17 Apr 2017 - In the dark clouds gathering over the future of the Great Barrier Reef, there has been a small silver lining for the people who make their living showcasing the natural wonder.
When the reef was rocked by an unprecedented second mass bleaching event in the space of a year, the coral hardest-hit by heat stress lay mostly in the tourist-heavy latitudes between Cairns and Townsville.
But despite last year’s damage compounded by new cases dotted across 800 reefs in a 1,500km stretch, not a single reef tourism operator has been forced to seek out new ground to take visitors.
The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, which licenses operators to visit designated reef sites, confirmed it has received one request to change a permit. And that was not because of bleaching but Cyclone Debbie further south, which damaged that other hub of reef tourism, the Whitsundays after it escaped the bleaching.
By an accident of geography, the tourist operators say, the most wondrous sites for public viewing, which tend to fall on the edge of the continental shelf near cooler, deeper waters, are the ones also spared the worst damage from bleaching.
For now at least.
“Look, if we get another year of this, we’ll be in an absolute world of hurt and I know that,” Col McKenzie, chief executive of the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators says.
Just 7% of the reef is set aside for tourism. But McKenzie says he is frustrated that “the story being put out there that there’s been severe bleaching throughout the whole area: it’s just not true”.
Aerial surveys released by scientists on 10 April showed back-to-back bleaching had occurred in a range along two-thirds of the world’s largest living structure. It indicated bleaching levels of more than 60% of coral this time were concentrated in reefs between Port Douglas and Townsville. It was the fourth mass bleaching to hit the reef in recorded history – all since 1998 – and coral scientists are alarmed the increasing regularity of these events gives stressed coral precious little chance to recover.
After last year’s bleaching, which killed off 22% of coral mainly in the isolated northern section of the reef, US magazine Outside went so far as to run an obituary on the reef: “25 million BC - 2016”.