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Major parties to pledge millions to the conservation of the Great Barrier Reef

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: As well as being a world heritage listed site and one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Great Barrier Reef is vital to the economy of tropical North Queensland.

Tourist agencies estimate the reef generates more than $6 billion in revenue, more than 24,000 jobs, and 20 per cent of the North Queensland economy.

So it was with some consternation that local tourist agencies greeted recent worldwide coverage of coral bleaching on large swathes of the Great Barrier Reef.

Both the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten have pledged millions to save the Great Barrier Reef as part of their federal election campaign, as the future of the reef plays in voters’ minds around Australia.

Nance Haxton reports.

(Sound of water)

NANCE HAXTON: Tourists bulging with towels, hats and sunscreen are bustling aboard a catamaran heading out to the Great Barrier Reef from the tourist hot spot of Port Douglas.

CREW MEMBER: And just be aware of things like the boom net, the boom is called the boom because that’s the same noise it’ll make when it hits you in the head so just be aware where you are when you’re walking around.

NANCE HAXTON: Some are worried about what they might see on the reef, given recent reports of coral bleaching.

TOURIST: Yeah, yeah, it is a concern, yeah, absolutely.

I guess, yeah, have a look at what can actually be done as well.

NANCE HAXTON: Steve Edmonson is the owner operator of reef tour group, Sailaway.

He says many policy makers are still in denial about this bleaching event.

STEVE EDMONSON: Yeah, obviously, the recent coral bleaching event which has happened, there’s no doubt about that, is a very important warning.

It’s like smoking in a way, you know it’s going to kill you but at what point do you think hey maybe this is a warning I should change my habits.

You know, for all our footprint, our carbon footprint in Australia is one of the highest in the world per capita.

I’m just so frustrated that the slackness and the dragging our feet to change to a better clean environment and a lower carbon economy.

NANCE HAXTON: Guide and marine biologist Glen Hampson says you have to look hard to see the bleaching out on this part of the reef.

GLEN HAMPSON: So it’s not like you’re swimming around and everythings all white and all dead, vast majority of it, especially at Low Isles we’re very lucky. I think only 1 per cent or even 2 per cent of the reef has been affected by it and you’ve only got to, you got to know what you’re looking for.

So you know the little white or bleaching that you’ll see on the coral sometimes you’ll see some of the colony and then you’ll see like the top fort of quarter of it is starting to go a little bit white and that’s the bleaching process starting to happen.

NANCE HAXTON: After an afternoon of paddling around the Low Isles, the verdict from the snorkelers is positive about what they have seen.

SNORKELER: Mind boggling actually, the coral, fish, just yeah, all different shapes and sizes and all different things, yeah, it’s pretty overwhelming actually.

SNORKELER 2: It was better than what I expected, it was, yes and yeah, look it was, the variety of fish was amazing and the variety of coral.

NANCE HAXTON: Tourism Tropical North Queensland CEO Alex de Waal watches thousands of tourists go out on reef cruises from Cairns every day.

ALEX DE WAAL: We have to understand the reef is a huge organism. Its 2,300 kilometres long.

It’s bigger than most European countries so it’s an enormous area and so you can’t just put generalisations out there and unfortunately we have a huge range of exaggerated commentary that is generalising an aspect of impact of one part of the reef across the entire reef.

NANCE HAXTON: The positivity of guests on his cruises is not something that Skipper Richard Campbell takes for granted.

He says he can’t see a cohesive plan from either of the major federal parties about how the wider issues of climate change affect the reef, and that’s an immense concern.

RICHARD CAMPBELL: This is a bit of a wakeup call. I have friends in the US that are now talking about coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef and that has never happened before.

So this, this time around I hope that the publicity that’s out there sort of taps on people’s shoulders.

I don’t just mean politicians I mean people in general, taps on their shoulder, and says think about what you’re doing.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Skipper Richard Campbell ending Nance Haxton’s report.

This story was originally broadcast by the ABC on June 20