Australia without the Great Barrier Reef is as unimaginable as Paris without the Eiffel Tower or the USA without the Grand Canyon. But this most iconic of ecosystems is also one of the most vulnerable. Policy-makers and resource managers shoulder the responsibility for protecting the Reef, but the personal views of Australians are also key to its future. As a step towards better protecting the Reef, two recent surveys investigated these views.
“Resource managers don’t actually manage the Reef,” explains Jeremy Goldberg, from CSIRO and James Cook University, who commissioned the surveys. “We manage people and their activities that affect the Reef. If we can understand people better – how they feel about the Reef, and about current threats to it – then we’ll be in a much better position to develop policies and regulations that protect it.
From a list of Australia’s top 12 natural and cultural treasures, 43 per cent of the total 2,002 people surveyed selected the Great Barrier Reef as the one they found most inspiring – which was more than five times ahead of the second selected icon, Uluru.
Seventy-seven per cent felt the Reef was part of their identity as Australians, and 81 per cent felt it was the responsibility of all Australians to protect it.
The survey was a first in several respects. It was designed to be nationally representative, and it was representative in terms of gender and age. It was also the first time people’s views on the Reef have been quantified on a national scale.
“Based on our findings, I think we can say that the majority of Australians find the Great Barrier Reef a great source of inspiration and pride,” said Jeremy.
Threats and optimism
Having established the positive relationship most Australians have with the Reef, the survey went on to investigate their concerns for its future.
The top perceived threats were climate change, marine debris and beach littering and agricultural runoff. Overall, 89% thought that climate change was a threat to the Reef, with the majority believing it to be an extreme threat.
The Reef has lost half of its live coral in the last 27 years, and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority says in its ‘Outlook report 2014’ that the long-term outlook for the Reef is “poor, and getting worse”.
Despite their awareness of the threats, 54 per cent of those surveyed were optimistic about the Reef’s future, leading the research team to believe this optimism could be turned into action.
“While we didn’t directly assess public support for changes in policy or management, these results do indicate that Australians may be open to stronger policies to protect the Reef,” says Goldberg.
He acknowledges, however, that this is just a small step towards the change that is needed at society level. “We need substantial innovations and widespread behaviour change to make a difference,” he says. “But we hope these findings will build the confidence of policy makers and resource managers, to help them take some bold steps in the right direction.”