The spirit of the Australian Coral Reef Society

Participants of the 92nd Annual Conference of the Australian Coral Reef Society, May 7-9th, Moreton Island, Queensland (photo credit: Dr Russell Kelley)

Participants of the 92nd Annual Conference of the Australian Coral Reef Society, May 7-9th, Moreton Island, Queensland (photo credit: Dr Russell Kelley)

A reflection from past, present and future Presidents

As we leave the excitement of the 92nd Conference of the Australian Coral Reef Society behind and return to our day-to-day lives, we reflect on a question posed in the opening ceremony:

What is the spirit of the ACRS and what do we stand for?

A group of 120 scientists, drawn largely from our membership of almost 300 experts working on coral reefs in Australia, came together to share our insights over three days on Moreton Island. Our conference was an opportunity reach across the institutional margins of universities, government departments, museums and conservation agencies to compare findings and inform one another. Or just to talk.

The gathering hummed with a sense of community born out of years working together, respect for one another’s expertise and a shared passion for coral reefs. The sociability and laughter was remarkable given the mounting concern for the health of coral reefs and, in many cases, personal anguish that has marked the last decade for many of Australia’s coral reef scientists.

Through scientific presentations we revealed our findings, observations and predictions to audiences that by turn seemed inspired, motivated and frustrated. We shared moments of gloomy solidarity over cups of tea about the current state of the reef.

Later, over glasses of wine, gloom turned to desperation for some of us as we grappled with what it will take for coral reefs to survive mass bleaching, ocean acidification and other growing threats. But as Christiana Figueres, who oversaw the 2015 Paris Agreement to tackle global climate emissions reminds us, optimism, not defeatism, is the starting point for success.

With that in mind, we have sought each other out to propose ideas about how we can work together more effectively. We have laid the groundwork so that our insights can find their way to the forums that matter: delegations to Parliament, submissions to senate committees.

One of our founding members, Dr Pat Hutchings, traced a history spanning almost a hundred years that has seen our Society help to establish the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, fend off proposals to mine the reef, assist with establishing the Great Barrier Reef as a World Heritage site and set up the zoning framework for its protection. These feats have demanded both scientific awareness and political diplomacy.

We welcomed a new generation of councillors to take on the tasks that keep our Society running. Pat observed that she was diving Australian reefs before many of them were born. What does this mean for a new generation of scientists, whose expectations for responsible environmental stewardship are shaped by an entirely different experience of Australia’s underwater world?

The Australian Coral Reef Society has an impressive track record of communication and advocacy. It brings together members, including some of the world’s foremost environmental scientists, with politicians and coastal managers to have conversations that have mattered historically, and continue to matter.

The Society speaks with a voice that is inclusive, independent and informed about pressing contemporary environmental issues. In reflecting on the spirit of the ACRS and what it stands for, this is important to remember at a time when experts are routinely called upon to assist with political decision making through Senate Inquiry hearings, Royal Commissions and Expert Panels. Perhaps now, more than ever, the unique voices of scientists are needed to make a valuable contribution to debates about how we can continue to live alongside and look after of one of the world’s natural wonders.

By Dr Sarah Hamylton, Dr Andy Hoey, Dr Anna Scott