A large, severely bleached coral table at Scott Reef, Western Australia, in mid-March 2016. Research divers are assessing the extent and severity of the bleaching by conducting surveys at several sites across the reef. The Greens have called on the government to urgently implement marine reserves. Photo: Nick Thake / AIMS

By Michael Slezak
21 April 2016

(The Guardian) – The global coral bleaching event devastating the Great Barrier Reef has spread to reefs in Western Australia, where the federal government halted the implementation of marine parks, which would help the reefs recover.

In light of worsening bleaching, the Greens have called on the government to urgently implement the marine reserves, which were created in 2012, but were effectively abandoned by the Coalition when elected.

Greens senator Rachel Siewert put on notice a motion calling on the government to “make the marine parks operational without further delay” and to “commit adequate funding for management, buyout and education”.

Bleaching has been recorded at reefs between Darwin and Broome, as well as Browse Island. Other reports emerging from Australian Institute of Marine Science (Aims) surveys have revealed bleaching at sites along the Kimberley coast, and further off-shore at Christmas Island, Cocos Island and Seringapatam Reef.

The latest reports show that between 60% and 90% of coral at the renowned and isolated Scott Reef have been bleached in water as deep as 15m. Scientists there say widespread coral death has been seen already.

Karen Miller, a program leader and researcher at Aims said the bleaching at Scott reef is the worst they have ever seen, even worse than the severe bleaching that smashed the reef in 1998.

Miller said the worst bleaching in the region is expected from April, and repeated expeditions to the sites over the coming weeks and months could reveal worse bleaching.

She said climate change is a worry for the future of these reefs. “If these bleaching events happen more regularly, the reefs won’t have the time to recover between the bleaching events – and that will affect the persistence of the reef.”

Scientists have demonstrated that marine reserves, where fishing and other disruptive activities are banned or limited, helps reefs recover from damage, including from bleaching. [more]

Coral bleaching spreads from Great Barrier Reef to Western Australia


Scott Reef in Western Australia is experiencing severe bleaching. In mid-march 2016, approximately 90 percent of the coral community is affected and coral mortality is occurring. Photo: Nick Thake / AIMS

(AIMS) – North Western Australian coral reefs are now feeling the effect of the 2016 global coral bleaching event. Scientists aboard AIMS research vessel Solander at Scott Reef, an isolated coral reef system located 250 km off the northwest coast of Western Australia, are reporting 60-90% of corals in water depths of up to 15 m have bleached and that wide-spread mortality is already evident.

Varied levels of coral bleaching were observed mid-March during an AIMS regional assessment of a number of reefs and shoals between Darwin and Broome, and at Browse Island. Current reports indicate bleaching at sites along the Kimberley coast as well as offshore locations such as Christmas Island, Cocos Islands, and Seringapatam Reef.

Predictions, collaborations, and preparations

Preparations for large-scale coral bleaching in Western Australia began when predictions of a global bleaching event reaching Australia first emerged. In November 2015, over 40 scientists from research institutions and management agencies across the state convened to develop a large-scale strategy to document the distribution and severity of the bleaching. Scientists predict that warm water conditions causing bleaching will continue until the end of April, particularly in the north.

Now in effect, aerial and in-water monitoring activities are being conducted by collaborators including: Australian Border Force; Australian Institute of Marine Science; Bardi Jawi Indigenous Rangers; CSIRO; Curtin University; Kimberley Marine Research Station; Murdoch University; Parks Australia; University of Western Australia; West Australian Museum; WA Department of Fisheries; and WA Department of Parks and Wildlife. 

To assist with co-ordinating the streams of information from multiple sources, a new reporting tool has been developed by AIMS. The Coral Bleaching App works on smart phones and tablets via a map-based interface. It allows users to enter reports of bleaching and upload photographs into the state-wide database. The tool is freely available for anyone, including members of the public, to download and use to report bleaching observations at their location. The results will be displayed via a publicly-available online map.

AIMS Research

In addition to conducting preliminary baseline surveys and documenting and assessing the bleaching at several key WA locations, AIMS is contributing to broader knowledge regarding the impact of bleaching on Western Australian coral reefs. Using semi-permanent photo transects, in situ loggers and satellite data (through The Pawsey Supercomputing Centre), AIMS and our collaborators will:

  • assess the impact and recovery of coral communities to determine thermal tolerances of different coral species and morphologies;
  • assess local and regional differences in community resilience using fine-scale temperature information gained from temperature loggers recording throughout the bleaching period; and,
  • compare satellite imagery of the reefs to in situ surveys and develop models to better predict bleaching severity through remote imaging.

AIMS expertise and capabilities are making an important contribution to the collaborative bleaching research effort in Western Australia. The RV Solander is delivering our scientists and collaborators to some of the most isolated coral reefs in Australian waters to document the extent of bleaching, as she has done since commissioning in 2007. The data gathered during these trips provides a valuable insight into the resilience of isolated reef communities in some of the world’s most pristine settings. 

Scott Reef – a unique ecosystem

Scott Reef is Australia’s largest oceanic reef system. It is isolated, and rises from deep water on Australia’s Northwest shelf, approximately 250km from the West Australian coastline. Its isolation from many direct human pressures makes it a unique and valuable system for research. AIMS, in collaboration with other research institutions and industry, has been monitoring and investigating Scott Reef for over 20 years, resulting in one of the most comprehensive, long-term datasets for a coral reef ecosystem.

AIMS began a formal monitoring program at Scott Reef in 1996. In 1998, the reef suffered moderate to severe bleaching during the first global bleaching event. Over 80% of coral cover was lost during this period. Extensive research and monitoring over the following years provided vital information on how isolated coral reefs respond after catastrophic bleaching events, information that is critical to the management of reefs globally. The reef took about 12 years to recover.

The current collaborative research program at Scott Reef will provide valuable information on how reefs are responding to warming events of increasing frequency, length and severity providing some sobering insights into the future of other ecosystems in the face of a rapidly changing global climate.

Western Australian reefs feel the heat from global bleaching event

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