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Media Release
Acting Australian Government Minister for the Environment and Heritage
The Hon Warren Truss MP

31 January 2006

Experts assess coral bleaching in Great Barrier Reef


Leading Australian coral reef experts have inspected coral bleaching in the southern section of the Great Barrier Reef.

Acting Australian Government Minister for the Environment and Heritage, Warren Truss, said a team from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority had spent three days assessing corals off the Keppel Islands near Rockhampton. Experts from the University of Queensland and the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service assisted with the survey.

Mr Truss said it was the first significant incidence of coral bleaching this year.

"The team recently visited ten sites around the Keppel Islands and found that more than 75 per cent of corals were bleached at most sites.

"While this is certainly not as widespread or significant as the mass bleaching that occurred four years ago in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, any further increases in temperatures could lead to more bleaching throughout the reef," he said.

Dr Paul Marshall, Manager of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority's Climate Change Response Unit, said water temperatures in the southern reef had remained unusually high since early December 2005, triggering the recent coral bleaching.

"Sea temperatures increased by one to one-and-a-half degrees above the January average causing severe patches of coral bleaching off Heron and Keppel Islands," Dr Marshall said.

Scientists also reported bleaching near Lady Elliot Island and offshore from Airlie Beach.

Mr Truss said the tourism industry had helped monitor bleaching, with more than 80 operators now providing regular reports to the Australian Government.

"The outcome of the latest bleaching event will largely depend on weather conditions in the coming weeks.

"Coral bleaching highlights the need to protect the reef's resilience.

The Howard/Vaile Government's initiatives, such as the Reef Water Quality Protection Plan and the rezoning of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park will give the reef the best possible chance of bouncing back quickly," he said.

For interviews with Dr Paul Marshall, please contact Karen Vohland at GBRMPA on 07 4750 0737.

* A backgrounder on coral bleaching is attached.


Backgrounder

Coral bleaching facts

When water temperature increases, corals become stressed and lose the microscopic algae that lives within their tissue, causing them to turn bright white.

A bleached coral is still alive, and close inspection can reveal the nearly transparent tissue and tentacles that cover the skeleton.

Much of the corals' energy and colour comes from the algae. If hot conditions persist, bleached corals are unable to regain their algae.

This can lead to starvation and death.

Corals normally range from brown and green to yellow, blue and even pink. Bleached corals appear extremely pale or bone white.

The last mass bleaching events occurred in 1998 and 2002.

A Fact Sheet on coral bleaching is available from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority web site at www.gbrmpa.gov.au

Commonwealth of Australia