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Australia pledges millions to protect Great Barrier Reef

The Australian government on Sunday announced a multimillion-dollar investment aimed at protecting the Great Barrier Reef from the effects of climate change.

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Officials hailed the $500 million (about $377 million USD) effort as the government’s largest single investment for reef conservation

The bulk of the money -- $444 million (about $335 million USD) -- will go toward reducing pollution in the reef, mitigating the impacts of climate change and dealing with coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish through a partnership with the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, officials said. 

"We'll be improving the monitoring of the reef's health and the measurement of its impacts," Australian Environment Minister Josh Freydenberg told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. "The more we understand about the reef, the better we can protect it."

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Aerial views of The Great Barrier Reef are seen from above on August 7, 2009 in Cairns, Australia.(Photo by (Phil Walter/Getty Images)) (Phil Walter/Getty Images)

John Schubert, chairman of the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, told the news station that the new government funding “brought real solutions within reach,” but some criticized the government for not focusing further on tackling climate change.

“There’s a huge missing piece in the puzzle,” Australian Marine Conservation Society campaign director Imogen Zethoven told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. "The reality is, hundreds of millions of taxpayers' dollars has gone into reef rescue packages for nearly 20 years to deal with poor water quality. Yet we've had very little gain, so it's extremely important that this time around the money is spent properly and we start to see the tide turning."

The government released the following breakdown of the spending:

  • $201 million (about $152 million USD) for improving water quality through changed farming practices, like reducing the use of fertilizer and adopting new technologies
  • $100 million (about $75 million USD) for scientific research to support reef restoration, resilience and adaptation
  • $58 million (about $44 million USD) to fight crown-of-thorns starfish
  • $45 million (about $34 million USD) to support community engagement and awareness
  • $40 million (about $30 million USD) for enhancing health monitoring of the reef
  • $56 million (about $42 million USD) to expand environmental management and compliance operations on the reef

Aerial surveys conducted last year showed widespread coral bleaching across the Great Barrier Reef, an indication that water temperatures stayed too warm for coral to survive. Officials found severe bleaching in the central part of the reef, an area that was spared the severe widespread bleaching seen in 2016.

>> Related: Mass coral bleaching hits Great Barrier Reef for 2nd consecutive year

Bleaching occurs when coral, invertebrates that live mostly in tropical waters, release the colorful algae that live in their tissues and expose their white, calcium carbonate skeletons. Bleached coral can recover if the water cools, but if high temperatures persist for months, the coral will die.

Eventually the reef will degrade, leaving fish without habitats and coastlines less protected from storm surges.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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