Australia’s Great Southern Reef has been named Mission Blue’s newest ‘Hope Spot’ – a special place that’s critical to maintaining the health of our oceans – thanks to a PhD researcher at The University of Western Australia.
Mission Blue is a non-profit ocean conservation organisation led by US marine biologist and ocean activist Dr Sylvia Earle. The Hope Spot announcement is expected to focus global attention on the Great Southern Reef, which extends around 8000km of Australia’s rugged southern coastline, straddling five states and described as one of the most pristine and unique temperate reefs in the world.
The Great Southern Reef’s main feature is its extensive kelp forests and it was research into these seaweeds that prompted UWA Oceans Institute PhD candidate Sahira Bell to nominate the biodiversity hot-spot as a ‘Hope Spot’.
“I was actually looking through other Mission Blue Hope Spots on social media and it suddenly struck me that the Great Southern Reef was equally deserving and equally under threat and so I filled out the paperwork and put in a submission,” Ms Bell said.
“I almost couldn’t believe it when Mission Blue came back to me and said this was exactly the sort of marine region they are looking for, and how even they were surprised that this incredible ecosystem existed without them knowing about it.”
Despite around 16 million Australians living within 50km of the reef it is largely unknown and, because the southern coast of the country is remote and exposed to the Southern Ocean, has flourished with minimal human interference.
“It is an incredible ecosystem that is home to thousands of species, including the iconic cuttlefish, leafy sea dragons, the Australian sea lions and giant kelp forests,” Ms Bell said.
“It’s estimated that there are still tens of thousands of species to be discovered in its waters however, temperate reefs are so understudied and under-acknowledged.”
Dr Earle said the award recognised the reef’s raw beauty, immensely rich biodiversity, indigenous values and the work being done in research, education and public awareness to help protect it.
“The Great Southern Reef is a fantastic example of how a natural world can thrive when we leave it alone,” Dr Earle said. “However more must be done, because right now the reef faces extreme threats from climate change and oil drilling.
“We need to embrace the identity of the reef so all can understand and appreciate this ecosystem, so we can forge ahead and do everything possible to protect it.”
The Great Southern Reef was first defined as an entity by a team led by UWA Oceans Institute’s Associate Professor Thomas Wernberg in 2016.
“We came up with the name to give this ecosystem a proper identity that basically conveys how amazing it is, and how unique it is,” Associate Professor Wernberg said.
“The reef system is so immense yet towns and cities that are hundreds of kilometres apart share the same productive kelp forests.”
Ms Bell said the Great Southern Reef wasn’t mentioned in tourism guides nor was it a household name so few realised the scale and significance of something that was right on our doorstep.
“This Hope Spot will be monumental in proving to the world that there’s a whole other side to marine environments that aren’t coral reefs but are just as spectacular and will hopefully motivate increased protection and research efforts for this incredible part of our ocean.”