to put into simple words, the complexity of reefs for an audience who don’t know reefs the way a fortunate few do. This is a challenge for all of us who speak with any authority on our reefs - scientists, managers and reef tourism operators. 

We all have a responsibility to tell the whole story when we comment, because the GBR is in the global spotlight and our words are listened to by many. People everywhere need to understand the science within the context of the whole of the reef, including its complexity and scale. Failing to do this potentially threatens the way people think about the reef and its value, potentially leading to general pessimism and apathy, a disease that does not auger well for anyone. 

The reef is worth a lot to the world. Its priceless. In $ terms its been valued at $56b, mostly through its iconic status, and through revenue from tourism. Tourism uses less than 7% of the whole reef - and most of it on less than 1%. We need people to see the reef to understand it. Because when you are aware, you care, and when you care you do what you can to help. 

Get out there! The weather is perfect and there’s a reef just waiting to be explored by you!

Economic value and the importance of geographic scale in communications on Great Barrier Reef health. Symposium Cairns 16 July 2018 #Restorethereef2018

What is the reef worth to us? Its THE main attraction for Australian visitation. Especially here in Cairns and Tropical North Queensland. Its the region’s economic engine room.   Its also our heart and soul and most of us would say its beyond value. But here today, you’re the experts, while I won’t be telling  you anything new, I have taken many people out to the reef, of all ages and walks of life - and so it is from the layman’s perspective that I’d like to share some thoughts about communicating the innovative science and management initiatives you are undertaking  in the context of the whole of the reef story.

The reef has a powerful social, even spiritual worth, let alone environmental value. In economic terms, Deloittes have estimated its worth at $56b (most of this associated with it iconic brand value - the reef is something that people all over the world are passionate about).  Annual revenue from the reef amounts to >$6b (mostly tourism) and supports 65,000  jobs around Australia.

If, even in the face of global challenges, the GBR is a shining light to the world in best practice management and scientific initiatives, it instills confidence and optimism.  A magnet of hope so to speak. Its value increases. 

We all have a vested interest in making sure the reef remains valuable and important to a lot of people. Our industry works with the travel industry around the world every day - and especially in Europe and North America, they are telling us that the reef is dead. That is our greatest single challenge because its hard to get past that single statement in a conversation.  Feelings of indifference or helplessness towards the reef is a contagious disease the reef cannot afford.

The recent bleaching events were a shock  to us all and have been an impetus to re-examine our approach.  Many of you are creating a toolbox of initiatives that enhance resilience and explore restoration opportunities, particularly for high value sites. This is a story that needs to be told for the reef’s sake - and the tourism industry wants to help you tell it.^

My key points today; The reef is inherently granular in space and time.  It’s triple bottom line value is priceless and its economic value is focussed into a tiny geographic footprint. The cost/benefit of resilience and restoration work is part of the equation. What you say about your work matters- the world is listening.^

Reef Granularity, Scale and variability

Temporal and spatial variability are inherent characteristics of the GBR on multiple scales.Communicating this simply and clearly to a lay audience is difficult regardless of the actual state of reef health.

^Within one reef are the zones, largely driven by predominant SE trade winds, each with characteristic and different wave action and current flow, oxygenation and exposure at low spring tides.^

On a whole reef scale, its size is often referred to as similar to Italy or Japan. This is problematic in itself because its most definitely not one solid structure, as most people are used to, when you think of a country. I remember once on Quicksilver an older German gentlemen in his hiking boots with a pack, told me he was going to get off when we got to Agincourt Reef and walk down to the bottom end off Gladstone where he was getting picked up by a trawler! 

From south to north , it changes from the wide continental shelf with scattered reefs to the ^ narrower northern shelf with its line of outer reefs

Even down to the scale of metres there is dramatic variability - I’ll just use my favourite example of this, 2 bommies behind one of the Ribbons I’ve called chalk and cheese. One, Chalk, is a bomb site from cyclones that blew from the north a few years ago, and the other one, protected by its neighbour, is a thriving kaleidoscope of corals and fish. ^

When you then throw the variable of time into the mix,  it gets even more complex. One of my all time favourite spots just north of here,  was pretty ordinary from storm damage 20 years ago, it flourished with plate corals and by 2016 was truly extraordinary; it survived the first bleaching pretty well only to be hit hard in 2017. But still, I’m seeing all along the northern reefs, those small seeds of hope as young Acroporas and Pocillopora’s begin to sprout. 

Then if we look on the scale of a few  thousand of years, outer reefs that were dry land at the ocean edge are now flooded; in hours a Cyclone can create a bomb site; and over months COTS, bleaching or declining water quality can insidiously creep a decline in coral cover. Its messy, complex and just about impossible to wrap a soundbite around. ^

Tourism and the reef’s  economic value

Just 7% of the reef’s footprint is used for tourism, most of it, primarily islands and pontoons, sits on only 1% of the whole reef. As Frank Mars has shown in Bali - small scale restoration is already practical and achievable.^

Of the $6.5b annual revenue, $5.7 is derived from tourism related activities. 

Just looking off Cairns you can see the variety of reef shapes and positions across the shelf frequented by tourism operators, from inner to mid to outer.

Quite often reef sites have been chosen for their aesthetic appeal - and often that means they already are relatively high in coral cover or fish life.^

As well, many reef operators have invested in care of their own back yards for years, for example controlling COTS.

So where does Natural and Nurtured Resilience fit and what is the role of Reef Restoration?

Coral reefs have proven remarkably resilient as they’ve evolved over millions of years, being left high and dry in ice ages, flooded, heated and cooled.  In the era of the Anthropocene unprecedented threats of poor water quality, pests such as COTS and global climate change challenge this natural resilience. That natural resilience needs nurturing. Broad scale strategies that nurture resilience are core to the Reef 2050 plan.

However, with such a small reef footprint used for tourism driving 85% revenue, investing in reef resilience and reef restoration at key sites makes sense.  Even using these small areas as trial sites for larger scale interventions, ensuring these sites of high economic value are nurtured, is a way of showcasing applied science and management to visitors every day.

Reef Restoration must still make sense in a triple bottom line cost/benefit equation.  However, it is likely to have  a key role to play in lifting the economic value of the GBR  by;

1. Delivering best practice science via pragmatic solutions and applied innovation

2. Conserving and preserving key high value sites (tourism)


Communicating whole of reef context is vital. We have heard about collaboration and communication by just about every speaker today. 

We all have a key role to play when we make comment on our work, because the GBR is in the global spotlight and your words are listened to by many. A lay audience needs to understand your findings within the context of the whole of the reef, including its complexity and scale. Failing to do this potentially threatens the way people think about the reef and its value, even leading to general pessimism and apathy.  ^

Commentary based around statistics can be misleading if there is no context as the lay person has little idea of the granularity that is inherent in reef structures.

For example, many lay people would be surprised to know that live coral cover stats on a reasonably healthy reef could be as low as 30-35%.  Stats and reef ecology are the forte of the few, not the many, so when we hear ^95% of reefs show signs of bleaching, its not immediately clear what that actually means.

We know the reef is challenged by global and local forces.  There is outstanding work being done to enhance resilience, improve water quality and to develop a toolbox of local restoration measures, and this should be a lighthouse worldwide for management of tropical reefs.

^Science is the lens that should provide society with the closest possible perspective of the true reality of our natural world. But as with a magnifying glass, we sometimes are only examining a tiny portion of the cosmos, and must endeavour to understand and communicate our piece of the jigsaw as part of the greater realm.

The tourism industry can be your partners in reef story telling; we are the experience-sharers and the people who everyday can talk with our visitors about the best practice science and management that people here in this room are creating. The reef’s granularity in time and space, and that small bright spots of restoration can punch above their weight in contributing to the reef’s health as well as leveraging its economic value. The future Master Reef Guide program - a collaboration with AMPTO, TEQ and GBRMPA is a shining light for the future to help tell these unfolding stories.

So whether we are talking stats on mortality or bleaching; building resilience, site restoration or natural regeneration, don’t forget - the world is listening to your words!

Accurate, relevant and contextual commentary leads to a better understanding of our reef’s health. The tourism industry does not want to sugarcoat the truth - but we need our science and management partners to help share the whole of the reef’s story. Think like David Attenborough - with simple language our many voices can tell the grandest story of them all - the story of the reef. And remember - the world is watching and listening to you. 

And optimism is a key ingredient for the reef’s future. Our problems are global and we are acting locally.  Let’s bring everyone on the journey as we lead the world in best practice reef tourism, reef resilience and reef restoration.

My thoughts on coral bleaching and other things

In my 40 years here on the reef, the world has seen global population and environmental pressures increase. We have seen environmental crises from a mixture of natural and human influences. On the reef here I've seen the effects of excessive trawling, cyclones, crown of thorns starfish and coral bleaching. There are a lot more people around now to observe these crises - including researchers. When I was first here we were more likely to see a Taiwanese fishing boat stealing clams than we were to see anyone else.

These periodic crises - especially if they're visible and filmable - get huge media coverage and usually create controversy.

During a crisis the media and the people speaking to the media have a choice. If presented as a threat with inevitable dire consequences - such as the reef dying in our lifetime - all it does is generate panic, depression, hand wringing and - importantly - a global perception that there's no point going to the reef because it's dying. Taking that approach is the real threat.

A much better approach is to use the current bleaching event as a wake up call and opportunity to build awareness of the need to maintain SYSTEM INTEGRITY - to build reef resilience and maintain biodiversity . The mechanisms to do this have been well identified by AIMS/GBRMPA - for example good water quality and no-take zones as refugia for biodiversity replenishment.

Nature is already remarkably resilient. Coral reefs have been around for close to 500m years in various forms and have evolved through dramatic climatic changes. Our modern reefs - are remarkably diverse and resilient systems composed of millions of tiny cogs in a giant wheel, and it's this complexity that gives it dynamic stability. One of the main contributors to that diversity is the relatively recently evolved Acropora spp - the plates and staghorns - that are fast growing and create a wide variety of habitats for many other reef animals. They are also the most vulnerable to coral bleaching. So while reefs have recovered in past major events we are probably entering new territory. Again though, as David Attenborough has recently repeated "the resilience of the natural world gives you great hope, really."

We do need the science, but science needs to be a helpful tool that encourages our own society to become embedded within the greater society of the natural world. If science makes people feel guilty and alienated it will not achieve its greatest gift - an objective and rationale view of our world based on fact. The reef is nature's greatest masterpiece - it inspires, it is magnificent and it's processes can point to smarter ways to collaborate, use resources efficiently and to grow global resilience.

One way to use science within society right now is to get more people out to the reef to see and experience first hand its remarkable beauty and complexity. Reef tourism operators are almost without exception passionate and careful custodians of our reefs. Most have marine biologists or reef interpreters to help their visitors use a different lens to see the reef. We need people from Melbourne and Mumbai, Sydney and Shanghai, Terrigal and Timbuctoo to experience the reef.

When we observe we become aware

When we are aware we care

When we care we conserve.

Everyone can do something. We have large scale problems but the solutions are fine scale. Many are already doing a great job and are role models for "treading lightly" - often those whose daily lives are engaged with the natural world. Many farmers, individuals and companies are reducing waste, minimising energy consumption and doing things smarter.

Spending time quietly in the natural world is probably the most important and urgent lesson for citizens of all ages in our society today.