Quicksilver and The Fight for the Great Barrier Reef

Australia's Quicksilver uses ecotourism to raise local awareness about the decline of the Great Barrier Reef. But how can it go global?

The Quicksilver Group

Australia’s Quicksilver Group (Quicksilver) is the largest reef tourism operator for the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) [10]. Home to cruises and snorkeling excursions, Quicksilver owns thirteen major vessels, and is one of North Queensland’s largest private employers, with 630 local workers [4]. Perhaps most impressive, however, is Quicksilver’s twenty-year commitment to raising awareness about – and researching – the detrimental effects of climate change on the GBR ecosystem. As an early mover, Quicksilver is poised to further this conversation on an international stage.

The Threat of Warm Water

Climate change has led to an increase in sea temperatures [1]: since 1950, more than 90% of the excess heat trapped by carbon emissions have permeated the ocean. As a result, the surface temperature of the ocean has increased by 1C in the last 35 years — too warm for coral’s polyps to retain the algae that live inside it [2]. Algae provide most of the coral’s energy; without it, the coral falls into starvation, becoming ostensibly bleached. Because the water temperature cannot cool down, the coral is trapped in an endless cycle, ultimately perishing.

Exhibit 1. The impact of climate change on coral: healthy [9], bleached [8] and dead [2].
Exhibit 1. The impact of climate change: healthy [9], bleached [8] and dead [2] coral.
GBR’s decline has a detrimental effect on the massive ecosystem it supports. As the largest living structure in the world (2,300 km, and comprised of 2,900 reefs), the GBR supports 1,600 species of fish. Without coral and algae as sustenance, these fish either move away or die. This bubbles up the circle of life, affecting birds, whose droppings fertilize island plants, as well as the half billion humans who consume fish from this region.

Additionally, the GBR brings two million tourists, $6 billion and nearly 70,000 local jobs to Australia every year [2]. Quicksilver, and companies like it, are thus fundamentally dependent on the GBR for revenue.

What Quicksilver is Doing

In 1986, as coral reached “mass bleaching” levels [2], Quicksilver created Reef Biosearch, a group tasked with tracking and understanding the impact of climate change on the GBR.

Exhibit 2. Bleach levels over time, 1998-2016 [2].
Exhibit 2. Bleach levels over time, 1998-2016 [2].
Reef Biosearch combines tourism with education and research. Research staff focus on school, community and industry education about the environment; work as crew members aboard Quicksilver vessels during GBR tours; and conduct research with visiting scientists, informing their advisory role to reef management authorities, like the GBRMPA, Department of Environment, and CRC Reef Research Centre.

If Reef Biosearch’s success is measured in terms of data collection and quality local education, then it has done exceedingly well. To date, they have the largest logbook database of marine observations on the GBR (more than two decades). As a first-mover in combining tourism with preservation (predating the term “ecotourism”), and as an early proponent of crowdsourcing, Reef Biosearch has aggregated photographic and survey data, created monthly e-newsletters, and built tools like the interactive “Eye on the Reef” map [5].

What Else Can Quicksilver Do?

Though Quicksilver’s responsibility to its local community is notable, there is an opportunity to take Reef Biosearch’s work to the next level.

First, Reef Biosearch should make their data publicly, and widely, available. This can be done via university tutorials, open-source software (consider the reputable “survivors of the Titanic” dataset, made popular through its free inclusion with R [7]), data competitions hosted by Kaggle [11], and up-to-date blog posts (their most recent one is from 2013). The goal, to tap into the data-savvy public market, can prove beneficial in furthering awareness of GBR’s decline.

Additionally, Quicksilver should replace its vessels with smaller, environmentally friendly ones [3], up its marketing campaign, and consider innovative research techniques. By emphasizing its early eco-certification, Quicksilver can increase sales from eco-minded tourists more willing to travel with them. Participating in prominent conferences like COP22 [6] can garner earned media and move the conversation to an international forum. Finally, Quicksilver can invest in bleeding-edge technology to precipitate their research, like using virtual reality headsets to study the “digital reef” via “dry diving [12].”

Conclusion

Of course, these proposals are not without challenges. It is unclear how feasible a high-profile marketing campaign is, since we have no insight into Quicksilver’s financials. Downsizing vessels can hurt employment, a detriment to Quicksilver’s reputation as a leader in the local economy.

The biggest hurdle, however, is perhaps the most surprising: the Australian government. In May 2016, The Guardian discovered that all mentions of Australia were removed from the final version of a Unesco report on climate change [8]. Individuals like Col McKenzie, CEO of the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators argue that overzealous media coverage of bleaching is “a bigger risk to the industry than the bleaching itself.”

Quicksilver’s role, however, remains critical – to the climate change conversation and the preservation of a natural wonder.

Word count: 795 words.

References

[1] Henderson, R.M., Reinert, S.A., Dekhtyar, P., Migdal, A. (14 Oct 2016). “Climate change in 2016: Implications for business.”
[2] Slezak, Michael (June 6 2016). “The Great Barrier Reef: A catastrophe laid bare.” The Guardian [Online]. <https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/jun/07/the-great-barrier-reef-a-catastrophe-laid-bare>. Retrieved November 1 2016.[3] Grossman, Dave, et al. (2013). “GEO-5 for business: Impacts of a changing environment on the corporate sector.” [Online]. <http://web.unep.org/geo/sites/unep.org.geo/files/documents/geo5_for_business.pdf>. Retrieved 1 Nov 2016. pp. 11, 39-41.
[4] The Quicksilver Group homepage. <https://www.quicksilvergroup.com.au/>. Retrieved 2 Nov 2016.
[5] (2016) “Eye on the Reef program.” [Online]. <http://www.gbrmpa.gov.au/managing-the-reef/how-the-reefs-managed/eye-on-the-reef>. Retrieved 2 Nov 2016.
[6] Tsitsiragos, Dimitris (13 Jan 2016). “Climate change is a threat – and an opportunity – for the private sector” [Online]. <http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/opinion/2016/01/13/climate-change-is-a-threat—and-an-opportunity—for-the-private-sector>. Retrieved 31 Oct 2016.
[7] “Survival of passengers on the Titanic” [Online]. <https://stat.ethz.ch/R-manual/R-patched/library/datasets/html/Titanic.html>. Retrieved 3 Nov 2016.
[8] Slezak, Michael (26 May 2016). “Australia scrubbed from UN climate change report after government intervention” [Online]. <https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/may/27/australia-scrubbed-from-un-climate-change-report-after-government-intervention>. Retrieved 31 Oct 2016.
[9] Roswell, Andy (8 Mar 2016). “Great Barrier Grief” [Online]. <http://priceofoil.org/2016/03/08/great-barrier-grief/>. Retrieved 3 Nov 2016.
[10] Reef Biosearch homepage. <http://www.greatbarrierreefs.com.au/>. Retrieved 2 Nov 2016.
[11] Kaggle homepage. <https://www.kaggle.com/>. Retrieved 3 Nov 2016.
[12] (1 Nov 2016). “How ‘dry diving’ the Great Barrier Reef could help save the World Heritage site” [Online]. <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-11-02/how-dry-diving-the-great-barrier-reef-could-help-save-it/7987206>. Retrieved 3 Nov 2016.

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6 thoughts on “Quicksilver and The Fight for the Great Barrier Reef

  1. It was striking to me that the Great Barrier Reef is the largest living structure in the world and the impact of climate change on this region not only impacts the organisms that depend on it for their livelihood, but also the country that relies heavily on it for tourism revenues. While both stakeholders in this have different motives, it proves that the impact of climate change on the GBR is far more wide-reaching than I could have ever anticipated. As Anita notes, Quicksilver is not new to the climate change mitigation game – they have dedicated significant time and capital over the last 20 years to minimize the impact of climate change on the GBR. While research and continuous academic development in the space are critical, it appears that there are many opportunities for Quicksilver to actually marry the tourism economy and GBR research to further precipitate public awareness and action. One such innovative way mentioned in the post is the introduction of virtual reality to better visually study the digital reef through dry diving. Not only does this technology provide a new perspective from which scientists can assess climate change impacts, but it also introduces the opportunity to engage tourists in that impact discovery. Creating a fun and interactive environment with which tourists can experience the GBR before, during, and after their visits has the potential for high impact, low investment. I look forward to seeing how Quicksilver integrates some of their climate change mitigation research and strategy into their tourism efforts.

  2. This is a fascinating article. Why is the Australian government so against mentioning climate change? In some ways I can understand that they don’t want to hamper tourism, but one would think that increased awareness of the issue would have a more long-term benefit on tourism in the end.

    One innovative solution being tested in the Maldives is developing artificial reefs using steel cages which release an electric current. The low-level current triggers a chemical reaction, which draws calcium carbonate out of solution in the water and it gets deposited on the cage structure. A trial called the Lotus has been so successfully colonised by coral that it is almost impossible to detect the steel structure underneath. [1]

    If Australia doesn’t want Quicksilver’s help, maybe the Maldives does!

    [1] http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20120905-save-our-dying-coral-reefs

  3. I’m surprised (and admittedly disappointed) by the Australian government’s lack of active commitment to Quicksilver’s conservation “charter.” The continent is home to some of the world’s most unique and beautiful ocean species, so I would think any opportunity to preserve the sanctity of that would be championed. When I visited the GBR in 2010, I took a trip through Quicksilver, which as Anita notes, easily owns the largest piece of the tourism market in Cairns and the surrounding area. Therefore Quicksilver has a social responsibility to set the model for other travel groups and tourists to keep conservation top of mind while exploring the Reef. I agree that there’s been progress but so much more can be done. As Anita notes there is a lot of low hanging fruit for Quicksilver, from maintaining a stronger digital presence via its blog to promoting greater availability of data. I also loved Phoebe’s expansion of an idea from the post around virtual reality. Great way to really bring climate change to the forefront of people’s minds (literally!).

  4. Thank you for your post Anita. I find it interesting to consider how the presence of tourism and scale with tourism will become slightly at odds with Quicksilver’s greater goals. Is it possible for them to achieve scale without sacrificing the life of the reef in the long term.

    I found your suggestions of how they could use digital technology to augment the experience interesting in that they made me consider their current involvement in the context of their greater goal. A digital experience could obviously help with their goal without the limitations of the curated experience that they currently offer.

    In considering Quicksilver and the GBR, I think about what limits tourism faces in increasing awareness of climate change. Are we not currently aware enough? What do we do once we hit a desired level of awareness. If we reach a saturation point of awareness, what does Quicksilver’s mission transform into? Beyond generating awareness, does Quicksilver have a potential for a greater societal impact?

  5. Anita – this is a wonderfully written and researched article. It is incredibly somber that the Australian government itself is acting as a ‘barrier’ to the preservation of the Great Barrier Reef. That said, it is marvelous to see enlightened capitalism at work – where ‘moral’ values and ‘capitalism’ overlap in a way that benefits all (most) parties involved. I believe that Quicksilver may be able to look to myriad entities around the world (such as the National Wildlife Federation) for role models exemplifying partnerships between governments, NGOs, and for profit representatives of ‘enlightened capitalism’.

  6. I think this is a phenomenally well written and researched article. I was worried when I clicked that it would be filled with quotes like “scientists pronounce Great Barrier Reef dead at 25 million years old”, like I have seen so often in the last month. I was happy to see that you steered clear of mentioning that, but I think it is important to note that while 90%+ is bleached, only around 30% of the reef is dead. The rest is just very very sick.

    I find the issue of the Great Barrier Reef perplexing. As it continues to get sicker and sicker more tourists are flocking to catch a glimpse before the once great wonder of the world is lost forever. Each dive will continue to inflict damage to the fragile reef, it actually seems that this is a necessary evil. With tourism dollars (dollariedoos?) feeding into the local economy, the potential lost revenue from a dead reef may help push the Australian government to passing meaningful reform to try to save the environment.

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