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‘Act urgently to save the world’s wild and wonderful creatures’

Two renowned conservationists have called for urgent cooperative action to prevent further destruction of the world’s reefs, including the Great Barrier Reef, and of the Arctic and Antarctic oceans on which many creatures and ecosystems depend.

Dr Emma Camp is a coral scientist at the University of Technology Sydney, a National Geographic Explorer and a 2019 Rolex Associate Laureate.

She says a “deadly trio of stressors” is threatening the survival of coral reefs globally. They are: warmer water, more acidic waters and lower oxygen levels.

“These stressors are going to continue to intensify and corals are going to have to be able to tolerate [them] if they’re going to persist into the future.”

Michael Aw is a multi-award-winning wildlife photographer, explorer, author and conservationist. He also founded the Elysium Epic, which takes teams of image makers and scientists, who are also activists, to the world’s most at-risk marine environments. Since 2010 he has directed expeditions to the Antarctic and Arctic and across the heart of the Coral Triangle, completing the first-ever baseline survey of the biomass of corals and fishes in the region.

Dr Camp and Mr Aw both spoke passionately of their efforts to protect vulnerable organisms and their habitats during Ocean Talks: Signals from the Ocean held at the National Maritime Museum in Darling Harbour on March 5.

Attendees also had the opportunity to view the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition, which reinforced the pair’s call for people to act urgently in whatever ways they could to protect the world’s wild and wonderful places and creatures.

Dr Camp showed a short video made by Rolex in which she spoke of “the real possibility that in our lifetime the Great Barrier Reef, at least as we know it, will be lost”.

“During 2016 and 2017 about two-thirds of the Northern Great Barrier Reef died,” she said, “so, we now think about 50 per cent of the Great Barrier Reef has been lost.

“Imagine that the biggest living structure on the planet – we can see it from space – knowing that we’d be responsible for its demise. It’s not really something you really want to think about.”

The video also illustrated Dr Camp’s pivotal research into corals that live in mangrove lagoons in very warm and very acidic low-oxygen conditions – similar to the hostile conditions now threatening reef environments due to climate change. Could these more resilient corals, she wondered, provide clues to help reef corals struggling and failing to survive global warming?

Dr Camp’s research quest has since led her to set up a nursery on the outer Barrier Reef growing cuttings of more tolerant corals on racks and using them to try to recover some of the reef’s degraded areas. Sitting on several panels of the United Nations has also allowed her to convey the value of the world’s oceans, the threats they face, and that the time for action to preserve them has not yet run out.

“We are urgently having to act. And, while there’s still a lot that we can learn and need to learn, we can make a change if we act soon.

“Having educators, corporates, tourism operators, scientists, and government all together working on these solutions is the only way that we are going to actually be able to combat them [these environmental threats].”

Ecological negligence

Mr Aw’s talk offered sobering statistics related to environmental destruction. He detailed the prevalence of microplastics in remote and (seemingly pristine) ocean areas, the decline of South Africa’s once-teeming Sardine Run, and the knock-on effect of sea ice melt on Arctic krill and other creatures. (“No sea ice, no krill. Simple as that. We lose our sea ice, we lose our krill, we lose our big animals as well.”)

He said two deeply disturbing realities were:

  • New high-temperature records set this February in the Antarctic region including a February 9 high of 20.75°C; and
  • The world’s inability to reduce emissions to levels that would offset the amount of CO2 being released from Arctic permafrost that’s melting.

Mr Aw also used a selection of unsettling visuals to show the ecological costs of human negligence. Footage of an operation to remove several feet of plastic lodged inside a sea turtle’s body and efforts to dislodge a plastic straw from the turtle’s nose elicited gasps from the audience.

His image of a young polar bear teetering on a 250-metre vertical cliff face in Svalbard searching for eggs demonstrated clearly how the loss of sea ice in the high Arctic is distressing the region’s iconic creatures.

“Imagine, if you were climbing on this cliff for a bag of chips. You must be desperate, right? If you don’t find those bird’s eggs, you die. So, every year, we find two or three skinny polar bears, dead.”

Dr Camp was a researcher in the Seychelles in 2016 during a mass bleaching event. She said the area she’d been researching for five years had been full of diversity and life and then suddenly turned white. In just over a week it was overgrown with algae and died.

She said the scientific community was currently predicting such bleaching events would continue to increase both in intensity and frequency.

“The biggest thing we could do [to alter this trend] is to reduce carbon emissions and ensure we get government and policy on the trajectory that we need. But unfortunately, that’s not happening quick enough.

“We’re changing the environment too quickly for most corals to be able to keep pace with the changes that are occurring.”

While Dr Camp’s team has looked at cross-breeding corals from different environments to try to boost natural rates of evolution; using bio-controls to cool and shade coral in detrimental environments; using probiotics to boost coral’s resilience; and creating superior corals through genetic engineering that can tolerate stress, she said she was still concerned the world could easily lose what’s valuable.

In the case of the Great Barrier Reef this would include (but was not limited to) apex predators like sharks, fisheries and services like coastal protection, local communities and jobs, and $6 billion per year in revenue.

“Corals aren’t just pretty – there are so many services that they provide. Things like pharmaceuticals, tourism, cultural value. All of those things make it really significant as to why we should want to conserve them.”

The take home message from the talk was that one person’s actions can make a difference – and particularly if they join forces with like-minded people.

Dr Camp encourages people to engage with an issue – whether it’s climate change, the coral reefs or plastics – and to acknowledge it’s not someone else’s problem.

“It’s very easy to say it’s the government’s fault, or it’s the fossil fuel industry.

“Go vegetarian for a few days a week, vote differently, go with different insurers. Look at our own lives and see what we can do.

“Even if it’s one small change, if we all do it collectively, it will have a big impact.”

The Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition runs at the National Maritime Museum in Darling Harbour until October 11 (subject to Covid-19 restrictions). See




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