The health of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the world’s most extensive coral reef ecosystem, is in a critical state and deteriorating as climate change warms the waters around it, an international conservation group said, warning that more than a third of the world’s heritage sites are similarly threatened.
The World Heritage-listed site off Australia’s northeastern coast has lost more than half its coral in the past three decades.
Coral-bleaching in 2016, 2017 and 2020 has further damaged its health and affected its animal, bird and marine population, the International Union for Conservation of Nature said in a report.
Bleaching occurs when hotter water destroys the algae upon which the coral feeds, causing it to turn white.
The IUCN moved the reef’s status for the first time to “critical” and deteriorating on its conservation watchlist.
Some of the activities which threaten it, such as fishing and coastal development, can be tackled by the management authorities, the organisation said.
“Other pressures cannot be addressed at the site level, such as climate change, which is recognised as the greatest threat,” it stressed.
Turtle, seabird populations declining
Progress towards safeguarding the reef under a long-term sustainability plan until 2050 has been slow and it has not been possible to stop its deterioration, the report said.
The turtle populations – including loggerhead, hawksbill and northern green – as well as the scalloped hammerhead shark, many seabird populations and possibly some dolphin species, are declining.
Efforts to protect the reef are increasing, however. HSBC and the Queensland government said in October they would buy “Reef Credits”, a tradable unit that quantifies and values the work undertaken to improve water quality flowing onto the reef.
Similar to the carbon offset market which incentivises the reduction of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, the scheme pays landholders for improved water quality.
In South Africa, climate change has also been blamed for the worsening spread of invasive species at the Cape Floral Region Protected Areas.
Brazil’s Pantanal Conservation Area has also been “badly damaged” due to the unprecedented 2019-2020 wildfires blamed on climate change.
Meanwhile, the Kaskawulsh Glacier, which is located between Canada and the United States, is also rapidly melting, changing the river flow and depleting fish populations, the report added.
In all, the IUCN said that 30 percent of World Heritage sites are considered of “significant concern” while 7 percent are “critical”.
“The findings of the IUCN World Heritage Outlook 3 point to a dire need for adequate resources to manage our irreplaceable natural areas,” said Peter Shadie, Director of IUCN’s World Heritage Programme.
Meanwhile, the outlook for Comoe National Park in Ivory Coast has continued to improve and is now “good with some concerns” after moving from “critical” in 2014 to “significant concern” in 2017.
IUCN said that due to the country’s “political stability” and management of the park, as well as international support, populations of chimpanzees, elephants and buffalos are now “stable”, and rare birds are starting to return.