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Tourism Operators Worried By Misleading Reef Media Portrayal

By Ray White Whitsunday

Social media posts and news coverage highlighting the ongoing detrimental effects of Cyclone Debbie to the Great Barrier Reef have caused concern among some Whitsunday tour operators who are worried people will lose hope in the reef.

Red Cat Adventures Sales and Marketing manager Chloe Autrdige said she had seen images online of people snorkelling amid brown water “which is absolutely not what it’s like at the moment”.

She said her tour company had received calls from people wanting to check if they should bother coming to the Whitsundays which was “quite detrimental”.

“We are back up and running. There was damage sustained, but there’s so many snorkelling spots… the ones that weren’t sheltered were affected, but we’ve gone out and searched and been really successful in finding new sites,” she said.

Ms Autridge said although there were a lot of negative stories after the cyclone it was important to regain hope, stick together as a community and help each other.

Much of Fiona Merida’s work as manager of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s Eye on the Reef program is about just that – working together as a community for the benefit of each other and the reef.

Ms Merida, who also manages industry engagement with the Tourism Industry including stewardship and programs to empower the industry and local people, said surveys of damage to reef had shown surprising results, as one part of the reef could be completely affected, while 300 metres away there would be an area untouched by the cyclone.

Her program aimed to identify sites which still provided beautiful coral so these areas could be given good protection for regeneration and also for tourists to visit.

The Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS) was also busy during June, looking at 13 offshore reefs in the Whitsundays to determine the extent and severity of damage from Cyclone Debbie. Studies have also been done in conjunction with the Marine Park Authority.

Damage done to a reef from a cyclone is measured by the intensity of the cyclone, its size, and how slowly the system moved across the reef.

“Unfortunately tropical Cyclone Debbie, she hit the trifecta. She was Category 4 and a really big system and she took more than 24 hours to traverse the Great Barrier Reef,” Manager of Operations Support in the Field Management Unit for GBRMPA, Mark Read said.

Mr Read said he was comfortable with the information that was being reported but noted, “we need to provide balance”.

Ultimately Mr Read concurred the damage was patchy, so while some parts of the reef had almost all the coral scraped completely off, other parts of the same reef were left with live coral that was unharmed.

“And that’s certainly what they found when they looked at those 13 reefs offshore from the Whitsundays,” he said.

“Within five years, some of these places will have really high levels of coral cover, upwards of 80%. (But) it’s going to take a lot longer for the slower growing species to recover… that’s one of the things that we are monitoring over time.”

Mr Read said in some of the Whitsunday island’s bays, the cyclone had lifted all the coral from the ocean floor and dumped it on the beach leaving no coral beds for new coral to settle, vastly affecting rates of recovery if unchecked.

“(But) we worked with QPWS and tourism operators and contractors to move about 400 tonnes of coral and coral rubble back into the water below the low tide mark to provide the settlement area for the next generation of coral,” he said.

He also said they had worked with tourism operators to identify areas that had higher degree of coral cover and talked to them about switching sites and taking snorkellers to different locations.

Mr Read added it was important to concentrate on the overall resilience of the reef and factors we could control such as water quality, zoning, protection from the crown-of-thorns starfish, collaboration with tour operators, and controlling fishing.

“It is quite easy to dwell on negatives and that can kill hope. We need to recognise how resilient the reef is and how it can bounce back,” he said.

This is the focus for tour operator Ocean Rafting owner Jan Claxton, who said she wanted to protect the reef and give it the best chance possible to recover.

“We lost some of our favourite snorkel spots which were completely devastated. But now we’ve found tracks of coral that you wouldn’t even know had been through a cyclone,” she said.

Source: Whitsunday Times.

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