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438035923_268f0b6ff0_oThe sheer immensity of the reef has long been one of its key weaknesses. A great barrier of interconnected ecosystems and inherent diversity, it resists definition. Yet, despite the apparent paradox of a singular name defining such a multitude of different environs, the name remains apt.

The Great Barrier Reef is just that – one of Earth’s most significant physical barriers, akin in its own way to the Himalayas or the dense forests of the Amazon. For thousands of years it has protected the Australian mainland from tropical storms and coastal erosion as well as the powerful winds and oceanic currents winding through the Pacific. Despite the seemingly everlasting nature of the reef we know today, it came about as an immense quirk of nature. The result of centuries of environmental flux and the grindingly slow pace of shifting continental shelves, the reef today is a vast yet delicate coincidence of time, place and climate.

The reef entered into the story of Australia’s white settlement first as a danger, scraping the hull of the Endeavour as Captain James Cook worked his way up Australia’s east coast in June 1770. Explorer Matthew Flinders was the first, in 1802, to give the entire reef its tripartite name, which now almost elides into a long, single word.

It was the 1908 publication of naturalist and journalist Ted Banfield’s book Confessions of a Beachcomber, detailing his observations on Dunk Island, which first captured the imagination of what would later be called ‘eco-tourists’. The book sparked international interest in both visiting and preserving the reef. Banfield’s work, dedicated to the preservation of the reef, would be a key catalyst. Over the ensuring decades it would draw people from around the globe to the natural wonder, both raising awareness of the reef’s inherent value and increasing the human pressures exerted on its ecosystem. Today those visitors are worth more than $6 billion a year, and the industry supporting their travels employs more than 60,000 Queenslanders, making it the single largest employer on the reef.

Many of the first visitors were of a like mind to Banfield, such as Sir Matthew Nathan, Governor of Queensland in the early 1920s. After reading Banfield’s work and visiting the reef, Sir Matthew would, in July 1922, write to the Governor-General Sir Henry Forster and Premier Ted Theodore proposing an investigation ‘with regard to the problems of the Great Barrier Reef’. These problems were, he wrote, ‘now engaging the attention of the Royal Geographical Society’. It was the first in a long succession of inquiries into the challenges facing the reef.

The reef coastline, meanwhile, was drawing fishermen, crabbers and pearlers who thrived on the productive waters of an immense lagoon created by the string of inshore reefs, islands and cays stretching almost the entire length of Queensland. The settlers came with axes and fishing nets, dominating a wild and varied landscape from the undulating hills and plains of central Queensland to the thick rainforests of the far north. On the land, farmers and cattle producers cleared the scrub, planting pastures for grazing and ploughing land for wheat, sugar, legumes and vegetable crops. They drew water from the rivers and built homesteads, roads, towns and ports.

The endless march of civilisation brought with it further concerns for the reef’s environment, along with a storied history of unrest and contestation. In the 1960s, developers dreamed of coral limestone mining on Ellison Reef and oil exploration on the Swain Reefs. At a famous symposium of the Australian Conservation Foundation in Sydney in May 1969, many speakers set themselves against reckless exploitation. The director of the Australian Museum, Dr FH Talbot, said that the primary consideration had to be that ‘whatever we do to this asset we must not damage it … we may use it to the full but only consistent with its continuance’. He urged that control of all activities on the reef be vested in a single body: ‘Not control of mining by one department, tourism by another department, national parks by another, and reefs by another, which is the present situation in Queensland.’ In a meeting of the Great Barrier Reef committee later the same year, amid growing calls for action, committee chairman Dr Robert Endean would provide a prescient, urgent message: ‘When the full extent of the tragedy is known, Australia will be condemned by the scientific world.’

Dr Talbot’s proposal would become the overriding objective of a coalition of like-minded campaigners – environmentalists, artists, writers and activists – who would turn local concerns about the reef into the first national ‘Save the Reef’ campaign in the early 1970s. The campaign resulted in a guardian body, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, in 1976. Five years later, the authority’s remit was extended by Australia’s successful nomination of the reef for listing as a World Heritage Area.

Mainly a reaction to the prospect of the industrialisation of the reef, the first Save the Reef campaign was also something of a retort to the rise of one the state’s most notorious premiers, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen – a man later dubbed the ‘Hillbilly Dictator’. Already firmly entrenched at the top of Queensland politics, Bjelke-Petersen was an unashamed advocate for industrial development. But his fervour for progress would lead in part, over two decades, to the creation of a political environment in which corruption flourished and the interests of developers overrode all others.

Journalist Chris Masters, then a Four Corners reporter who helped exposed corruption in the state’s police (leading to the infamous Fitzgerald inquiry), described the time in a reflective essay for the Griffith REVIEW in August 2008 – twenty years on from the startling revelations of his story ‘The Moonlight State’: ‘A common criticism of process overtaking progress fails to recognise just how far process had broken down in the Joh era. A failure of process sunk him in the end. Integrity of government is not just a moral issue: there are practical consequences. If the system is crook, that system fails to work.’ The welcoming embrace which the state government first offered proposals to drill for oil on the reef was one of many signals of a ‘crook’ system. But with the rise of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, its sister organisation the Australian Institute of Marine Science and James Cook University’s coral reef programs in the early 1970s, uncertainty and political rhetoric would be replaced by scientific fact.

Through the 1970s and 80s, the work of painstakingly documenting the corals and interactions on the reef would lay the foundations of what we know today of the immense variety and intricate relationships of the organisms that call the reef home. The authority would, during the ensuing decades, use the knowledge base that Charlie and others had created to manage the use of the reef. The focus was initially directed at the most visible industries – fishing and tourism. Management zones were created, with fishing and tourism excluded from some of the most valuable areas and new rules governing what could happen across the remainder.

Similarly, the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) would, in 1984, begin close monitoring of the corals of the mid and outer shelves of the reef. This was the first such holistic monitoring system of coral reefs in the world. Originating mainly as a data collection exercise AIMS research director, Dr Jamie Oliver, describes it as ‘the longest most comprehensive reef monitoring program in the world.’ But focused as the monitoring was on the outer and mid-shelf reefs, further from the reach of human interference, long-term monitoring of the inshore reefs would not begin until 1992. The carefully-spoken bureaucrat said what they were missing was ‘that 27 year record [on in-shore reefs] because we haven’t concentrated just on that near shore area as much.’ However, Dr Oliver could not explain why the monitoring program did not initially focus also on the inshore reefs. Others put it down to a lack of resources and the early focus on managing tourism, rather than completing ever more research about the state of the reef.

It would be another twelve years before the first major assessment of thirty-three inshore reefs was completed in 2004, revealing both the variable nature of corals up and down the reef, and the ‘widespread and severe effects’ of major coral bleaching events on the shallower inshore reefs. Despite being hampered by a lack of knowledge on the ‘rates of recovery’ from such damaging events, the 2004 study provided clear evidence that recovery periods were essential for corals to adjust and rebuild after any major stressful event, natural or anthropogenic.

Among the many agenda items at the 35th session of the World Heritage Committee July 7, 2011 was the future of the Great Barrier Reef. The result, a stern reprimand and call for more action. The committee noted ‘with extreme concern’ that Australia had approved ‘LNG processing and port facilities on Curtis Island’, within a World Heritage Area.

The approvals were an official acceptance of major industrial developments on an island which formed a key part of an ecosystem regarded as having some of the highest ‘outstanding universal value’ on the planet.

In its report, the committee further noted Australia had failed to report the approvals of the gas plants and port expansion to UNESCO, urging the nation to report any further planned developments. On the back of the LNG approvals, the committee also urged Australia to complete a ‘strategic assessment’ of the entire Great Barrier Reef and begin work on a long-term plan for ‘sustainable development that will protect’ the reef. The committee further requested that it be ‘invited’ to conduct a ‘reactive monitoring mission as soon as possible to consider the state of conservation of the property as a whole’. The diplomatic language masked what was essentially international condemnation that Australia, long regarded as a responsible environmental steward of the reef, had failed in its own responsibilities. Instead it had told the world the values of the World Heritage Area were not above the reach of the resources industry.

It was the first global acknowledgement that something had already gone terribly wrong.

This is an extract from a long-form essay written as part of the KYD Copyright Agency Investigative Journalism Mentorship. The full article will be published on our website in late January.

Image credit: Richard Ling