Whilst is may not be as famous or as popular with tourists as the Great Barrier Reef, The Great Southern Reef, Australia’s ‘other’ reef, is filled with biodiversity and is facing similar ecological difficulties. However, there are several initiatives trying to protect this natural wonder.
1. Australia’s other Great Reef
The Great Southern Reef is a vast system of temperate rocky reefs which span an amazing 8,000km from Kalbarri in Western Australia, down and around Australia’s southern coast and Tasmania and up to northern New South Wales. This special marine environment was only named in 2016, and despite 70% of Australia’s population living within 50km of it, most have never heard of it. The reef is dominated by kelp forests and home to hundreds of species not found anywhere else on Earth, including all three known seadragon species, and there are still an estimated 10,000 additional species to be identified. The reef also supports fishing and tourism industries worth approximately $10bn to the Australian economy, much more than the Great Barrier Reef.
Popularly known as “leafies,” leafy sea dragons are part of the Syngnathidae family, which also includes seahorses and pipefish— ༺❆ᗙ Martin 🏳️🌈 ᗛ❆༻ Party time🍷 (@KlatuBaradaNiko) September 27, 2020
These ornately camouflaged creatures live amongst the golden kelp forests and seaweed forests of the Great Southern Reef
By @OceanImaging pic.twitter.com/KQvlMeJEhA
2. An ecosystem under threat
Forming part of this Great Southern Reef are Tasmania’s giant kelp forests, which were named an endangered ecological community by the Australian government in 2012, as more than 95% of it has now disappeared. There had been a gradual die-off occurring over several decades, however the spike in ocean temperatures caused by the 2015-16 El Niño event sped this up and saw much of it vanish in about three months. It has not come back.
3. Efforts to help the reef
Although most scientists agree the Great Southern Reef is still in better health than the Great Barrier Reef, climate change is an increasing threat and scientists around the Reef are trialling methods to protect its kelp, the key to sustaining its ecosystem.
In Hobart, the University of Tasmania’s Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS) and the Climate Foundation are currently studying the possibility of restoring Tasmania’s giant kelp forests. IMAS postdoctoral research fellow and co-project lead Dr Cayne Layton explains, ‘Not only is kelp particularly sensitive to water temperature changes, but also to tropical marine species that feed on algae, and kelp is a type of algae’. The project is trying to develop a ‘super kelp’ that can stand warmer water and could help to save the species, or at least help it for a while, as long as long-spined sea urchins (which feed on kelp and come with warmer waters) can be kept away. IMAS scientists are also urging the public to record sightings of giant kelp using the free Kelp Tracker app launched late last year, which is helping scientists to identify remnant colonies they weren’t already aware of.
The recognition of the Great Southern Reef as a Hope Spot by international marine non-profit Mission Blue is also helping to increase awareness of the reef and the need to protect it, especially among Australians. Meanwhile in Victoria, marine scientist and director of Deakin University’s Bachelor of Marine Science course, Dr Prue Francis, is helping to create awareness among younger generations by writing a children’s book, due to be published in 2021. A Great Southern Reef feature documentary is also in process by Australian marine biologist–turned filmmaker Stefan Andrews, who created the Netflix hit Chasing Coral.
A little project the DeakinSeaEd team have been working on…we are in the process creating a children’s picture story book based on the Great Southern Reef to increase children’s interest in marine science #marinescience #deakinmarinehttps://t.co/QrmyiPW5ae— Prue Francis (@FrancisPrue) May 19, 2020
4. Relatively undiscovered by the tourism sector
Although it is part of the tourism industry in Australia, the Great Southern Reef has not become such a popular tourist attraction. This is partly because of its colder waters, but also because of the common misconception, according to scientists, that cool water marine habitats aren’t as colourful or as interesting as their tropical counterparts. This is in fact untrue and the Great Southern Reef can make for some beautiful marine experiences, however the decline of kelp and therefore the reef affects tourism operators, as they are forced to adjust what they can offer tourists.
Tourists can also appreciate the diversity and wildlife of the Great Southern Reef without getting wet, via several permanent webcams near Melbourne offering an online window into this marine world. Using the Nature Conservancy Australia’s Reef Cam in Port Philip Bay, you can see Australian fur seals enjoying swimming in the kelp , and take a look, virtually, into a penguin burrow on Phillip Island to see if any of the world’s smallest penguins are nesting. The Great Southern Reef is a vital environment, not only for the species it supports but for the industries, such as tourism, which rely on it. It is therefore essential that we do all we can to protect it.