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Posted on 26 Jun 2016

Coral Scientists Slam Australia On Great Barrier Reef

Letter from 2000 delegates at International Coral Reef Symposium in Honolulu urges Australia to "lead-not-follow" on coal exports.

A strongly worded letter from coral reef scientists has urged the Australian government to stop or revoke the approval of coal mines in Queensland, and curb fossil fuel exports.

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2016 has seen the worst bleaching event to ever affect the Great Barrier Reef, with 22% of coral dead.

According to Morgan Pratchett, a chief investigator at JCU’s Coral Reef Studies centre: “This is in the order two to three times worse than previous events. In terms of mortality we estimate 50% of corals will die on affected reefs.”

On Saturday, scientists at the world's largest global gathering of coral reef experts sent a letter to prime minister Malcolm Turnbull urging him to do more to save the reef, and asking Australia to stop endorsing coal exports and work to curb fossil fuel emissions.

Signed by the past and present presidents of the International Society for Reef Studies on behalf of the 2000 attendees of the International Coral Reef Symposium held in Honolulu, Hawaii, the letter urged the “laggard” Australian government to prioritise the Great Barrier Reef.

"This year has seen the worst mass bleaching in history," said the letter. "Threatening many coral reefs around the world including the whole of the northern Great Barrier Reef, the biggest and best-known of all reefs."

Ocean Agency imagery of a bleached reef and the post-bleaching takeover of toxic algae.

“The damage to this Australian icon has already been devastating. In addition to damage from greenhouse gases, port dredging and shipping of fossil fuels across the Great Barrier Reef contravene Australia's responsibilities for stewardship of the Reef under the World Heritage Convention.”

"We call upon the Australian Commonwealth Government to stop endorsing the export of coal, and specifically to stop or revoke the approval of new mines, including those in Queensland, which have the potential to become the world’s biggest and most harmful single sources of atmospheric pollution. Australia is a currently perceived as a laggard compared to other developed countries in pursuing the urgent pathway to a low carbon economy, and committing to deep action on climate change. We urge you to improve the protection of the Great Barrier Reef on climate change, and lead-not-follow on this critically important global issue."

"The Australian government is doing more than ever before to protect the Great Barrier Reef" a spokesman for environment minister Greg Hunt told BuzzFeed News.

"Just two weeks ago we announced a $1 billion Reef Fund that will support projects in the Reef catchment region that deliver clean energy, reduce emissions and improve water quality."

"Australia's management of the Great Barrier Reef has been praised by the World Heritage Committee. In fact, the Coalition's work to protect the Great Barrier Reef resulted in the World Heritage Committee declaring last July that Australia was a global role model for the management of World Heritage properties."

"When Labor and the Greens were in government, the Reef was put on track to be listed as ‘in-danger’ by the World Heritage Committee. Under the Coalition, the Reef was not listed ‘in danger’ and was removed from the watch list.

The Turnbull Government is committed to protecting the Great Barrier Reef for future generations."

According to one of the world's foremost coral experts, Australian symposium delegate Professor Charlie Veron: "the reaction of so many people was initially stirred up by the stupidity of statements from environment minister Greg Hunt about the bleaching."

"The first one was his view that there is not much of a problem as evidenced by Sir David Attenborough’s glowing introduction in the first episode of his GBR series."

"There was some very confronting time-lapse video taken at Lizard Island, but the main driver was the solid science in many presentations. This is the stuff that scientists react to."

Professor Terry Hughes, who leads the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies that charted this year's record bleaching said: "I'm astonished that a conservative society of scientists would write a forceful letter to a prime minister."

"It reflects the concerns and frustrations of reef scientists that governments like Australia are paying lip-service to the ongoing impact of climate change on the world's reef."

"The letter specifically refers to Australia's irresponsible plan to open huge new coal mines, despite the threat of global warming to the Great Barrier Reef."

Read the full letter.

Simon Crerar is editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed Australia and is based in Sydney.

Contact Simon Crerar at simon.crerar@buzzfeed.com.

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