ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The Great Barrier Reef has long been in trouble. The Australian Institute of Marine Science found that the reef has lost more than half its coral since 1985. The United Nations warns it could list the reef as in danger next year. The Australian government is considering a new rescue plan, but, as we hear from Steve Dorsey, not everyone is buying the idea.
STEVE DORSEY, BYLINE: On a large boat 45 miles off the coast of northeastern Australia, at Norman Reef, a group of tourists are suiting up for their first scuba dive of the day. Underwater, schools of shimmering, tropical fish circle gulping, giant clams. Sea turtles nibble on algae and sea grass. It's this expansive water world that lures in more than two million tourists to the Great Barrier Reef each year. It's what brought Madison Lewis here, a college student from Virginia studying in Australia.
MADISON LEWIS: I just expected to see a bunch of really exotic animals and cool coral reefs and stuff, and this went beyond my expectations.
DORSEY: The Great Barrier Reef, the world's largest living structure, generates some $5.6 billion a year in tourism revenue for Australia. But like many of the world's reefs, its future is in jeopardy. Climate change, invasive fish and pollution have all killed off much of the reef.
BYRON CONROY: It's in a mess.
DORSEY: Byron Conroy makes his living off the reef by traveling on tourist boats like this one, guiding snorkeling trips.
CONROY: The biggest one I see on a day-to-day basis is coral bleaching caused by climate change. So just an increase of two degrees in water temperature causes all the algae to dispel from the coral. That's where we get the white corals. So if that doesn't get resolved, the water temperature doesn't sort itself out within six months, all the coral dies off.
DORSEY: On land, government officials from Australia, and the state of Queensland, have been trying to figure out how to save the reef. The government hopes to prevent UNESCO from listing the reef as in danger next year. It could be a devastating move according to Felicity Wishart with the Australian Marine Conservation Society.
FELICITY WISHART: That would bring terrible shame to Australia. It would potentially put tourists off from coming here and be a real blow to the tourism industry.
DORSEY: So officials proposed a 35-year plan last month to restore and protect the reef. It aims to cut pollution, combat invasive sea life and limit nearby port developments. Queensland Environment Minister Andrew Powell says he's confident in the plan.
ANDREW POWELL: We are all passionate about ensuring that it's here for the long haul, for our kids and our grandkids. This 35-year plan is about achieving that outcome.
DORSEY: Already, conservationists like Richard Lek from Australia's World Wildlife Federation don't like what they see.
RICHARD LEK: Look, this plan at the moment is a bit more than business as usual. It's good to see the Queensland and the Australian governments working together, but it doesn't have big, new, bold actions that can be implemented immediately.
DORSEY: Environmental groups say among the plan's biggest failures is continuing to allow companies to dump millions of tons of sediment from port dredging on the reef. Back adrift on the coral sea, the boat's crew prepare to go home. As tourists climb back on board after seeing the reef first hand, many, like Madison Lewis, are joining the call for change.
LEWIS: Now, seeing in person how beautiful it is, I would hate for anything to happen to it. So I think that there definitely is something that needs to be done to preserve it.
DORSEY: The reef's biggest allies then might not be environmental groups, biologists and government officials at all, but tourists like Lewis, whose money everyone wants. For NPR News, I'm Steve Dorsey.
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