6 mins read | Creating Change

Everyday Activist: Great Barrier Reef Foundation’s Peter Mumby

Sea turtle swimming on Barrier Reef

Continuing to shed light on those amongst us who invest their lives in helping our planet, the next in our Everyday Activist series of interviews is our proudest to date. Back in the Summer, we got in touch with the Great Barrier Reef Foundation – the lead charity dedicated to protecting the Reef through funding solutions grounded in science, technology, engineering and on-ground action to ensure its long-term conservation. The Foundation was established in 1999 following the first mass coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef in 1998 and now champions real solutions to the threats facing Australia’s great natural wonder and coral reefs globally, the foundation works to ensure a Great Barrier Reef for future generations.

As a brand, the key pillars we are founded on are minimising the impact on the environment and maximising human impact. Naturally, as part of that, we continually seek to bring global environmental issues to the forefront and share them with you. The dramatic changes that we have seen in the Great Barrier Reef over the last couple of decades are an issue we are all aware of, but we wanted to talk to someone who had a direct understanding of the scale of the problem and what solutions are in place to help protect this incredible part of our natural world. As one of our first pieces based on people working at the margins of where environmental or human impact is so acute, we spoke to Great Barrier Reef Foundation Chief Scientist & University of Queensland Professor, Peter Mumby, to get his incredible insight.

Photo credit: Great Barrier Reef Foundation. Photographer: Peter Mumby

How did you come to work with the Great Barrier Reef Foundation?

I was involved in a research project that the Foundation was funding that focused on developing tools to help map and manage the Reef’s resilience. Now I am proud to be the Foundation’s Chief Scientist as it is an organisation that is focused on bringing together the best minds and technologies to help solve the challenges facing the Great Barrier Reef.

Why is the Great Barrier Reef important for our planet?

It’s the largest living structure on the planet with thousands of fish species and hundreds of coral species. It is the best-protected reef in the world and is one of the seven natural wonders of the World. It would reflect terribly on humanity if we cannot protect it.

Can you explain how the Great Barrier Reef’s ecosystem works?

That’s my life’s work… and that of many other people! To me, this is one of the most interesting questions and I’m fortunate to spend my life trying to figure it out. Every time we think we understand something well, nature throws us a curveball and we discover it’s a little more complicated.

Which threats is the Great Barrier Reef facing?

The main threats that the Great Barrier Reef is facing are climate change – rising sea temperatures that can stress organisms as well as cause periodic bleaching events caused by very warm conditions, poor water quality and coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish.

Photo credit: Great Barrier Reef Foundation. Photographer: Gary Cranitch Queensland Museum

What is the Great Barrier Reef Foundation doing to protect the Reef from these threats?

Every day we’re making progress on saving the Reef. This ranges from figuring out how best to restore parts of the Reef that have already been damaged by climate change to exploring whether probiotics will help corals become more resistant to heat stress. We’re also saving our precious marine life by restoring reef islands and protecting the world’s largest green turtle nesting area.

Is there a way to restore parts of the Great Barrier Reef that have already been destroyed?

In principle, yes, but doing anything at a meaningful scale is proving challenging and is now the subject of a major research programme which the Foundation is involved in. It’s far better to reduce the impacts than to rely on restoration.

What do you expect will happen if the situation keeps worsening?

There will still be a Great Barrier Reef but it’s quality will decline. That means fewer fish for fisheries, lower biodiversity, and weakened ability to protect our coastlines.

Photo credit: Great Barrier Reef Foundation. Photographer: Gary Cranitch Queensland Museum

Are there any safety measures that have been established so far to protect the reef?

Yes, many. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) has a comprehensive zoning plan that protects more than 30% of the reef from fishing and some other impacts. The crown-of-thorns starfish control programme is a major intervention that can be directed where needed. And many Queensland farmers have changed their practices to reduce impacts.

What are your hopes for the future of this irreplaceable coral reef system?

My main hope is that we can tackle the need for a green economy and reduce emissions. That’s the single greatest activity that will save not only the Great Barrier Reef but coral reefs all around the world.

Can the Reef survive?

The good news is that coral reefs are naturally resilient. Over my years of researching coral all over the world I have learnt time and time again that reefs have ways of recovering from damage and that coral will keep surprising us with its resilience. However, the window of opportunity to act is now and as the climate becomes warmer the coral will adapt, the question is how much and how we can manage the Reef to provide the best environment for its survival. We need local management and urgent action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Photo credit: Great Barrier Reef Foundation. Photographer: Gary Cranitch Queensland Museum

Is there anything at all that we can do to help?

Everybody can do their bit for the Reef, no matter where they are in the world. Here are five manageable things to get you started. We can all make a change!

Professor Peter Mumby is an international marine and coral reef expert and head of the University of Queensland’s Marine Spatial Ecology Lab. The incredible photography you’ve been soaking up is by award-winning wildlife photographer, Gary Cranitch.

Moved by the ongoing work that Peter and the team are doing and want to see more? Keep up to date with the Foundation’s projects, plans and ways to support them by subscribing to their newsletter or following along on instagram. Plus you’ll be blown away by more other-worldly photography of our planet and wildlife – and that’s something we could all use more of.