Scientists at James Cook University in Queensland are among the world’s foremost experts on the damaged coral and threatened biodiversity of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, but their recent research focuses instead on people.
Specifically, they set out to measure “Reef Grief,” the sorrow and mourning that comes as people try to come to grips with the loss of treasured environments and the sense of identity that attaches to them.
Dr. Terry Hughes, head of the university’s ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, has made clear that the scope of the severely bleached coral reefs have made him and his students weep at the loss. A 2016 study found extensive damage to the 2,300-kilometer reef on Australia’s eastern coast, as have others, and the long-term impacts of global warming and marine pollution are sobering to contemplate; now a new study finds comparable stresses to Western Australia’s coral reefs too.
Yet it’s not just the scientists who grieve. In a paper published this month in Sustainability Science, the James Cook researchers report their findings after conducting nearly 4,000 surveys with a range of people invested in the reefs. They included 1,870 local residents and another 1,804 tourists, all of them contacted face-to-face. The research also included 94 tourism operators and 91 fishers to gauge the well-being of people who rely on the Great Barrier Reef for their livelihoods too.
“Results show that around half of residents, tourists and tourist operators surveyed, and almost one quarter of fishers, report significant Reef Grief,” the authors, led by Nadine Marshall, said. “Reef Grief is closely and positively associated with place meanings within resident and tourist populations.”
That sense of loss was decreased in the fishers, possibly because their relationship is built less on aesthetics or a sense of pride in UNESCO World Heritage Area status. Yet some still feel the loss, with 23 percent of the fishers also rating their grief between eight and 10, with 10 being the high scale point.
“It appears that people have already entered a period of grieving and mourning for the iconic landscape even though as much as 50 percent of the (Great Barrier Reef) is reportedly undamaged,” the authors note.
Understanding that sense of ecological grief is becoming increasingly important, its incidence is growing globally, and the paper looks at the consequences of a lost sense of place and its links to well-being. The James Cook scientists caution that it takes many forms across different cultures and from one person to the next – or even within the same individual when experiencing different losses and emotions.
“It can refer to experienced or anticipated losses and is expressed through mental and emotional reactions such as sadness, distress, despair, anger, fear, helplessness, hopelessness, depression, pre- and post-traumatic stress,” the authors said. “It can also occur through disruptions to sense of place and place attachment, loss of personal or cultural identity, and ways of knowing.”
The scientists suggest more attention to ecological mourning, both as a shared communal experience and as a motivating factor to help drive environmental protection efforts and successful transition in the face of climate change.