Mass launderings – but little change in GBR priorities

New research shows that the mass bleachings did little to change the issues addressed or the main actors involved in managing the Great Barrier Reef.

PhD candidate Amber Datta from the ARC Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University led the study.

She said the researchers looked at key issues discussed by a range of major parties with a role in reef management; such as industry groups, NGOs, as well as government organizations; before and after two episodes of coral bleaching in 2016 and 2017.

“Being ‘adaptive’ implies that meetings and initiatives must evolve to respond to new issues that emerge after an extreme climate event, but previous research has generated conflicting conclusions about whether crises actually lead to change,” said Ms. Datta.

She said that as extreme weather events become more frequent, finding out whether or not these events trigger change is critical.

“Our analysis of 145 forums (e.g. meetings, partnerships) over eight years (2012-2019) showed no major changes in the issues (e.g. climate change, water quality) that held attention at the regional level nor the types of organizations involved after coral bleaching events.

“Our research suggests that those interested in reef management struggle to take advantage of extreme weather events as windows of opportunity to make change,” said Associate Professor Michele Barnes, co-author of the paper.

Ms Datta said the massive coral bleaching events have prompted some actions, such as new coral restoration programs. Yet overall, their results showed that the events mostly reinforced existing priorities and did not change the relative influence of different parties.

Meeting documents indicated that this may be because the Great Barrier Reef has a very established management system and those involved chose to use existing forums rather than creating new ones in the face of crisis.

“This implies that extreme weather events may not overturn the entrenched status quo.”

She said the results indicate that extreme weather events cannot be relied upon to cause change, at least in the early years.

“This research looked at networks at the regional level, but the next part of the project will explore whether coral bleaching has triggered changes at the level of institutions and individuals.

“Future research needs to be broader and deeper to uncover the seeds of change to develop more adaptive systems as climate change transforms the Great Barrier Reef,” Ms Datta said.

Link to the journal article here.

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