Reef Alarmists Jump The Shark

Satelite image of the Great Barrier Reef
Satellite image of the Great Barrier Reef (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

by Walter Starck (with thanks to Dr. Bob Carter)

The Great Barrier Reef is doomed again. A recent widely publicised scientific study reports the dramatic finding that it has lost half its coral in the last 27 years. Forty-eight precent of the loss is attributed to storm damage, with bleaching and crown-of-thorns starfish being responsible for 10% and 42% respectively. The average annual rate of coral loss over the 27-year period was estimated to be 3.38% and growth was put at 2.85%, leaving a net decline of 0.53% per year. Further effort and research on starfish control is suggested to be the most promising means of reversing the decline. Elimination of the loss due to starfish would leave a net gain of 0.89%.

While the news reports present the appearance of scientific precision and certainty, examination of the study itself reveals a number of doubtful assumptions, undisclosed conditions and instances where strong conflicting evidence is unmentioned. Examples of this include:

  • The margin of error in visual surveys of coral cover is high and unassessed; yet, they are presented to hundredths of a percent without any qualifying explanation, as if they are precisely accurate. Coral cover is highly variable between reefs and over different areas or at different years on the same reef. Visual estimates of the percentage of coral cover can differ significantly, depending on  where, when  and by whom  the observations were made. Also, many of the observers doing the surveys upon which this study is based were inexperienced students primed by learned expectations of threats to the reef.
  • The reef is vast and in any given year surveys sample only a small portion. The reported sudden decline in coral cover in the last couple of years is almost certain to have been exaggerated by surveys made to assess the damage from severe cyclones crossing the reef in 2009 and 2011, with few or no surveys in unaffected areas in those years.
  • The study states, “Cyclone intensities are increasing with warming ocean temperatures….”

This statement is unsubstantiated and contrary to available evidence. The most definitive recent studies find no increase in tropical cyclone frequency or intensity. On the GBR severe cyclone activity for the past century has also been well below the level for the preceding century. The study also states:

The recent frequency and intensity of mass coral bleaching are of major concern, and are directly attributable to rising atmospheric greenhouse gases.”

No evidence exists for this claim. The mass-bleaching events of recent decades have coincided with surface water warming resulting from periods of extended calm associated with strong El Niño events. This impedes normal evaporative cooling as well as wave driven mixing. There is no evidence of any increase in the frequency or strength of El Niño events, and climate models project increased wind speeds from warming, not more calms. The report further states:

“Water quality is a key environmental driver for the GBR. Central and southern rivers now carry five- to ninefold higher nutrient and sediment loads from cleared, fertilized, and urbanized catchments into the GBR compared with pre-European settlement.”

No actual measurements of pre-European sedimentation rates exist. These are only estimates and extrapolations from unverified proxies which may or may not represent what is claimed. What is certain is that the inshore areas of the GBR are heavily blanketed in sediments that have accumulated over thousands of years and turbidity in coastal waters is overwhelmingly governed by re-suspension of these sediments through wave action, not by current day runoff from the land.

The most widely cited study purporting to show a large increase in sedimentation after European settlement was based on an increase in barium in coral skeletons just after 60,000 head of cattle were introduced into the Burdekin area in 1870. This was attributed to an increase in erosion caused by the cattle. But this period also coincided with the ending of an extended period of extreme drought and no explanation has ever been offered for why the barium level has subsequently decreased despite the million head of cattle now in the same catchment.

The assumption that levels of turbidity in flood runoff events are almost entirely attributable to farming and grazing is unwarranted, and it is readily observable that runoff turbidity from crop and grazing areas is often markedly less than from undisturbed natural areas. Crops and grasses are simply better at retaining soil than is either the rainforest or open eucalyptus woodland they have replaced. Sediment-trapping by dams and cessation of the widespread annual burning practiced by the pre-European inhabitants of the area can also be expected to have reduced sediment outflows.

There is good reason to expect that agriculture and grazing may well have resulted in a net reduction in levels of sediment discharge, compared to pre-European condition. The claims of multi-fold increases in sedimentation are simply speculation wrapped in techno-waffle and presented as fact.

As for nutrients from land, the total estimated annual runoff of fertiliser into the GBR lagoon would only amount to something in the order of one part in 150 million even if dumped into the lagoon at one time. However, the lagoon is continually being flushed by ocean currents every few weeks.

It is also worth noting that the estimated annual amount of nitrates and phosphates in runoff is about three times the amount used in agriculture after allowance is made for the amounts taken up by crops, oxidized into the atmosphere and bound up in insoluble form in the soil. In other words, even if the estimates are correct (which is doubtful) two-thirds or more would seem to actually derive from natural sources.

It is further worth noting that the high levels of nitrates and phosphates reported from river water occur in the dry season when the river flow almost ceases and the only runoff is from the forest covered headwaters, not the farmed areas lower down. When the rains come and farm runoff begins, the nutrient level falls steeply and is diluted much further when it reaches the sea. The modestly increased level off the river mouths is quickly taken up by plankton. It disappears within a few kilometres, and tens of kilometres from the reef itself.

On the other hand, natural nutrient fluxes from internal waves along the outer barrier regularly produce orders of magnitude greater nutrient increases than any runoff from land and no one is concerned about that. In fact, it’s thought to be beneficial.

By far the most toxic, damaging and easy to demonstrate detriment to corals from runoff is the fresh water itself. Still another false statement is that,

“Global warming is also increasing rainfall variability resulting in more frequent intense drought-breaking floods that carry particularly high nutrient and sediment loads.”

Major Queensland floods were, in fact, far more frequent and intense in the 19th century then they have been in the past century.

The claim is made that, “Reducing COTS (crown of thorns starfish) populations, by improving water quality and developing alternative control measures, could prevent further coral decline and improve the outlook for the Great Barrier Reef.”

This is entirely supposition, and the actual result could well be the opposite. After nearly half a century and over a hundred million dollars in research, the COTS outbreaks are no better understood, nor are they any more of a threat, than they ever were. They continue to occur sporadically as they do with other starfishes and sea urchins in many other places. Such outbreaks also often occur on isolated oceanic reefs far from any runoff or human influence.

There is nothing to indicate the GBR outbreaks are due to anything other than natural causes. In fact they may even play a beneficial role in the maintenance of coral diversity as the starfish selectively prune the fast growing branching and plate-like species permitting the slower growing forms to catch up. This is especially noticeable a few years after severe storm damage, when the faster growing species tend to predominate and when COTS outbreaks are likely to occur.

The report concludes that, “…coral cover on the GBR is consistently declining, and without intervention, it will likely fall to 5–10% within the next 10 [years].”

Interestingly, this particular claim is conflicted by the most comprehensive previous study (published only three years earlier by the sane institution) which, “…found no evidence of consistent, system-wide decline in coral cover since 1995.”

If the experts were wrong then is there any reason to think they are right now?

Perhaps the claim most likely to raise an eyebrow is the declaration that, “The authors declare no conflict of interest.”

All the authors have in fact been beneficiaries of generous research grants to study purported environmental threats to the GBR and are almost certain to receive future funding should their recommendations for further such research be implemented. While there is nothing improper about this situation, to formally declare there is no conflict of interest will strike some as making a farce of the declaration and even the very concept.

Is this just another appeal for funding?

There is abundant reason to question the validity of the findings. The imminent demise of the GBR has been an ongoing claim for nearly half a century and has funded a small industry of researchers, bureaucrats and activists devoted to “saving” the Great Barrier Reef from a variety of imagined “threats”.   In recent decades this industry has cost the Australian taxpayer well over $100 million per year and the cost has been increasing. Although no practical solutions have ever been found, the demand for hypothetical solutions to imaginary problems seems unlimited.

If this situation were based on a conscious deliberate fraud, it would be bad enough; but, unfortunately it involves something even worse. It arises from a widespread and profound groupthink belief that the reef really is under dire threat and that all the money and effort is actually “saving” it from destruction. Even so, this latest study has implications well beyond just another appeal for funding and deserves to be given serious consideration.

What if for once the experts are right?

The core claim is that the reef has lost half of its coral in the past 27 years and that

“Without significant changes to the rates of disturbance and coral growth, coral cover in the central and southern regions of the GBR is likely to decline to 5–10% by 2022.”

If this is true, the implications for future research and management are profound. It means that the current condition of the GBR is essentially no better than that of the heavily exploited and effectively unmanaged reefs of the Caribbean or SE Asia. It means all the money and effort that has gone into management and research has been an abject failure. It means that the promised “resilience” to environmental impacts that was the major justification for greatly expanded green zones and sundry other stringent and costly restrictions on productive usage have achieved nothing, and that the vaunted resilience has been just another theoretical academic fantasy. It means that the claims of having the best managed reefs in the world have been only a self-serving delusion. It means that all the past assertions of successful management have been untrue and the research supposedly supporting it has been either grossly incompetent or a deliberate misrepresentation.

Worse still, this all took place when, for nearly three decades the reef,  was supposedly dying off in clear view of all the experts and they even had the surveys to confirm it. Were they too slack to look at their data until now or did they hide it because it didn’t suit their agenda at the time? If they were that incompetent or dishonest in the past, why should we now believe them now?

The high cost of providing a permanent reef holiday

Between the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the Australian Institute of Marine Science, James Cook University, the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, Queensland Fisheries and the Reef Rescue Program, public expenditure on saving the GBR now totals almost $200 million per year. In the private sector the cost of compliance is comparable or even greater. Much greater still is the ongoing costs and constraints on production, profitability and future development across all primary industries.

Australia now faces a developing economic crisis that may well become the most serious in our history. We have the most expensive housing, rapidly rising food prices and smallest manufacturing sector of any OECD nation. The resource boom that has sustained our prosperity appears to be deflating,  and serious economic problems elsewhere mean recovery is more likely to take years than months. There are numerous other more real and important needs for our reduced government revenue than maintaining a few hundred bureaucrats and academics on a permanent Barrier Reef holiday.

If the reef alarmists are right, any “resilience” the reef may have had in the past has not been enough to prevent the loss of half the coral. Now, with even less resilience and an accelerating rate of alleged coral loss, the reef is clearly doomed and we need to face that fact. Continuing to throw massive resources into the ocean to maintain a pretence of “saving” it is both futile and stupid. The reef needs to be put on palliative care with major reductions in expenditure on management and research while maintaining only a modest effort to monitor any further changes in condition.

On the other hand, if the whole business of threats to the reef has simply been grossly exaggerated then it is also time to end the charade. In addition to rent-seekers there is abundant evidence of a variety of other unhealthy influences being involved as well. These include media sensationalism, political pandering for green votes, postmodern scientific corruption, “noble cause” corruption, ill-informed eco-evangelism and bureaucratic empire building.

Jumping the Reef Shark

In 1977, after several years of high ratings, the popular U.S. TV sitcom Happy Days was losing viewers. To recapture audience attention the writers came up with the idea of having the star, Fonzie, jump a shark on water skis. Since then “jumping the shark” has come to refer to desperate but somewhat silly stunts to regenerate interest in a fading brand, product or activity. It seems that with the level of eco-threats becoming so inflated by climate-change hype, the reef-threat industry has been losing popular interest to the climate catastrophists. However, jumping the shark by ratcheting up the reef threat to the level of imminent demise of the GBR looks desperate, not very credible and likely to entail substantial unintended consequences. Certainly it raises a serious doubt about the actual quality of any expertise involved.

To give credit where due, though, reef alarmists have at least managed the extraordinary feat of jumping the shark while shooting themselves in the foot at the same time.

Regardless of the reef-salvation industry’s industry’s motives, its efforts can only be viewed as either honest but incompetent or duplicitous and self-serving. It is time to severely cut the funding for this elaborate and costly farce. By their own reckoning the reef saviours have failed miserably and we can no longer afford them.

Personally, I suspect that the surest way to save the reef would be to cut funding for management and research by half and link future cuts or increases to the balance of economic and environmental outcomes. I have little doubt that would soon effect a miraculous recovery.

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October 9, 2012 8:03 pm

Severe tropical cyclones also have a documented benefit for coral reefs according to a recent paper in GRL, which this research should have taken into account:
“Assessing the potential for tropical cyclone induced sea surface cooling to reduce thermal stress on the world’s coral reefs”
Carrigan & Puotinen (2011): Abstract link:
e.g. At broad spatial scales, tropical cyclone (TC) induced cooling of the upper ocean (SST drops up to 6° C persisting for weeks) reduces thermal stress and accelerates recovery of bleached corals.
Well crap.

October 9, 2012 8:08 pm

Our Channel 7 Today Tonight show ran this story on Monday night. I left a comment on their facebook page basically debunking it. Didn’t get any reaction to that strangely enough.

October 9, 2012 8:15 pm

… has lost half its coral in the last 27 years. … The average annual rate of coral loss over the 27-year period was estimated to be 3.38% and growth was put at 2.85%, leaving a net decline of 0.53% per year.

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.
Lessee, 100 – 0.53 = 99.47% remains each year, 99.47 ^ 27 = 86.63% is still remaining, and hence 13.37% lost. Yep, just about half (especially if you average the two percentages 🙂 ). Oh dear.
If I ignore the growth (after all, the story is about reef lost), then 100 – 3.38 = 96.61% and that over 27 years is 39.41% remaining, or 61.59% lost. Well, at least that’s closer to half….
So, wassup? Typos? Faith that people won’t do the math? Innummeracy on the authors’ parts? Perhaps they forgot to check their work.

Tim Walker
October 9, 2012 8:26 pm

I suspected the paper was garbage when I first saw it. Its a sad day when so many papers are just garbage.

October 9, 2012 8:32 pm

Wow! Such a lengthy and detailed rebuttal without single reference.

Fred Allen
October 9, 2012 8:35 pm

The crocodile is protected and has been increasing in numbers. Perhaps the researchers can link the increase in volume of crocodile poo to the demise of the coral. I was a teenager when the crown of thorns was declared a meance the first time around. Huge concern and funding and film of scuba divers injecting the COT starfish in a wasted effort. If anyone wants to pull on the purse strings of the Aussie taxpayer, there are a few soft targets: koalas, kangaroos, the barrier reef and Uluru. I’m sure if the environmentalists could figure out a way to naturalise Sydney Harbour Bridge and the opera house, they’d do that too.

October 9, 2012 9:01 pm

Tim Walker says:
October 9, 2012 at 8:26 pm

I suspected the paper was garbage when I first saw it. Its a sad day when so many papers are just garbage.

Unless you are the garbageman. Then you can get “hugs”, “water” and “Gatorades”

October 9, 2012 9:05 pm

When they try and blame starfish on climate change, remember:
“Outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish Acanthaster planci have been a major issue on the Great Barrier Reef and other Indo-Pacific reefs for nearly 40 years.”
“Outbreaks generally occur at regular intervals with coral cover returning to pre-outbreak levels in the intervening years.”
“The first documented case of large numbers of crown-of-thorns starfish on the Great Barrier Reef was noticed at Green Island off Cairns in 1962.
It’s possible that starfish outbreaks are more likely to be noticed now than in the past because of increased tourism and the popularity of SCUBA diving.”

October 9, 2012 9:20 pm

Just skimming their figures, accepting them as true arguendo, and thinking only within the confines of the document: The effect seems to be substantially derived from the effect of cyclones in the past three years (figure 1B) arising almost completely from the south reefs, and to a much smaller extent on the central reefs (figure 2H). The starfish is, in recent years, shown to be a modest factor, as is bleaching (which they document as 1998 and 2003). And a couple of years without cyclones causes the reefs to come roaring back.
The reef paper’s charts suggest that the last three years held extraordinary cyclonic activity, causing more damage than all of previous history, and evidently occurring more frequently in latitudes further south, contrary to history. Despite this, the Australian BOM has not seen fit to update its cyclone frequency chart to reflect these events:
They’ve described an “overall decrease” in cyclonic activity, which they note “may partly be due to an improved discrimination between tropical cyclones and sub-cyclone intensity tropical lows”:
But again, they’ve left their charts of activity half-a-decade out of date, as if there have been no changes worth bothering to update the website for. (They do show “climate extremes” for each day up to yesterday, but these seem focused on temperature.) Wikipedia has records of the cyclone seasons, but instead of three very large years there are two fairly strong years with almost no activity in the year before or after, and these did not come close to the records set in the 1970s and 1980s. This doesn’t match up. (Because of the split-year overlap, I am not certain from a quick look how they are numbering their chart with regard to the cyclone season.)
The authors of the paper note that there have been other bleaching events, but with less data, so they ignored them entirely. Curious.
But the report done by the Australia BOM in 2006 was surprisingly even-handed. The tone was generally “we might be in serious trouble but the studies of observations disagree as to whether things are getting worse or better, so we have to reply on the models”:
If you prefer, I can repost this in iambic pentameter.
===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle

October 9, 2012 9:26 pm

Could this be the work of ” Ove the Whacko”?

October 9, 2012 9:50 pm

Update to my comments above. “….lost half its coral in the last 27 years”
The Abstract clarifies the math:

… we show a major decline in coral cover from 28.0% to 13.8% (0.53% y-1), a loss of 50.7% of initial coral cover.

So this is really a straight line summary over the 27 years with the percentage per year being the percentage of the total area covered by corals. That’s okay, except that you can predict when 0% coverage occurs, and after that coverage will be negative. An exponential decay, e.g. percent of current coverage per year, won’t have that zero crossing. It may or may not fit reality better.

October 9, 2012 10:08 pm

Australia’s (and the world’s) longest inshore coral reef is Ningaloo in Western Australia. For almost all it’s length there are no paved roads, hotels, stores, or agriculture on the land. Powered boats are banned in most areas of the reef.
I’ve paddled most of the length of Ningaloo and not a single house or other structure was visible from the water and everywhere the reef looked pristine with abundant wildlife.
Funny that. No people and a pristine reef.
If AGW is affecting coral reefs we should see it at Ningaloo, because all the other complicating factors on the GBR and other coral reefs are absent. But of course you never hear anything about AGW affecting Ningaloo.

Bob Fernley-Jones
October 9, 2012 10:42 pm

The opening statement in Wikipedia on the article titled: Great Barrier Reef, is:

The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef system[1][2] composed of over 2,900 individual reefs[3] and 900 islands stretching for over 2,600 kilometres (1,600 mi) over an area of approximately 344,400 square kilometres (133,000 sq mi).

The subject report from the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) claims:

“This finding is based on the most comprehensive reef monitoring program in the world. The program started broadscale surveillance of more than 100 reefs in 1985 and from 1993 it has incorporated more detailed annual surveys of 47 reefs,” says one of the program’s original creators, Dr Peter Doherty, Research Fellow at AIMS.
“Our researchers have spent more than 2,700 days at sea and we’ve invested in the order of $50 million in this monitoring program,” he says.

TRANSLATION: In 1985 we started a sketchy survey of more than about 3.5% of the reefs, and from 1993 we started a more detailed survey on ~1.6% of the 2,900 reefs. Of course the immense stress placed on the researchers risking sunburn and diving on the reefs in trying to subjectively comprehend the huge diversity of species and any changes that might occur in their narrow temporal view could be mentally catastrophic. Thus it seems doubtful that any of them managed to tough-out the decadal distance of this research.

Greg Cavanagh
October 9, 2012 10:51 pm

When an average Joe can poke holes in a paper without any effort whatsoever. It’s a sad day for science, or credibiltiy, or funding oversight, or….

October 9, 2012 11:16 pm

G’day mates,
My street ends up on the Barrier Reef – trust me; the coral is healthier than ever, beautiful. The garbage they release frequently, is to get bigger funds b] to regularly announce that CO2 is bad for the coral; And the imaginary global warming by 2100 is by remote control damaging the reef now…? They ”predict” that Australia will get dryer, and that will damage the coral. If anybody believes that: where the coral is, it will get dryer; he / she needs a shrink!!!
There regular sport is, bashing the fishermen and the sugarcane farmers.. Because they contribute to the economy.The creeks in which run-off from sugarcane is; are the healthiest creeks in the country. If some dolomite and nitrogen runs off into the sea – calcium and carbon are what the coral is made off – the algae that protect the coral need nitrogen – all algae / sea-grass needs carbon and nitrogen – no algae / sea-grass = no herbivore critters – no herbivore = no carnivore. Everybody from around the planet should visit Barrier Reef at least ones, it’s the most beautiful place on the planet.
starfish don’t eat carbon, or calcium, or nitrogen – they eat the coral – therefore: blaming nitrogen, carbon and calcium; will not get read of the pest. Instead of financing army of marine biologist, money should be given, to contract working people to get read of the starfish, manually – less marine biologist = better for the reef. .
Australia has more marine biologist than cane-toads – and new ones are coming out of the universities every season; as from the sausage-machine… needs more and more cash for them.- they are all brainwashed cadets into the phony GLOBAL warming. If you want the truth, here:

Steve Jones
October 9, 2012 11:21 pm

Philip Bradley says:
October 9, 2012 at 10:08 pm
Mr Bradley, that would be known as a control sample in the experiment and couldn’t possibly be allowed. Too scientifically rigorous you see.

October 9, 2012 11:24 pm

this and much more at the link is anecdotal, but sounds reasonable. however, do note taxpayer money is coming their way now, see final excerpted para, which might encourage more alarmist reports from these fellows in the future:
5 Oct: TourismPortDouglas The Newsport Daily: Reef report “misleading” says local expert
A report from the Australian Institute of Marine Science has claimed around half of the Great Barrier Reef’s coral has been destroyed by cyclones, crown-of-thorns starfish, and bleaching in the last 27 years.
CEO Australian Institute of Marine Science John Gunn said the degradation is a significant blow to the $5 billion a year tourism industry, and predicts that as little as 6 per cent of the reef’s coral could be left by 2020.
We spoke with expert observers Peter Wright from Poseidon Outer Reef Cruises and Ben Cropp, underwater film maker who has dived the reef for 60 years, for their thoughts.
The Newsport: What is your take on the Australian Institute of Marine Science report?
Peter Wright: In a way it’s a good thing that it has alerted the public to the risk, but it is also a bad thing in that it has been a bit over-blown. Somebody in California that’s planning to come here on a holiday is going to read that and think ‘I won’t bother coming to Australia as the reef is stuffed’, and it isn’t.
Ben Cropp: I found the report very misleading. The outer reef in this area is in very good condition. It’s only the inshore and coastal reefs that are suffering and this is due to pollution, not crown-of-thorns starfish or cyclones.
The Newsport: The report raises some major concerns about the health of the Great Barrier Reef. How are our local reefs faring?
PW: At the moment our reefs are pretty clear. We very occasionally find a juvenile crown-of-thorns, which is part of the normal eco-system.
The Agincourt coral is in particularly good condition. There was a little bit of damage from Cyclone Yasi in some of the more exposed sections, but very limited. It was only the fast growing stag horn coral and the occasional plate coral that were damaged, and they replace themselves within a couple of years…
TN: What is the biggest threat to coral reefs?
BC: Pollution has been and will continue to be the biggest killer of coral reefs, and is the major destructor of coral reefs around the world, along with over-development and over-fishing.
The worst pollution is sewerage, the second is land runoff of soils and fertilisers that smother and kill the corals and allows algae to take over. Most inshore coral reefs around the world and here are mostly dead because of this.
Our saving grace for the Great Barrier Reef is it is well offshore and very little pollution reaches it and it is still in good condition. However, massive dredging at Gladstone and soon at Cairns does destroy the corals of the inner reef and turbidity can reach up to more than 30 miles offshore and spoil the viewing of the reef by divers.
This has happened at Heron Island where back in the 80’s the water clarity dropped to half because of the Gladstone harbour dredging. Most underwater photographers used to go to Heron Island but when the vis (visibility) dropped they started to come up here to Cairns and Port Douglas. Now this problem may happen here…
TN: What is being done in response to reef degradation?
***PW: The positive side of a report like this is that it encourages the Government to fund protective measures.
They have given us $1.4 million and there is a big charter vessel called ‘Hero’ and it’s going up and down the reef wherever there are concentrations of crown-of-thorns and they’re trying to protect dive sites because you can’t protect the entire reef…

October 9, 2012 11:37 pm

Another BS study, like the one “half of plankton in world seas has disappeared”.

Bob Fernley-Jones
October 10, 2012 12:22 am

Skeptik @ October 9, 2012 at 9:26 pm

Could this be the work of ” Ove the Whacko”?

Dunno if he was lurking in the background there but Ove Hoegh-Guldberg does seem to have been less ridiculously public lately.
The University of Queensland still seems to be proud of him though, perhaps for his ability to get funding. (duplicitous of declining standards of various universities, UWA being a shocking case, and Penn State in USA of course)

October 10, 2012 12:37 am

Yep, this is what happens when a pork-barrelling government sets up a small university in the boondocks with a key mission of churning out unemployable marine biologists.
The Save the Reef meme has been around for as long as I can remember – which is several decades now. The damn thing has been there for thousands of years, but ever since a surplus of marine biologists and the rise of green politics has been with us, it’s been on the verge of man-made catastrophe.
People from other countries need to understand how vast it is. Aggregated, it would be the size of Europe and then some. The sample size in this ‘study’ is just laughable. And I must agree with posters who point out that it is mostly a long way offshore. Tourists who have been on reef trips will know that it involves a half hour to 45 minute trip by boat before you even reach the edge in most places.
While there may be some minor effects from runoff on the inner reef in a couple of spots, the reef is thousands of kilometres long and most of the adjacent shoreline is either uninhabited or very thinly populated.
The whole study is a beatup, one of a long series.

October 10, 2012 12:46 am

Someone posted a link to this report at James Delingpoles Daily Telegraph (UK newspaper) blog. When reading that link it appeared to me that this report was extrapolated from a survey of a tiny part of the reef.

October 10, 2012 12:55 am

I have just sent the following letter to Glenn De’ath, lead author of the paper that launched this Thread:
“I have read your (et al) paper on the imminent death of the GBR, as foreshadowed in your abstract and conclusion:
‘Based on the world’s most extensive time series data on reef condition (2,258 surveys of 214 reefs over 1985–2012), we show
a major decline in coral cover from 28.0% to 13.8%(0.53%y−1), a loss of 50.7% of initial coral cover.
In conclusion, coral cover on the GBR is consistently declining, and without intervention, it will likely fall to 5–10% within the next 10 y’.
Correct use of percentages reveals a loss of cover to only 24.26% by 2012, not the 13.8% that your paper claims as above.
Alternatively, if we straight line your percentage rates of decline of Reef cover (whatever reef cover is, I see no definition in your paper, is 100% the ideal?), the GBR actually disappeared in 2004.
Evidently there is a need from some remedial maths instruction at AIMS, and I am willing to provide a course gratis apart from expenses. I shall be making the same offer to PNSA, equally innocent of any knowledge of percentages.

October 10, 2012 12:59 am

take a look at it for yourselves, even if Ove gets to bring CAGW into the picture:
26 Sept: CTV News: Google unveils underwater ‘street view’ of Great Barrier Reef
As part of a quest to provide a fish-eye’s view of the ocean, Google has teamed up with the Catlin Seaview Survey to study the nooks and crannies of the world’s most beautiful oceans.
More than 50,000 high-resolution, 360-degree panoramic images have already been taken of three islands on the Great Barrier Reef. The images became available to the public on Wednesday through the Catlin Seaview Survey website, a dedicated YouTube channel, Google+, and Panoramio, a geolocation photo-sharing website.
When the images are stitched together, users can choose a location along the Great Barrier Reef, “dip underwater” virtually to a depth of 100m and go for a viewer-controlled dive using the street view feature of Google Maps.
The team plans to document 20 locations along the 2,300-km long Barrier Reef system over the next few months, before moving on to other sites in Bermuda, Hawaii and the Philippines…
The stunning images are grabbed using a specially-designed, tablet-operated underwater camera…
Jenifer Austin Foulkes, the manager of Google’s Oceans program, said Wednesday the imagery is being made available to more than one billion monthly users of Google Maps around the world.
“Together we want to make these special underwater locations as accessible to people as the roads and landmarks they explore in Google Maps each day,” she said in a news release.
Prof. Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, the Survey’s chief scientist and the director of the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland says the expedition will lead to a greater understanding of how the Great Barrier Reef is changing.
“The possibilities of what we will discover about coral reefs are almost endless,” he said in a news release.
“And right now, information on how these endangered ecosystems are responding to climate change is incredibly important, given that almost 25 per cent of marine species live in and around coral reefs.”…
it borders on criminal that the misleading Great Barrier Reef study has been reported in the MSM worldwide, with sensationist headlines, for more than a week now, and is even being covered on the tourism websites:
10 Oct: eTravelBlackboard: Future tourists may miss Great Barrier Reef
Australia’s iconic tourist attraction, the Great Barrier Reef, is disappearing at an alarming rate with recent research revealing the reef has lost more than half its coral over the past 27 years…
Scientists have come up with a Vegemite-like beef extract that can be injected into the crown-of-thorns starfish that will kill it with its own bacteria, the ABC reported…

Brian H
October 10, 2012 3:43 am

The GBR industry; good training for the CAGW financial rape and pillage!
Edit: “why should we now believe them now?” Now, now; just one now, now. If we know it’s now, then now we know!

October 10, 2012 4:24 am

I remember a problem with COTS nearly 50 years ago in the Indian Ocean coral atolls, Addu for one. Bleaching of a part of the GBR was reported a couple of years ago but a few months later it was reported that the same area had recovered. The reason was algal symbiot change not climate change, the original assumption. Also the same species live all along the GBR and there is a large water temperature change over the whole reef. So coral species are not that heat sensitive.
Grant grabbing alarmism.

Steve from Rockwood
October 10, 2012 5:25 am

At this rate the Great Barrier Reef will entirely disappear by 2012. With apologies to Jay Zwally.

October 10, 2012 6:05 am

Alarmist research gets funding , so people publish alarmist research.

Chuck Nolan
October 10, 2012 6:39 am

“published only three years earlier by the sane institution)”
Could be a typo or……..?

October 10, 2012 6:52 am

It is some years since I took the entire board of the GBR Marine Park Authority to our tourist instillation on the reef out from the Whitsunday Islands.
On the way the chair, an aging lady English professor at the time, was warning me of the danger to our operation that the Crown of Thorns represented. Her experts had told her this. She would not believe me, when I told her we had only seen one in months, & suggested I should have my staff trained by their professionals, so they could recognise them.
I had 2 experienced reef diving staff, & a skipper there full time out on the instillation. I also averaged 3 dive instructors, with their students doing their reef dive 5 days each week.
Add to that the marine biologist guide on the coral viewing vessel, & you get some idea of our experience. Hell I even found time to jump in the water myself ocasionally, & I’m being lectured by an English professor.
I also used to provide free, on a regular basis, transport, accommodation & often food to a number of PHD students doing periods of research. They were pretty good down to earth kids, who talked sense. I sure hope this garbage is not coming from them, but fear it probably is.

October 10, 2012 7:47 am

Something previously kept the starfish population in check, probably a predator of the smallest/eggs/larvae. I see no reference to what this population control mechanism is. My immediate suspicion is that overfishing has removed the predator of young starfish.
It is an axion that all creatures will increase in their number to the limits of their food supply and predation (including pathogens and environmental hazards). If “normal” coral reefs are the lifestuff of starfish, then prior times must have been glory days for starfish, and coral reefs were always in crisis – which clearly they were not. At the same time, the experience of sub-Saharan areas and the residual goat “problem” is pertinent: there, goats were considered to be destroying the trees etc. of last resort in a drought-stricken area. The truth was that goats were the last, most adaptable creature in a difficult environment; their presence reflected the loss of a sustainable habitat for all but them. Starfish killing off the reefs has been pointed out for decades. Is it possible that what the starfish used to eat or live in has been lost, so, like the goats, the starfish have moved into what is left?
Simplicity goes with certainty, at least for the certainty-demanding, eco-green mind. I doubt that the “problem” with coral reefs is as straight-forward as the enviro-against-CO2 would like.

Jim Clarke
October 10, 2012 8:02 am

The great myth of modern environmentalism is that the natural order of things (without humans) is one of stasis; that the natural world would tend towards an unchanging harmony if humans did not upset the ‘balance’. This is a very powerful myth! Notions of balance, harmony and sustainability are deeply ingrained in our cultural beliefs, yet are completely unsupported by real science. In the natural world, the only constant is change.
Therefore, any good scientist should start with the assumption that any observable change in a physical system is likely to be quite natural, unless significant evidence of human intervention is present. If human intervention is present, the scientist is still not capable of making a moral judgement of the human impact. It is societies role to discern if the impact (change) is desirable or not.
Most of what we observe along the GBR is probably natural. There is no real evidence of anything else. The same is likely true with ozone, tropical cyclones, droughts, floods and climate change in general. Our attempts to walk upright without leaving a ‘carbon footprint’ are likely a waste of time, money and energy. There is no evidence that our efforts will prevent change, and plenty of evidence that change will occur no matter what we do. If anything, history tells us that our efforts to prevent change, will likely exacerbate it. (Those using myth to support a ‘noble cause’ invariable do more harm to the noble cause than if they did nothing at all!)
The ‘Myth of Stasis’ is the underlying cause of the impending downfall of Western Culture. It causes us to turn away from our real strength: adaptability, and fight a losing battle against omnipresent change.
It also leads to really crappy science and nauseating anti-aging infomercials.

October 10, 2012 8:43 am

“Regardless of the reef-salvation industry’s industry’s motives,…

Rob Crawford
October 10, 2012 9:11 am

“The damn thing has been there for thousands of years, but ever since a surplus of marine biologists and the rise of green politics has been with us, it’s been on the verge of man-made catastrophe.”
Perhaps the cause of its decline is marine biologists?

October 10, 2012 10:00 am

Philip Bradley says:
October 9, 2012 at 10:08 pm
Australia’s (and the world’s) longest inshore coral reef is Ningaloo in Western Australia. For almost all it’s length there are no paved roads, hotels, stores, or agriculture on the land. Powered boats are banned in most areas of the reef.
I’ve paddled most of the length of Ningaloo…

Oh, how I envy you.

Dale Stiller
October 10, 2012 1:33 pm

Nick Heath from WWF saying the debate is over (sounds familar) & goes on to write what boils down to it’s the farmers fault.
Again alarmism, finger pointing without evidence and no doubt earnest appeals for more money to “save the reef”.

Colin Wernham
October 10, 2012 3:03 pm
October 10, 2012 4:03 pm

The causes and results of the crown-of-Thorns outbreaks is one of the ongoing ‘science wars’ — with totally conflicting papers being published by the major proponents of at least two diametrically opposed views (there may actually be a third — maybe an Australian biologist could weigh in here). With all the nasty snipping and mud-slinging one expects in these little wars.

Steve in SC
October 10, 2012 4:36 pm

Since I am unacquainted with the physiology of the crown of thorns starfish, my question is are they edible? If they are and can be turned into a trendy delicacy the population will be decimated pretty quickly.

October 10, 2012 5:08 pm

Steve — not edible by humans. They do have a few predators in the reef system — which unfortunately tend to eat just a ‘leg’ or two at a time, which rapidly regenerate.

Mario Lento
October 10, 2012 5:38 pm

The audacity of greenies. At Quick glance this “managing of wildlife” idea of thinking about killing off the starfish sounds eerily like the story of Yellowstone. This is a run on sentence, but I like the monotony of it. Yellowstone was forever changed by killing native wolves that hunted the sweet innocent deer, which caused the deer and other vegetarians to over-populate, and then starve to death or live a horribly difficult life, after consuming all of the vegetation, thereby destroying what they attempted to preserve, and so they brought non native wolves in… and the cycle continued… The actual details may be a bit different, but that’s how I recall it.

October 10, 2012 6:08 pm

Steve in SC says: ”my question is are they edible?”
Steve, starfish can be the best fertilizer. But starfish are needed on the reef, so that armies of shonky marine biologist can flex muscle and get more of the taxpayer’s cash; plus can scare the people with the phony global warming, and lie that CO2 is making the reef acidic…?
lots of tourist come here with diving diplomas, or get one here – they would collect the starfish for free – just being on the most beautiful place on the planet, gives a great feeling. So-far, they inject some lime into them, but sick starfish can induce spawning. The best is: put them in a bag, when the bag full – let some air into the bag from the oxygen bottle – bag will surface and be collected for fertilizer. Only way is; to deny them food – because they feed on the coral, that option is not on. Manually can be collected, but they are not a big problem. Problem are the number of marine biologist, as the staunchest Warmist – they have the hotline to ABC &SBS, botanical name (the Lefty’s Trumpets)
Bottom line: coral is made from calcium and carbon – the more of it, the better and healthier corals. 2] coral cannot tolerate too much oxygenated water, but the fish needs it. Coral cannot tolerate industrial waste, products with bleach in it, or formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is used in the chemical toilets on the boats, not to stink. It’s that thing that kept Lenin fresh for 80years, kills everything living, for very long time. Algae that give the beautiful colour to corals, is a living thing… Some idiots have being emptying those toilets on few patches on the reef – few patches are only bleached. The only idiots having motif the corrals to suffer, are the marine-biologist..

October 10, 2012 6:23 pm

Kip Hansen says:
October 10, 2012 at 4:03 pm
The causes and results of the crown-of-Thorns outbreaks is one of the ongoing ‘science wars’ — with totally conflicting papers being published by the major proponents of at least two diametrically opposed views (there may actually be a third — maybe an Australian biologist could weigh in here). With all the nasty snipping and mud-slinging one expects in these little wars.
The only thing known for sure about COT starfish plagues is that they come and go, like locust plagues on the mainland. Indeed, I often wonder if that is a reasonable analogy. The results are superficially spectacularly devastating, but come back in a few years and you wouldn’t know it ever happened. And, like locust plagues, they are localised. It is not as if the whole GBR is covered with them when they go through a boom cycle.
My bet would be that starfish plagues on parts of the GBR have been coming and going for a lot longer than surplus marine biologists and people-hating greenies have been around.

Bob Thomas
October 10, 2012 9:49 pm

Why wouldn’t they start by restocking the reef with conch shells that eat crown of thorns starfish? It seems that starting with the simple is always the last thing thought about. How many millions have been spent on researching the reef? The COT has been a problem for over 20 years and there has been no restocking of the conch in all that time. Must be too hard or maybe nobody has tried – easier to do research than do anything about it.

October 11, 2012 1:53 am

I think it ought to be mentioned the large promotion of the reef as a tourist attraction. Tourists strongly admonished to slather on the sunscreen by the quart. Sunscreen that kills coral in micro-liter / liter levels of exposure…

I was fascinated to learn that scientists have linked coral reef destruction to the estimated 4,000 to 6,000 tons of sunscreen that wash off ocean swimmers every year. According to a recent article published by Forbes, Italian researchers estimate 10 percent of coral reefs worldwide are threatened by sunscreen-induced bleaching. (full text)

Coral bleaching caused by sunscreens and UV filters
In all replicates and at all sampling sites, sunscreen addition even in very low quantities (i.e., 10 μL/L) resulted in the release of large amounts of coral mucous (composed of zooxanthellae and coral tissue) within 18–48 hr, and complete bleaching of hard corals within 96 hr (Figure 1; Table 1). Different sunscreen brands, protective factors, and concentrations were compared, and all treatments caused bleaching of hard corals, although the rates of bleaching were faster when larger quantities were used (Table 1).

Then there’s all those fish we take from the oceans… and the filter feeding whales. Things that eat the starfish in their plankton phase… so more of them grow up to eat the corals…
So IMHO, it’s all the tourists and scientists “observing:” the reef (in order to ‘save it’ no doubt) then going out for a sea food dinner afterwards… that’s what’s killing the reefs, not any non-existent ‘warmth’ in the seas…

October 11, 2012 3:06 am

You should throw all your money at the researchers. This would lead to a collapse of the economy and an automatic recovery of the reef. And you would get a lot more funny papers. /sars

October 11, 2012 5:27 am

E. M. Smith, that reminds me of the media stories in (I think) the 1980s about how tanning oil was creating a film over the Mediterranean Sea, and turning it into an ecological desert.
Haven’t heard much about that one lately.

October 11, 2012 1:50 pm

I think there’s some honest confusion about what the paper means by 0.53% decline in coral cover per year. This happens a lot with coral research, because the coral cover itself is being reported as a percentage, not a raw magnitude. The authors are stating that the mean decline in the percent coral cover was 0.53 — so from 28%, to 27.47%, to 26.94%, etc. etc., not 28% to 28% x (100%-0.53%), etc. etc. Do the former 27 times and you get a decrease from about 28% to about 14%.

Brian H
October 13, 2012 9:08 am

John M;
Re the changing over of symbionts — like moving day, with the vans on the road. Houses empty, unoccupied! Till tomorrow … (It’s really extreme in Montreal, where by convention leases end/begin on July 1st. Moving mayhem!)
Mario L.,
It got even wilder. The fish vanished from the streams ’cause elk ate the shoots along the bank, so the cover vanished, along with nutritious and protective detritus in the water. When the wolves came back, the elk didn’t linger where they could be easily ambushed, and the trees and shrubs regrew, and the fish returned.

Brian H
October 13, 2012 9:49 am

Doug Proctor says:
October 10, 2012 at 7:47 am

It is an axion that all creatures will increase in their number to the limits of their food supply and predation (including pathogens and environmental hazards).

I doubt that small, chargeless and spinless hypothetical particles had a dang thing to to with starfish predation. It’s axiomatic that starfish don’t care about stuff like that.

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