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Why we need to protect the reef

MULTI-coloured fish, iridescent corals and large predators in huge glass tanks surrounding Archbishop John Bathersby are a hint of the beauty and wonder that has moved Queensland’s Catholic bishops to make a stand for the sake of creation.

Archbishop Bathersby was in that setting at Reef HQ in Townsville on August 6 to launch the bishops’ pastoral letter on the Great Barrier Reef.

The letter highlights the beauty of the reef and why we have a responsibility to care for it, the threats to the reef’s future, the efforts being made to protect it and what more needs to be done.

The bishops have been sure to base their comments on a sound foundation, pointing out that their letter draws on extensive research by the Australian Institute of Marine Science, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and James Cook University.

With its title, Let the Many Coastlands be Glad, taken from Psalm 97 – ‘Let the earth rejoice; let many coastlands be glad! ‘before the Lord of all the earth’ – the letter was written with the support of Catholic Earthcare Australia’s advisory council.

The document describes the reef as ‘a sublime gift and blessing from God’, a vast network of complex systems that together are almost the size of Italy.

Relating their letter to Pope John Paul II’s call to ‘ecological conversion’ for all Christians, the bishops set this responsibility within the belief ‘that the risen Christ is at the heart of creation and the web of life, bringing all to its completion in God’.

‘As the Catholic bishops of Queensland, we have written this letter to emphasise our shared ecological responsibility for one of our greatest natural treasures, the Great Barrier Reef,’ the letter says.

‘Care for the environment and a keener ecological awareness have become key moral issues for the Christian conscience.

‘The Holy Spirit is clearly guiding us into a deeper sense of companionship and care in regard to all the varied forms of life on planet Earth.

‘Not only is the reef a precious ecosystem in itself, but also an integral part of the one web of planetary life that connects us all – the human species and all species of the land and sea, rainforest and reef, mountains, plains and inland desert.’

The bishops say that ‘to adore the Creator of the universe with praise and thanksgiving, to realise that all things have been made in Christ and find their connectedness in him (Col 1:15-18), is to become more sensitive to the wonder of creation’.

They note that the Pope ‘sees this growing concern for the health of the environment as one of the �signs of hope’ that the Holy Spirit provides for our times’.

Part of that hope are the many people who have been working towards the preservation of the Great Barrier Reef – ‘farmers, pastoralists, fishermen, scientists, environmental activists and ordinary citizens, even young children’.

‘In a poll taken in 2003, some 94 per cent of Australians declared that they wanted greater protection for the reef, and 90 per cent of coastal Queenslanders indicated the same concern,’ the bishops’ letter said.

They commended the Australian Government for increasing the protected area of the reef from 4.6 to 33 per cent, and they said they hoped the Government would continue to financially support reef research and, where necessary, consider increasing the area of protection.

Acknowledging those who have had to make sacrifices for the sake of reef protection, the bishops said many cane farmers, pastoralists and agriculturalists had contributed significantly to changes in farming practices that limit soil erosion and run-off.

‘The majority of recreational and professional fishermen have collaborated closely with government agencies in developing new compliance regulations,’ the bishops said.

‘We recognise that some people in the fishing industry have lost their traditional source of income because of the new conservation zones, and that all Australians and their national and state governments need to generously respond to the sacrifices that have been made.

‘The implementation of new responsibilities is inevitably painful, and some bear a disproportionate burden.

‘As pastors we are deeply concerned for the well-being of those people and wish to support them and their families in every way possible.

‘Continuing consultation with industry groups, the renewable energy sector, conservation groups, government agencies and the communities most affected is imperative if genuine progress in the reef preservation project is to be maintained.’

The bishops’ letter highlights the main threats to the reef.

‘The immediate threats are those of sediment run-off from the land, sewage outflow, deteriorating water quality and over-fishing,’ the letter says.

‘Next, are the problems connected with climate change, particularly coral bleaching and rising sea levels.’

The threat to water quality stems from soil erosion resulting in nutrients and toxic chemicals (pesticides, herbicides and heavy metals) flowing onto the reef through the many Queensland river systems.

‘These rivers now carry 10 times more silt than they did 100 years ago. Silt smothers corals and prevents young corals from settling and recolonising the vacant reef space, killing or weakening the coral so that it becomes susceptible to disease.

‘Without coral life, the finely balanced reef ecosystem collapses. Regrettably, there are a number of examples around the world where this has already happened.’

On this score, the bishops congratulated the Queensland Government on its recent decision to radically reduce land clearing in the state.

On global warming, the letter notes that scientists advise that the temperature of reef waters has increased 0.6 degrees centigrade in the past 100 years and is projected to rise by between 2 and 6 degrees over the next century.

‘Corals live in a very narrow ‘envelope’ of thermal tolerance where temperatures only 1 degree centigrade above normal summer conditions cause them to stress (bleach),’ the letter says.

‘When exposed to these conditions over prolonged periods, corals die.’

Bleaching occurred across most of the Great Barrier Reef in 1998 and in 2002, killing on some reefs up to 90 per cent of the coral.

Scientists warn that, with climate change, such events will become more frequent and more severe.

This has prompted the bishops to renew a call made by the Australian Catholic bishops and other Church leaders of the nation in 2002, for the Federal Government to ratify the United Nations’ Kyoto Protocol on climate change.

The Queensland bishops say this is a matter of urgency.

They also call on individuals to do their bit to prevent global warming by adjusting lifestyles to reduce greenhouse emissions.

‘We are living beyond our environmental capacity and we have to face the hard issues of radically changing our habits, reducing our consumption of everything that is not renewable, and reusing and recycling what we have.’

In relation to the Pope’s call for ‘ecological conversion’, the bishops said his particular message for people in this part of the world was that we have the ‘special responsibility to assume, on behalf of all humanity, stewardship of the Pacific Ocean, containing over half of the earth’s total supply of water’.

‘The continued health of this and other oceans is crucial for the welfare of peoples, not only in Oceania but in every part of the world,’ the Pope has said.

The bishops said that although there had been successes over the protection of the Great Barrier Reef in the past 10 years, Queenslanders cannot afford to be complacent.

‘We must safeguard the Great Barrier Reef not only for ourselves but also for the generations to follow,’ they said.

‘In another sense, the reef belongs to the world and the world relies on us to exercise prudent and prophetic stewardship in ensuring its vitality, fecundity, beauty and biodiversity.

‘Responding to this sacred task with a sense of humility requires for many of us a candid examination of lifestyle choices, a realisation that creation is sacred and endangered and a radical change of heart – an ‘ecological conversion’.’

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