Coral bleaching report released after accusations of political interference

A scientific report on a mass coral bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef has been quietly released after the government department and a Commonwealth agency were accused of covering up the findings to shield the Coalition from criticism during the federal election.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) published on its website late on Wednesday night its Summer Reef Snapshot Report, showing the results of aerial surveys of coral bleaching along the coral ecosystem.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has published its Summer Reef Snapshot Report.Credit:Australian Marine Conservation Society

The Age and Sydney Morning Herald revealed last week that GBRMPA had delayed the release of the survey results until after the election.

It was also reported on Tuesday morning that the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet had advised GBRMPA and another science agency that helped with the survey, the Australian Institute of Marine Science, that it would be preferable to withhold the report during the caretaker conventions which apply during an election.

Experts criticised these delays and accused the department and the agencies of failing to act in the public interest to protect the Coalition, which is facing criticism of its climate policies in the election campaign.

Caretaker conventions during an election campaign and mean the government should avoid major policy decisions, significant appointments, as well as major contracts and undertakings.

But the Environmental Defenders Office, which gave the advice, said the guidance on caretaker conventions “does not show that there is any impediment to the release of the reef summer snapshot”.

The survey results, which show the location and severity of coral bleaching, were published by the authority on its website within a broader report called the Summer Reef Snapshot.

The information is crucial because individual reefs that have been bleached multiple times are less likely to survive.

The Great Barrier Reef system is made up of hundreds of smaller reefs. The authority flew the length of the system and photographed 719 individual reefs. 654 of them, or 91 per cent, showed coral bleaching.

Bleaching occurs when the sea surface temperature is too hot for too long, causing corals to expel the algae living in their tissues and turn white. Corals can recover if the sea temperature drops quickly enough.

The survey detected the most severe bleaching in the central region of the reef, around Townsville, where the proportion of the affected corals ranged from what the authority called “major”, at 31 per cent to 60 per cent bleached, to extreme with more than 90 per cent bleached, located on shallow parts of reefs between Cooktown and the Whitsundays.

The most recent bleaching occurred during a late summer heatwave across far north Queensland. There have been five mass bleaching events – in 2002, 2016, 2017, 2020 and 2022 – but this was the first during a La Nina weather event, which is typically cooler than average.

Australian Marine Conservation Society Great Barrier Reef campaign manager Lissa Schindler said it should be unacceptable to political parties that the reef continues to bleach.

“It should have been a welcome reprieve for our reef to help it recover and yet the snapshot shows more than 90 per cent of the reefs surveyed exhibited some bleaching,” Schindler said.

Climate Council research director Simon Bradshaw said the latest bleaching event “shocked the scientific community”.

“This is a wake-up call for Australians to think long and hard about just how much our nation’s woeful climate policy is costing us and to demand better.”

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