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UN mission joins growing calls to label Great Barrier Reef ‘in danger’

The sprawling Great Barrier Reef spans more than 1,400 miles along Australia’s northeast coast, counts some 2,500 individual reefs, and can be viewed from space. Known for its “superlative beauty,” it is home to about 400 kinds of coral and 1,500 species of fish.Sam McNeil/Associated Press

The Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the world’s largest coral reef ecosystem and one of its most biodiverse, is under significant threat from climate change and should be placed on a list of world heritage sites in danger, a UN-backed mission has recommended.

The mission’s report, released Monday, said current conservation efforts were not enough to protect the Great Barrier Reef, “in large part due to the sheer scale of the challenge” presented by climate change, development, and deteriorating water quality.

The sprawling Great Barrier Reef spans more than 1,400 miles along Australia’s northeast coast, counts some 2,500 individual reefs, and can be viewed from space. Known for its “superlative beauty,” it is home to about 400 kinds of coral and 1,500 species of fish, according to UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural agency, which said that “no other world heritage property contains such biodiversity.”

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The report’s authors said climate change was an “ongoing and increasingly serious challenge” and emphasized the “urgency” of concrete actions such as adding the natural wonder to the list of dozens of world heritage sites deemed to be in danger. The designation is partly a symbolic one, meant to raise awareness and “encourage governments to take action,” UNESCO says.

In March 2022, two experts, one from UNESCO and another from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, were tasked by UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee with assessing the Great Barrier Reef’s condition and the viability of the Australian government’s existing long-term sustainability plan for the site, UNESCO said. With the support of the government, they spent nine days meeting with experts, officials, and community leaders.

A UNESCO spokesperson emphasized that the mission’s findings represented a limited snapshot in time months ago.

But the agency has long supported the “in danger” designation. The mission’s conclusions echo past recommendations by the 21-member World Heritage Committee to place the site on the “in danger” list, a move that the Australian government has sharply pushed back on.

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In their report, UN mission experts listed nearly two dozen recommendations to better protect and conserve the Great Barrier Reef. They marked 10 of those suggestions as “high priority,” including setting “clear government commitments to reduce greenhouse gases,” reducing “excessive use” of fertilizers and pesticides in nearby sugar cane and banana farming, and eliminating gill-net fishing, a method of catching fish using vertical panels of netting, which can entangle other marine life such as sea turtles.

The report said the World Heritage Committee had become more concerned about the increase of mass bleaching events at the Great Barrier Reef. Warming ocean waters can cause coral bleaching — that is, when algae living on coral reefs die, leaving it white and under more stress, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. About 25 percent of the ocean’s fish rely on healthy coral reefs, particularly for seeking shelter and food, NOAA said.

Just last year, the committee concluded that the Great Barrier Reef’s ecosystem “had further deteriorated from poor to very poor” and issued the same recommendation for the reef to be labeled “in danger.”

Sussan Ley, the country’s former environment minister, said last year that officials had been “blindsided” by the recommendation, which she said Australia would “challenge,” according to reporting by the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Tourism at the Great Barrier Reef supports more than 60,000 jobs, according to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, which said the decline in the reef’s health was among several factors significantly blunting tourism numbers.

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Reef tourism operators have also expressed fears that the designation could diminish interest in visiting the area, the latest report mentioned.

The report’s authors wrote that “the mission sympathizes with these concerns” but added that they believed putting the property on UNESCO’s list of sites in danger represented an opportunity for Australia to position itself as “a world leader in conserving globally significant natural heritage.”

The country’s Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water could not be immediately reached for comment.

Australian officials said in a statement to the Australian Broadcasting Corp. that they had “taken a number of significant steps forward” since the March mission. It was not clear what actions had been taken.

A few more steps need to occur before the site would get the official “in danger” designation. The UNESCO World Heritage Center will decide whether to endorse the report’s recommendation to add the Great Barrier Reef to the list of world heritage sites in danger, a UNESCO spokesperson said. If the endorsement is made, the final decision will be made by the World Heritage Committee, which will most likely convene in mid-2023, the spokesperson added.