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Coral recovery hope for Great Barrier Reef

David Mills, August 23, 2020 7:00PM News Corp Australia Network

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A picture from the Australian Institute of Marine Science’s annual survey of the reef shows vibrant coral and plenty of fish live. media_cameraA picture from the Australian Institute of Marine Science’s annual survey of the reef shows vibrant coral and plenty of fish live.


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The Great Barrier Reef is fighting back, with new research showing “encouraging” signs of coral growth in two-thirds of 86 monitored reefs.

The annual report on the health of the reef by the Australian Institute of Marine Science, published on August 21, has been welcomed by tourism operators who say they are battling widespread perceptions* the reef is already dead.

The report shows modest* increases in coral coverage in the reef’s central and southern zones, and a stabilisation* in the north, after several years of hits from bleaching, cyclones and outbreaks of the crown-of-thorns starfish.

Head researcher Dr Mike Emslie said the survey, which is now in its 35th year, showed “the reef is resilient, but this resilience has limits”.

Dr Emslie’s team conducted its assessment between September 2019 and June 2020 at reefs scattered from below Rockhampton to the very tip of Cape York.

The work is done by means of a “manta tow”, in which a marine scientist is pulled along a section of the reef underwater for two minutes, and afterwards calculates the percentage of sea floor covered by coral.

media_cameraA diver is towed along a section of the Reef for the Australian Institute of Marine Science survey.

While the signs of growth were “encouraging”, Dr Emslie stressed that many reefs were coming from a low base.

“Out of the 86 reefs we surveyed this year, two thirds were low or moderate, with less than 30 per cent coral cover,” he said.

“There were 23 reefs that had high coral cover, which is 30 to 50 per cent, and only five had very high coral cover, over 50 per cent.”

Comparing this year’s results to previous years of coral coverage gives a different perspective* on the health of the reef.

In the northern reef, coral coverage in 2020 was just half of what it was at its recorded peak, and in the southern reef it was at 60 per cent of its best-ever result. The peaks in both areas were recorded in 1988.

Coral coverage in the central part of the reef reached its highest recorded level in 2016, but this year the coverage had fallen back to 61 per cent of that peak.

media_cameraTwo-thirds of the reefs surveyed showed encouraging sings of coral growth.
media_cameraPictures from the Australian Institute of Marine Science survey also show the impact of coral bleaching, cyclones and outbreaks of the crown-of-thorns starfish.

“The reef is taking repeated hits from coral bleaching, cyclones and crown-of-thorns outbreaks,” Dr Emslie said.

“While we have seen the Great Barrier Reef’s ability to begin recovery from these pressures, the frequency and intensity* of disturbances means less time for full recovery to take place.”

Most of the reefs were surveyed before last summer’s mass bleaching event – the third in five years – and Dr Emslie said the full effect of this bleaching would not be known for several months.

Dr Emslie said data collected over 35 years showed a trend of decreasing hard coral coverage.

“There are a lot of good reefs still out there, but there’s also lots of impacted reefs,” Dr Emslie said.

“People can still go out and see the Great Barrier Reef in all its glory, but we really need to be aware of what the long term data is telling us.” 

Great Barrier Reef in Crisis

Association of Marine Park Tour Operators chief executive Gareth Phillips, who is also a reef scientist, said people who worked on the reef were seeing its recovery day to day, but negative publicity about the condition of the reef had been affecting visitor numbers.

“The overwhelming message is ‘Go now to see what’s left, and what you will probably see is this stark white reef that’s just on its last legs’. It’s just completely false,” Mr Phillips said.

“Marine operators do not deny that the reef has gone through some substantial pressures but as this report has shown, the reef has ability to recover.

“It’s exactly in line with what the operators have been trying to say – that the reef is not dead and it is a beautiful place.”

Happy young woman swimming underwater in the tropical ocean media_cameraTourism operators say concerns about the reef’s health have reduced visitor numbers.


  • perceptions: how something is seen or understood
  • modest: small
  • stabilisation: become steady, unlikely to change
  • perspective: way of seeing something
  • intensity: strength


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  1. How many reefs were surveyed for the report?
  2. What fraction of the reefs surveyed showed signs of coral growth?
  3. How many years has the Australian Institute of Marine Science conducted its annual survey?
  4. What three problems have caused damage to the reef?
  5. The survey assessed reefs from Rockhampton to the tip of what?


1. Displaying data
It is often easier to understand data when it is presented in a table or a graph. Find the section of this news story that provides information about the level of coral cover as reported in the annual report released on August 21. Present this data in a table and as a graph. You may decide on how to format your table and the type of graph to use, basing your decision on what you believe will make the data easiest for those viewing it to understand.

Time: allow 25 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English; Mathematics

2. Extension
Make a dot point list of the key ideas from this news article and then summarise those key ideas into one sentence.

Time: allow 10 minutes to complete this activity 
Curriculum Links: English

Opener Up-Level It
Make a list of all the openers in the article. Pick three that repeat and see if you can replace them with another word, or shuffle the order of the sentence to bring a new opener to the front.

Don’t forget to re-read the sentence to make sure it still makes sense, and that it actually sounds better.

HAVE YOUR SAY: Do you think the Reef can fully recover?
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking. No comments will be published until approved by editors.

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