The world’s biggest and most famous coral reef is dying. The Great Barrier Reef, visible from space, has lost 50% of its coral since 2016. It’s an issue dear to the hearts of Australian couple Stephen and Jessica Parry-Valentine.
The travellers have spent the last four years releasing sea turtles, helping pandas, and documenting their travels for their channel Flying the Nest. “Our love of animals and the environment has been a major passion of ours, from above ground to the depths of the ocean,” Jessica said in their recent video.
Over footage of Jessica packing her suitcase, Stephen explained late last year Coca-Cola got in touch with them. “Not for a product launch,” Stephen said, “for an initiative I had no idea they were involved in.”
The initiative is Project Catalyst. Begun in 2009, more than 130 local sugar cane farmers are working, along with the support and partnership of WWF, Coca-Cola Foundation and the Australian government, to improve farming methods and water runoff from their local farms to the Great Barrier Reef. The reason? To farm better, and sustain the reef.
Better farming = healthier reef
Farmer Tony Jeppsen hails from the small town of Bloomsbury in the Mackay region, and he’s focused on creating a more sustainable property. He knows the area well. His family has been working the land in the area since 1921.
“Everything we do is to focus on reducing offsite impacts. My main focus was nitrogen reduction, so that when you get the heavy rainfall events you don’t get the offsite movement and the materials. As the water’s going off my farm, I’ve done everything I can to make it the best, most pristine quality it can be,” Tony said.
Not the nice kind of starfish
The water runoff from farms like Tony’s has a critical impact on the health of the reef. Nutrients from fertilisers can run into the reef, causing algal blooms, which in turn are fed on by Juvenile Crown of Thorns starfish. The problem? Those starfish are in plague proportions, and are eating the coral. As much as 90 per cent could soon be gone.
“There may be as many as 12 million starfish currently on the reef,” said marine scientist Dr Glen Holmes.
This enormous starfish plague is driven by a number of factors. According to Glen, one of the most dominant factors is nutrients coming off the land. “These nutrients feed phytoplankton growth, which is a food source for the baby Crown of Thorns. Nutrients are coming primarily from farming operations, they’re coming from fertiliser runoff,” Glen said.
Stephen and Jessica flew to the Whitsundays to examine the devastating effect of the Crown of Thorns starfish population. Their video shows scene after scene of devastated coral. “This is such a special place for us, and seeing it like this is so disheartening,” Stephen said.
A shared future
Jessica and Stephen took a road trip to meet with farmers Tony Jeppsen, Frank Mugica and Ray Zamora. According to Tony, being part of a network like Project Catalyst has had a dramatic impact on farms in the region. “It’s a wonderful network of like-minded growers. Being given the support from Coke and WWF to ally with us to do that, it’s amazing. Brilliant,” he said.
Frank Mugica’s farm is part of the Burdekin Shire, and it’s less than two kilometres to the beach. He’s been with Project Catalyst for four years, and in that time has reduced 3000 units of nitrogen on his property alone.
Frank’s water is closely metered to ensure it’s utilised properly. “If we over-water, we end up washing the nitrogen out,” he explained. “And we don’t want to see it gushing out down the roadways, or flowing into creeks that flow into the reef because that’s just actually throwing money away.”
Ray Zamora, who farms sugar cane in the Tully-Murray region in the tropics of North Queensland, has been with Project Catalyst for seven years.
“I have my nitrogen stored in the soil in organic form. It’s just good farming practice,” Ray said. “Isn’t it lovely when you have this beautiful dirt full of roots. Because without healthy soil, we haven’t got a healthy planet, we haven’t got healthy people.”
It only takes a small change in farming practices to have a positive effect on the reef. Tony is believed to be the first person in the world to use skip row trails, which involve planting every second row of cane. This practice halves the input cost, but can still grow up to 70 per cent of normal production.
“I love the Great Barrier Reef, there’s always plenty of fish to catch,” Tony said. “And I want that to keep happening for generations and generations to come.”
Frank, whose farm is only two kilometres from the ocean, knows exactly how important his work is to the reef. “The beach is just there,” he said, pointing out from under his shed. “If I do have any runoff, well, that’s how close I am to the whole Great Barrier Reef ecosystem.”
“The reef is something worth protecting and fighting for.”
Project Catalyst has improved the quality of more than 150 billion litres of water flowing onto the Great Barrier Reef. You can read more about it here.