The Great Barrier Reef has lost more than half of its coral in the past 27 years, according to a new study.
Researchers from The Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) in Townsville say that the loss was due to storm damage (48%), crown of thorns starfish (42%) and bleaching (10%), which is caused by the warming of the ocean.
“We can’t stop the storms but, perhaps we can stop the starfish. If we can, then the Reef will have more opportunity to adapt to the challenges of rising sea temperatures and ocean acidification, said John Gunn, CEO of AIMS.
Dr Peter Doherty, Research Fellow at AIMS, said that the study has taken over 25 years to complete.
He said: “This finding is based on the most comprehensive reef monitoring program in the world. The program started broadscale surveillance of more than 100 reefs in 1985 and from 1993 it has incorporated more detailed annual surveys of 47 reefs.
“Our researchers have spent more than 2,700 days at sea and we’ve invested in the order of $50m (£30m) in this monitoring program.
“The study shows the Reef has lost more than half its coral cover in 27 years. If the trend continued coral cover could halve again by 2022.
“Interestingly, the pattern of decline varies among regions. In the northern Great Barrier Reef coral cover has remained relatively stable, whereas in the southern regions we see the most dramatic loss of coral, particularly over the last decade when storms have devastated many reefs.”
Paul Cox, Director of Conservation and Communication at the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth, underlined just how vital corals are.
He told Huffington Post UK: "The tropical regions of the world's oceans are pretty barren. There's not a lot of productivity because of the conditions there and the lack of nutrients, there's not a lot going on, apart from coral reefs.
"Corals provide an oasis. They're often called 'the rainforests of the seas', which is a fairly accurate description. They're home to a massive amount of biodiversity. About a third of the world's fish live on coral reefs, along with a couple of million species of invertebrates.
"So what are the values of biodiversity? Well potentially you've got medicines in there, foods in there and lots of small communities rely on the fish there. So the value of them in terms of biodiversity is immense.
"They also have a structural value. Reef-forming corals create a reef that protects coastlines from the worst of the weather. And the value of the tourism associated with the reefs is immense, too."
The Great Barrier Reef lies in the Coral Sea, off the coast of Queensland in north-east Australia and with over 2,900 reefs over 133,000 square miles is the world’s largest reef system.
The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.