Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Lizard Island Research Station

Daniel Bateman, FNQ’s Lizard Island hit by worst coral bleaching in almost 15 years, The Cairns Post, 1 March 2016

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ON THE WATCH: The Australian Museum’s Lizard Island Research Station director Dr Anne Hoggett said the station recorded similar levels of bleaching in 2002. PICTURE: ANNA ROGERS

The worst coral bleaching to hit Lizard Island in nearly 15 years has scientists worried about how badly the Great Barrier Reef will be affected by warmer waters in coming weeks.

Researchers estimate 80 per cent of coral on the reef flat surrounding the island, about 220km north of Cairns, is showing signs of bleaching.

A wide variety of corals are bleaching but the branching, bushy and plate corals – which are highly sensitive to bleaching – are the worst-affected.

The Australian Museum’s Lizard Island Research Station director Dr Anne Hoggett said the station recorded similar levels of bleaching in 2002.

“We haven’t got a white fields of coral year but we’ve certainly got some corals that have gone completely white and a very large number that are fluorescing; they’re on their way to becoming bleached,” she said.

“We’ve got utterly perfect weather for bleaching here at the moment.

“It’s hot, it’s calm and it’s clear.

Sea temperatures have been up to 1.5C above average for this time of year at Lizard ­Island, and are expected to peak on the Great Barrier Reef later this month.

Researchers have warned the current El Nino weather patterns are mirroring those that caused widespread coral bleaching along the Reef in 1998.

Dr Hoggett believed the bleaching at Lizard Island would likely become worse in coming weeks.

She said it was particularly bad for the island’s reef ecosystem, which was still recovering from a recent crown-of-thorns starfish outbreak, and two major cyclones.

“It’s quite serious. We’re all worried about this coral bleaching,’’ she said.

“We had fingers and toes crossed hoping it wouldn’t happen, but it is happening ­exactly as predicted.”

Coral bleaching occurs when corals expel tiny algae that live inside them, mainly because of thermal stress.

ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies director Professor Terry Hughes said Lizard Island so far appeared to be the worst-hit location throughout the Great Barrier Reef this year.

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