Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef is the world's largest coral reef system composed of over 2,900 individual reefs and 900 islands stretching for over 2,600 kilometres (1,600 mi) over an area of approximately 344,400 square kilometres (133,000 sq mi). The reef is located in the Coral Sea, off the coast of Queensland in north-east Australia.
The Great Barrier Reef can be seen from outer space and is the world's biggest single structure made by living organisms. This reef structure is composed of and built by billions of tiny organisms, known as coral polyps. It supports a wide diversity of life and was selected as a World Heritage Site in 1981. CNN labeled it one of the seven natural wonders of the world. The Queensland National Trust named it a state icon of Queensland.
A large part of the reef is protected by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, which helps to limit the impact of human use, such as fishing and tourism. Other environmental pressures on the reef and its ecosystem include runoff, climate change accompanied by mass coral bleaching, and cyclic population outbreaks of the crown-of-thorns starfish.
The Great Barrier Reef has long been known to and used by the Aboriginal Australian and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and is an important part of local groups' cultures and spirituality. The reef is a very popular destination for tourists, especially in the Whitsunday Islands and Cairns regions. Tourism is an important economic activity for the region, generating $1 billion per year.

Due to its vast biodiversity, warm clear waters and accessibility from the tourist boats called 'live aboards', the reef is a very popular destination, especially for scuba divers. Tourism on the Great Barrier Reef is concentrated in the Whitsundays and Cairns due to their accessibility. These areas make up 7% of the Park's area. The Whitsundays and Cairns have their own Plans of Management. Many cities along the Queensland coast offer daily boat trips. Several continental and coral cay islands are now resorts, including the pristine Lady Elliot Island. As of 1996, 27 islands on the Great Barrier Reef supported resorts.

A scuba diver looking at a giant clam on the Great Barrier Reef
Domestic tourism made up most of the tourism in the region as of 1996, and the most popular visiting times were in the Australian winter. It was estimated that tourists to the Great Barrier Reef contributed A$776 million per annum at this time.
As the largest commercial activity in the region, it was estimated in 2003 that tourism in the Great Barrier Reef generates over A$4 billion annually. (A 2005 estimate puts the figure at A$5.1 billion.) Approximately two million people visit the Great Barrier Reef each year. Although most of these visits are managed in partnership with the marine tourism industry, there is a concern amongst the general public that tourism is harmful to the Great Barrier Reef.
A variety of boat tours and cruises are offered, from single day trips, to longer voyages. Boat sizes range from dinghies to superyachts. Glass-bottomed boats and underwater observatories are also popular, as are helicopter flights. By far, the most popular tourist activities on the Great Barrier Reef are snorkelling and diving, for which pontoons are often used, and the area is often enclosed by nets. The outer part of the Great Barrier Reef is favoured for such activities, due to water quality.
Management of tourism in the Great Barrier Reef is geared towards making tourism ecologically sustainable. A daily fee is levied that goes towards research of the Great Barrier Reef. This fee ends up being 20% of the GBRMPA's income. Policies on cruise ships, bareboat charters, and anchorages limit the traffic on the Great Barrier Reef.
The problems that surround ecotourism in the Great Barrier Reef revolve around permanent tourism platforms. Platforms are large, ship-like vessels that act as a base for tourists while scuba diving and snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef. Seabirds will land on the platforms and defecate which will eventually be washed into the sea. The feces carry nitrogen, phosphorus and oftentimes DDT and mercury which cause aspergillosis,yellow band disease and black band disease. Areas without tourism platforms have 14 out of 9,468 (1.1%) diseased corals versus areas with tourism platforms that have 172 out of 7,043 (12%) diseased corals. Tourism is a major economic activity for the region. Thus, while non-permanent platforms could be possible in some areas, overall, permanent platforms are likely a necessity. Solutions have been suggested to siphon bird waste into gutters connecting to tanks helping lower runoff that causes coral disease.
The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has also placed many permanent anchorage points around the general use areas. These act to reduce damage to the reef due to anchoring destroying soft coal, chipping hard coral and disturbing sediment as it is dragged across the bottom. Tourism operators also must comply with speed limits when traveling to or from tourist destinations, in order to prevent excessive wake from the boats disturbing the reef ecosystem.

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