Great Barrier Reef: what is the point of nature reserves?

Oct 3, 2012

As the reef shrinks, the UN has admitted only half of conservation efforts make a difference

THE admission by Australia's environment minister that "years of neglect" have contributed to the decline of the Great Barrier Reef, which is one of the most protected sites in the world, has led to questions over whether conservation efforts actually work.

A new survey out this week revealed that the reef has lost half its coral in the last 27 years, and even though the reef is a World Heritage site and sits inside a marine park, much of the damage has been caused by man.

Despite strict legal measures designed to protect the reef, run-off caused by agriculture in Queensland has been blamed for creating ideal conditions for the Crown of Thorns starfish, which destroy coral. It highlights the failure of many of man's efforts to protect the environment.

Before the Rio+20 Earth summit earlier this year, the United Nations Environment Programme revealed that world leaders had signed 500 internationally recognised environmental agreements in 50 years. But, after analysing 90 of them, it concluded "there has been little or no progress - or further deterioration - on about half of the... issues".

"Governments spend years negotiating environmental agreements, but then wilfully ignore them. It's a dismal record. What is the point?" asked John Vidal in The Guardian.

Just last month the same UN organisation declared that the amount of land and sea with protected status had to increase dramatically in order to stave off massive species loss. However, even protecting an area of the planet twice the size of Argentina might not be enough.

"The wide range of ways of designating nature reserves in different countries, and the difficulty of establishing marine reserves, which often require cross-border cooperation and fraught negotiations over fishing rights, has made it hard to judge how well these initiatives are functioning," commented The Guardian.

Simply declaring an area to be a reserve does not necessarily help, as the fate of the Great Barrier Reef appears to prove. "The bottom line is that we can't simply set aside nature reserves and forget about their surroundings," wrote Bill Laurance of James Cook University on Australian research website The Conversation.

He said that reserves needed to be much larger. "We also need buffer zones around reserves, to help shield them from hostile surrounding land-uses," he added. "And we must stop reserves from becoming isolated."

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