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Feature: Future far from Great for Australia's Barrier Reef

SYDNEY (Xinhua) - As an Island continent, Australia's relationship to the ocean has defined it. The embrace of the pacific oceans from the savage beauty of the Southern sea to the tourist magnets of the Whitsunday islands, are never far from the nation's collective imagination.

Today, those oceans are under threat, none more so than the celebrated coral highways of the Great Barrier Reef.

In his latest book, Four Degrees of Global Warming: Australia in a Hot World, Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg from the University of Queensland claims the UNESCO Heritage Site could be all but gone by the turn of the century.

Despite the recent steps taken by then-Environment Minister Tony Burke to encircle the island nation with the world's largest marine parks, the Queensland University Professor says that in a four-degree world, the Great Barrier Reef will be great no longer.

"There is little evidence that marine resources like the Great Barrier Reef possess the resilience to withstand the impacts of a dramatically warming world."

He adds that even a two-degree temperature rise would in all likelihood suffocate the reef and all life on it.

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According to marine expert Amy Wilks, the finely balanced reef environment is at imminent risk from an array of threats including pollution, agricultural run-off, coral bleaching, over fishing, unsustainable tourism, shipping and coal development and of course, climate change.

"Certainly the biggest impacts that we're most concerned about with our reefs is the impact from climate change. So climate change is having massive ramifications on the reef -- warming ocean waters; acidification of the oceans which effect our corals and then you've got all the man-made influences from fishing pressures."

Wilks adds that even the top of the food chain predators -- sharks -- are in decline worldwide and that impacts down the food chain as well.

"Add over fished commercial fisheries and there's a perfect storm of impacts that are really putting a great deal of pressure on our great barrier reef and our ocean systems in general."

Running adjacent to the Queensland coast of Australia, the Great Barrier Reef is the world's largest coral habitat and one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth -- it is also one of the most threatened.

According to the Australian Institute of Marine Science, almost 50 percent of the coral cover has disappeared over the last three decades.

Despite its World Heritage status, human activity lies at the heart of a problem that could see this extraordinary habitat disappear within our lifetime.  

Australia is the world's fourth-largest producer of coal and the world's biggest exporter. It is the march of this growing industry across the Queensland coast that has outraged activists.

Georgina Woods, a Senior Climate Campaigner with Greenpeace told Xinhua that new coal export terminals proposed for development require millions of tones cubic meters of dredging of the Great Barrier Reef floor and dumping the dredged soil in the marine park.

"They are also going to require significant coastal development, one in particular requires the development of internationally significant wetland on the coast of the Great Barrier Reef heritage area," Woods said.

But action is being taken, although most conservationists believe it is too little and too late.

Last year, about a million square miles of ocean was proclaimed as marine reserves in a bid to protect pristine natural marine environments, including the great barrier reef from the ravages of fishing, carbon fuel exploration and transportation and the as-yet- unknown effects of climate change and ocean warming.

The reserves, initiated by then Minister for the Environment Tony Burke surround the entire continent of Australia and cover the Coral Sea as well as areas off the coasts of South Australia, West Australia, New South Wales and the Northern Territory.

The reserves connect to existing marine parks across the iconic Great Barrier Reef and the coasts of Victoria and Tasmania to form a 1.2 million square mile marine park.

"In the last 100 years our oceans have gone from being unbelievably healthy to being in a state of crisis and there's a whole lot of work that needs to be done that no one country can do on its own because our oceans by definition are shared between nations," the former Minister Burke told the China News Network.

Under Burke's Marine park sanctuary plan, the Coral Sea will now join up to the Great Barrier Reef and become the largest protected area in the world.

The marine park of the Great Barrier Reef itself stretches over 3,000 kms parallel to Australia's north-eastern coastline, from near the coastal town of Bundaberg, past the tip of Cape York.

Wilks said that the Great Barrier Reef has over 1,500 species of fish; over 400 different species of coral; and 150 shark species.

However more than half of the coral cover has been killed in the last 27 years with the crown of thorns starfish relishing warmer waters and its population explosion linked to run off from the agricultural industry.

According to Greenpeace, the reef is now reaching tipping point.

"The greatest existential threat to the future of the Reef is climate change," Woods told Xinhua.

And now the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is in the process of approving moves to create the world's largest coal port including three new terminals at the ironically named Abott Point.

According to data from the Australian Marine Conservation Society, the port expansion will see the dredging of 3 million cubic meters.

A decision will be made by Christmas and Australia's credibility as protector of the Great Barrier Reef hangs in the balance.

The Former Australian Environment Minister Tony Burke said the attitude to ocean development is skewed.

"The ocean doesn't negotiate back the same way, the oceans not trying to find a balance the same way, the oceans just trying to survive,"  he said.   

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