The Great Barrier Reef Foundation Brings Hope for World’s Reefs

by   Profile Andi   When 2nd January 2024
Changing coral reef_photo credit Marla Tomorug
© Adam Moore
Edges of Earth team diving New Caledonia_photo credit Marla Tomorug
© Marla-Tomorug
Isle of Pines, New Caledonia_photo credit Marla Tomorug
Isle of Pines © Marla-Tomorug

I will never forget seeing a healthy and thriving reef for the first time. I began my scuba diving career in 2018, and had only trekked across the East Coast of the United States to learn the basics. Far away from the vibrant coral species I read about in books since childhood, I dreamed about diving the iconic Great Barrier Reef. By 2021, this became a reality. At the time, I had no idea how impactful this single experience would become. 

When exploring the Great Barrier Reef, I was living on a boat for 10 days. There, all we did was eat, sleep, dive (get sea sick in my case) and repeat. I was in my element, regardless of my unfortunate inner-ear imbalance. The liveaboard took us to the outer finger reefs—also known as ribbon reefs—named for their long, narrow extensions that extend outward into the ocean.

These formations are characterized by steep drop-offs and vertical walls, creating a stunning underwater topography that had me blown away.

The corals found on the outer reefs are predominantly hard corals, forming intricate structures that provide shelter and feeding grounds for abundant and diverse marine life. The sheer size of these coral formations were exactly as I had imagined they would be. 

Like many other parts of the Great Barrier Reef, the fingers were facing several threats, and some areas had experienced damage that I was not expecting in this remote part of the ocean. It was quite confronting to see first-hand the devastation—from broken coral to bleaching. It was a stark contrast seeing some of the most beautiful coral on the planet on one site, to significant damage on another. 

That liveaboard inspired me to learn more about coral and the animal’s future. 

That’s when I met Sarah Castine, Associate Director of Resilient Reefs at the Great Barrier Reef Foundation (GBRF). After the liveaboard, I went to her office in Brisbane to meet face-to-face and learn about her team’s work. The GBRF has pioneered a global partnership—Resilient Reefs Initiative (RRI)—to support World Heritage Reefs, and the communities that depend on them, to adapt to climate change and local threats.

Coral reefs house 25% of the ocean’s biodiversity and provide crucial ecosystem services to nearly 1 billion people worldwide. The urgency to safeguard them, all while supporting the communities that depend on them, is high.

Globally, half of all coral reefs have died since 1950, and scientists expect mass extinction by 2050 if action isn’t taken. Widespread bleaching is already occurring to reefs in the northern hemisphere, and the south could see their reefs face the same fate. Governments and communities who are entrusted to protect these treasured places don’t have the resources, tools or strategies for adapting to the pace of climate change.

That's where the GBRF comes in. It’s taking best-in-class solutions, including the world's pioneering reef restoration and adaptation science, to enable millions of heat-tolerant corals to be planted on the world’s reefs every year.

Partnering with local Reef Managers and communities, the GBRF aims to shift the paradigm. To date, their four partner sites—Belize Barrier Reef Reserve, Rock Islands in Palau, Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia and the Lagoons of New Caledonia—have designed and delivered a range of projects to strengthen local resilience.  

First, hired local resilience leads have assessed threats facing their reef and seaside communities, while conducting local outreach that has engaged more than 2,000 reef beneficiaries. Next, they have designed and delivered more than two dozen, on-ground projects and advanced partnership with 10 First Nations peoples.

Lastly, the GBRF has convened experts across five worldwide knowledge exchanges and trained more than 700 local reef managers in a style of reef management called 'Resilience-Based Management'. It is done in partnership with communities and is holistic, nimble and adaptive. This empowers managers to act quickly and with imperfect knowledge.

Highly inspired by Sarah’s work, that brief meeting in Brisbane has since turned into a long-term collaboration. Today, my team and I are on an expedition around the world to some of the most remote dive sites on the planet.

At each destination, we are working with on-ground individuals to share their stories of positive ocean progress. Sarah and I decided there was no better way to bring our worlds together even more than having the GBRF’s partner sites be included as part of the Edges of Earth expedition. 

We just finished an expedition at the lagoons of New Caledonia, where we met with the GBRF’s local custodians to learn first-hand about their work. 

Reliance is particularly acute in the Pacific region, where 94% of the population relies on reefs for food. Entire Pacific countries are on the frontline of climate change, with their livelihoods and culture at risk if the coral reefs fail. That’s why the GBRF’s presence in New Caledonia—a designated UNESCO World Heritage site since 2008—is equally critical and necessary.

When we arrived in New Caledonia, the GBRF team had just finished delivering an important workshop. Reef managers, scientists, government officials and key community leaders came together to update reef management plans to ensure that they are underpinned by climate projection data and strong local governance. The outcome of this workshop was establishing collaboration best practices and prioritizing activities they could take on together to protect and restore their reefs. 

In New Caledonia, there are deep social and political divides. A lack of coordination across the territory leads to inefficient, unproductive and duplicated efforts. Although there are strong scientific agencies in the country, rapidly evolving scientific knowledge is not being taken up into policy or being used effectively to make decisions. The GBRF has been on a mission to change this, with the workshop being one of many steps to foster collaboration in a way that drives results. 

In the last few years, the GBRF has funded nearly 10 locally-designed projects and activities across the territory, tackling key issues like watershed management, assessing the relative resilience of different reef systems, co-management with Indigenous peoples, among other priorities.

We firmly believe that with the strategies, tools and resources being put in place by the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, our reefs not only stand a chance to survive, but to thrive.

Andi Cross is lead of the Edges of Earth expedition, highlighting stories of remote ocean conservation communities and organizations in 50 destinations worldwide. To keep up with the expedition and see where the team is going next, follow the team on InstagramLinkedInTikTokYouTube and their website.

Do you want to help protect our oceans? Join the Blue Oceans movement from SSI, supported by Mares, and learn how to become a responsible diver and ocean advocate.

Written by
Profile Andi
When 2nd January 2024
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