This week Tony Fontes took a dive into the Great Barrier Reef and he has one message for Australia’s government: It should be listed as endangered.
Unfortunately for the retired dive instructor – and the reef – the Morrison government has been intent on stopping this from happening,
Their efforts, which have been “quite aggressive” according to marine biologist Professor Terry Hughes, seem to have paid off.
The United Nations’ World Heritage Committee has the ultimate say, and will vote on Friday on whether to label the reef as ‘in danger’.
Mr Fontes, who has spent more than 40 years taking people reef diving, said the Australian government “has turned this into a political game”.
“I’ve seen a lot of the reef go from pristine to something far less than pristine. In fact, to a point where you say, well, let’s not dive there any more,” he said.
“If the decision is to not list the reef ‘in danger’, there will be no winners. But there’ll be one big loser and that’s the reef.”
Liberal MP Warren Entsch, who is the government’s special envoy to the reef, last week took nine foreign ambassadors from the 21-country committee to Agincourt Reef, off Port Douglas, for snorkelling.
Mr Entsch wanted to show them how that part of the Great Barrier Reef is recovering after being preyed upon by crown of thorns starfish and after facing cyclones and bleaching, he said in a prepared statement.
Then, this week, The Guardian revealed an email from Australia’s Paris-based ambassador to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Megan Anderson.
In it, she listed nine countries that wanted to “co-author/co-sponsor” an amendment supporting Australia’s push to delay making a decision on an “in danger” classification until at least 2023.
It came after Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley visited eight countries in Europe to lobby against the in-danger listing.
With Russia and Spain already listed as supporting a delay, it appears Australia has enough international backing to stop UNESCO from declaring the reef as ‘in danger’.
That decision was last delayed in June 2014.
Since then the reef, a world heritage area, has suffered three mass coral bleaching events.
“Every year we put this decision off to do the right thing by the reef pushes us closer to having no reef at all,” said Mr Fontes, who went reef diving up to 30 times in June and about a dozen times so far in July.
He said an endangered listing is the “best thing” that could happen to the reef because it would give the Australian government more impetus to “come up with a better climate policy and lead the world in mitigating climate change”.
“That’s the only thing that’s going to save the reef,” Mr Fontes said.
The most recent Australian government report in 2019 downgraded the outlook of the reef from poor to very poor due to climate change.
Professor Hughes, who works at Townsville’s James Cook University, said the idea behind placing a World Heritage site on the ‘in danger’ list is to focus on why it is declining and to address those causes with the objective of getting it off the list as quickly as possible.
He said the Australian government has been “quite aggressively fighting” against the ‘in danger’ listing.
Dr Jodie Rummer, a marine biologist at James Cook University, said the government is probably afraid of what having the reef listed as ‘in danger’ might do to tourism.
She was in the northern part of the reef, on Lizard Island, with a colleague when the reef started bleaching in February 2016.
She watched as a massive marine heatwave made its way through the reef.
“We were in the shallow lagoon, looked at our dive computers and thought, wow, that’s actually the temperature that we are simulating for mid and end-of-century conditions with climate change,” Dr Rummer said.
“And it’s happening right now with this heatwave that’s occurring.
“That was a big wake-up call to me, even as a scientist that has been investigating the stress that’s coming with these climate change stressors for my whole career.”
An ‘in danger’ listing would force the government to do more about cutting emissions, Dr Rummer said.
“We can’t put that off any longer or else the reef is going to face even more severe and more frequent marine heatwaves without the time to recover,” she said.
And if global warming reaches more than two degrees Celsius, that will result in 99 per cent mortality of coral reefs worldwide, Dr Rummer said.
“If this ‘in danger’ listing is the wake-up call we need, we need to wake up.”