Emerging threats to Great Barrier Reef posed by pesticides

Emerging threats to Great Barrier Reef posed by pesticides

Emerging threats to Great Barrier Reef posed by pesticides






The world has seen a great deal of natural resources or rather natural wonders. Of course, these Natural Wonders of the World are scattered in different parts of the world and come in different sizes and shapes. Unfortunately, a large number of these natural wonders of the world have been threatened by global warming or rather the climatic changes that have been witness in the recent times. Of particular note is the fact that a large proportion of global warming has been primarily caused by human activities. While there exists about 8 natural wonders of the world, none comes with such natural breathtaking beauty than the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

Stretching about 2300 kilometers along the Queensland coast, the Great Barrier Reef is made up of more than 2900 reefs and incorporates approximately 940 cays and islands. Underlining its importance is the fact the immense diversity that it represents, as it comes with around 411 types of hard coral, more than 1500 fish species, over 30 species of marine mammals such as the vulnerable dugong, six of the seven species of marine turtles that are about to be extinct in the globe, 134 species of rays and sharks, as well as a third of the total soft corals in the entire world (Haynes, 2001, pp. 19). Also incorporated in the stunning marine suite includes thousands of varied sponges, as many as 3000 molluscs, 630 species of echinoderms (that is sea urchins and starfish), thousands of crustaceans and worms, as well as 215 bird species out of which 22 come as sea birds (Larcombe & Woolfe, 1995, pp. 17). It is, in essence, not surprising that the Great Barrier Reef has been listed under the four criteria of World Heritage thanks to its outstanding or exemplary universal value (Larcombe & Woolfe, 1995, 17).

The benefits pertaining to the protection of the reef go beyond conservation as the reef also doubles up as an investment to the continued security of the coastal communities while offering considerable benefits to the economy of the country. Indeed, the reef industries including fishing and tourism, which rake in about $5.4 billion per year to the Australian economy while providing employment opportunities to approximately 63,000 people are almost entirely dependent on a healthy environment (Haynes, 2001, pp. 32).

In the past, the Great Barrier Reef was seen as a pristine and well protected wonderland that provided a safe haven for abundant fish and delicate corals. Unfortunately, all this has changed with scientists acknowledging that a completely different picture emerges pertaining to the reef’s complexities. Varied issues have been identified as posing serious threats to the reef’s future including pollution, poor fishing, as well as coral bleaching which has been exacerbated by the heightened sea temperatures emanating from global warming (McCook et al, 2007, pp. 75). However, immense attention and focus has been placed on the emerging threats that pollution, especially emanating from increased use of pesticides, poses to the Great Barrier Reef. Indeed, a report by the Federal Government has underlined the immense magnitude of damage that the use of agricultural pesticides has caused to the Great Barrier Reef.

Scholars have noted that the Great Barrier Reef receives approximately 28,000 kilograms of pesticides every year through run-off from the 38 key catchments that drain the 424,000km2 of the coastal Queensland. Indeed, river discharges form the single largest source of nutrients to the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area’s inshore areas (Marshall, & Schuttenberg, 2006, pp. 37). The data on the amount of pesticides finding their way into the Great Barrier Reef is based on studies conducted in 2008 and 2009. This report indicated that about 14 million tons of sediments emanating from human activities find their way to the World Heritage natural wonder on annual basis (Turner, 2012 pp. 34). A large percentage or proportion of runoff emanates from the Whitsunday and MacKay sugarcane farming region located in North Queensland. In addition, it was revealed that about 25% of the horticulture producers, as well as 12% of the pastoral farmers did not observe the industry standards pertaining to the disposal of pesticides (Turner, 2012 pp. 34).

In December 2011, the Australian government had banned the use of a pesticide called diuron on tropical crops such as pawpaw, pineapples, bananas and sugarcane due to the devastating effects that it has on the coral reefs. The ban was aimed at covering the wet season as this is the time when the county experiences the largest amount of run-off. However, this ban was lifted in March 2012 a decision that saw widespread protests from environmentalists (Turner, 2012 pp. 34). Of course, this should not have been surprising as diuron is responsible for about 80 percent of the pesticide load that finds its way in the reef, not to mention the fact that it is toxic and persistent. However, questions have emerged as to the threats that the use of pesticides poses to the Great Barrier Reef.

One of the key effects of the is the destruction of the biodiversity in the Great Barrier Reef especially considering the immense increase in the population of Crown of Thorns starfish. Scholars have noted that the introduction of certain pesticides introduces a certain type of nutrients that are known to be a key trigger of the proliferation of Crown of Thorn fish that eat corals throughout the Great Barrier Reef. Indeed, there exists voluminous evident showing that the increase in this species of fish is primarily caused by water pollution rather than natural causes or overfishing. Of particular note is that the immense increase in the population of the starfish dates back to the early 1960s, with every 15 years marking a tremendous increase in this starfish’s population (Haynes, 2001, pp. 56). Researchers examined the influence that the levels of chlorophyll from pesticides in reef waters have on the populations of this starfish and noted that doubling the level of chlorophyll in water results in a tenfold increase in the survival rate and populations of the Crown of Thorns starfish larvae (McCook et al, 2007, pp. 84). On the same note, this research also showed that the run-off nutrients including phosphorous have been on the rise in the last five decades, which may have resulted in an increase in the levels of phytoplankton. They noted that a downward change in the levels of nutrients found in the water would result in a significant decrease in the numbers of Crown of Thorns starfish that have caused immense damage to the Great Barrier Reef.

In addition, pesticides have been identified as decreasing the quality of water in the Great Barrier Reef. The first identification of the water quality as a threat to the existence of the Great Barrier Reef was done in 1989. As noted earlier, the Great Barrier Reef receives its waters from about 38 key rivers, as well as the hundreds of smaller streams. With its expansive scale of 423,000 square kilometers of land, the Great Barrier Reef primarily serves Queensland, which has number of urban centers such as Rockhampton, Townsville, Cairns and MacKay, as well as the industrial city named Gladstone. The marine species found in the Great Barrier Reef area have become adapted to the tolerable variations pertaining to the quality of water (Marshall, & Schuttenberg, 2006, pp.45). However, in instances where the critical thresholds pertaining to water quality are surpassed, the marine species are adversely affected. It is worth noting that river discharges form the biggest source of nutrients coming with a considerable pollution of the Reef in the course of tropical flood events. Research shows that more than 90% of this pollution emanate from the farms (Marshall, & Schuttenberg, 2006 pp. 46). Scholars have underlined the fact that about 700 out of the 3000 coral reefs are at risk as they stand in the zone where the quality of water has declined thanks to chemical runoff and naturally acidic sediment emanating from the farms, as well as the coastal development coupled with the loss of coastal wetlands that have been a natural filter. The industries found within the water catchment area include cotton growing, which comprises of about 262 square kilometers, horticultural farming including sugarcane and banana growing, which collectively take up 288 square kilometers, as well as the growing of maize, sorghum, barley and wheat, which takes up 7000 km², 6000 km², 1200 km² and 8000 km² respectively (McCook et al, 2007, pp. 84). A large number of industrial pesticides used in these places have been found to contain copper, which is known to interfere with the development of corral polyps. Phosphorus and nitrogen found in the pesticides have also been associated with flood plumes, whose runoff has been found to have reached the outmost regions in the reef.

In addition, the increased use of pesticides in the region has been associated with the increased global warming. Global warming has been one of the major concerns in the 20th and 21st century, thanks to the devastating effects that it has. Indeed, it has been credited with increased cases of desertification, floods, natural calamities, increased sea level, melting ice and glaciers among others. Global warming may be both a cause of and a result of the increased use of pesticides. Scholars have noted that global warming may have caused decreased yields in varied parts of the globe, in which case farmers have increased the use of pesticides in an effort to boost their produce through the elimination of the pests that damage their crops or animals (Berkelmans, 2002, pp. 76). However, the prevalence of use of pesticides may also result in climate change and global warming. Pesticides are known to attach themselves to dust particles thereby travelling to far-flung areas away from the destinations where they were intended to be used. This heightens the likelihood that the chemicals would combine with other chemicals. In most cases, pesticides generate volatile organic compounds that are known to pollute the atmosphere upon reacting with other chemicals or compounds that are in the atmosphere. Scholars have noted that the reaction generates tropospheric ozone, a type of ozone that lays closer to the surface of the earth than the natural ozone (Berkelmans, 2002 pp. 73). This ozone may block ultraviolet light from the sun, but it traps heat and prevents it from escaping from the surface of the earth thereby increasing the temperature at the earth’s surface. On the same note, a large number of base chemicals used in the creation of a large number of pesticides may be destructive to the environment even prior to their combination with other chemicals. For instance, nitrogen-based fertilizes are known to generate unnatural nitrogen oxide amounts into the atmosphere, thereby resulting in greenhouse effects that exacerbates global warming. Sulfur dioxide, on the other hand, blocks out the sun upon accumulation in the atmosphere thereby contributing to global warming through trapping heat. Global warming has been credited with the mass coral bleaching, which is a stress response where the coral animal discards a large part or all of the endosymbiosis zooxanthellae. Coral bleaching results may, in extreme cases, result in fatalities of the coral host and even devastate whole reef-scopes in vast ocean areas (Woolridge, 2009 pp. 745). Warmer temperatures emanating from climate changes stress the corals, which are extremely sensitive to modifications in temperature. Indeed, scholars have underlined the fact that changes of in temperature by as little as 1-2 degrees centigrade would be likely to cause the death of corals especially when they persist for a number of weeks. Such changes would cause the departure of zooxanthellae, on which corals depend for their food, from the corals’ tissue (Woolridge, 2009 pp. 745). This causes the bleaching of the corals, where they turn white and become considerably weaker and less capable of combating ailments. This would, undoubtedly result in the elimination of the coral reefs if something is not done to limit the use of pesticides in areas close to Queensland. Of particular note is the fact that the coral reefs are not only affected by the increased temperatures but also the changing salinity and concentrations of the sea water (Woolridge, 2009 pp. 746). Indeed, research has show that the bleaching response in coral reefs may be initiated by a wide range of stress factors including low temperature, low salinity, cyanide exposure and high sedimentation, all of which may occur in cases of increased usage of pesticides in farming. This underlines the importance of all conservation efforts being channeled towards controlling the use of pesticides in farming.


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