Great Barrier Reef in 'recovery' but experts say progress will be threatened by climate-related disturbances

Amidst the tumultuous challenges faced by the Great Barrier Reef, a rare moment of recovery emerges, as highlighted in the Australian Institute of Marine Science's Annual Summary Report. Following a decade of intense disturbances, 69 out of 127 surveyed reefs exhibit a surge in hard coral cover, signaling a hopeful shift. This "recovery window" results from a break in climate-related upheavals, presenting a glimpse of resilience. However, experts caution that this positive trend may be fleeting, with the specter of climate change looming large. The report underscores the urgent need for emissions reduction to secure the long-term survival of this natural wonder, adding a crucial layer to the ongoing debate about listing the Great Barrier Reef as "in danger."

Great Barrier Reef in 'recovery' but experts say progress will be threatened by climate-related disturbances
AIMS researchers surveyed 127 coral reefs in 2021 to assess the health of the reef.(Supplied: Australian Institute of Marine Science)

The Great Barrier Reef is experiencing a rare window of recovery due to a break in weather and bleaching events according to the latest observations from marine scientists.

According to the Australian Institute of Marine Science's Annual Summary Report on Coral Reef Condition, which was released today, conditions have been relatively good for coral recovery during 2020-21. 

Researchers surveyed 127 reefs and found that at least 69 had seen an increase in hard coral cover since they were last surveyed.

"This indicates that recovery is well underway, after a particularly intense decade of disturbances prior to this," monitoring team leader Mike Emslie said.

"We've had very few acute disturbances this year," Dr Emslie said.

"There were no sustained heatwaves leading to coral bleaching, there were no large tropical cyclones.

"Essentially the Great Barrier Reef has had a bit of a breather."

Person snorkeling looks down towards corals while holding onto a line from a boat.
AIMS researchers are towed over the Great Barrier Reef to conduct surveys.(Supplied: Australian Institute of Marine Science)

The improvements come after the Great Barrier Reef experienced its most widespread bleaching event on record early last year.

Dr Emslie said the majority of the coral cover growth was driven by common, fast-growing table and branching corals.

However, he said these corals were the most vulnerable.

"Their fast growth comes at a bit of a cost, their skeletons aren't as dense as other corals," Dr Emslie said.

AIMS has warned that the recovery the Great Barrier Reef is currently experiencing is likely to be short-lived with the "increasing prominence" of climate-related disturbances.

"The biggest risk to the reef going forward is climate change," AIMS chief executive Paul Hardisty said.

"We must reduce emissions if the Great Barrier Reef and frankly other reefs around the world are going to continue to exist in the state in which we recognise them today," Dr Hardisty said.

AIMS CEO Dr Paul Hardisty delivering annual report in Townsville
Dr Paul Hardisty delivered an update on the reef's condition in Townsville. (ABC North Qld: Chloe Chomicki)

The World Heritage Committee, which sits under UNESCO, made a draft recommendation to list the Great Barrier Reef as "in danger" in June.

The decision is expected to be finalised at a meeting in China in the coming days.

AIMS declined to comment on the World Heritage Committee recommendation.

However, research program leader Britta Schaffelke said the latest observations of the Great Barrier Reef did not change a grim outlook which was delivered by the institute in 2019.

"The outlook report assessed the future outlook for the reef to be very poor," Dr Schaffelke said.

"The reef outlook into the future is still very poor because of the dangers of climate change and other factors."

'Incredibly rare moment'

The World Wildlife Fund's  Richard Leck said the report told a story of hope and one of a warning. 

"It's great to see the reef still has resilience and we have seen some significant bounce back in coral species," he said.

"But this is an incredibly rare moment in time where we haven't had extreme heat events or crown of thorns outbreaks.

"Those events are more likely to continue into the future."

Mr Leck said the report strengthened arguments to list the Great Barrier Reef as "in danger".

"This report reinforces the importance of the decision faced by the World Heritage Committee this week," he said.