The Protectors

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

– Dr. Seuss, ‘The Lorax’

In Loren Eiseley’s short story “The Star Thrower”, the unnamed protagonist comes across a man on a beach. The surf had flung many starfish onto the shore, their fate seemingly sealed. They were to die either by baking in the sun, or by being collected by beach-goers who would pick them up and immerse them in boiling water before adding them to collections of their dead brethren. The man, attempting to save as many starfish as possible, conscientiously flings them out to sea in the hope that they can have a second chance.

Eiseley’s story was eventually adapted into the more commonly known ‘Starfish Story’, a metaphor for making a difference, no matter how small. Faced with thousands of dying starfish, the Star Thrower could never hope to save all of them. But for every starfish returned to the sea for a chance at survival, one small difference was made.

The story of the Star Thrower fits nicely with the concept of ‘biophilia’, a term coined by sociobiologist E. O. Wilson (1984) in his book of the same name. This concept is defined as an innate human need or desire to affiliate with nature and a strong attraction to nature and animals. Biophilia thus suggests that, even as humanity becomes increasingly urbanised and reliant on technology, there is still a deeply ingrained wish to connect with nature, an affinity with nature and its various aspects. This eventually results in a desire to care for it.

Mornington Peninsula, Melbourne.

Whether or not the Star Thrower agrees with Wilson, he would, in the words of Dr Seuss’ Lorax, be a person who indeed cares a whole awful lot. As with many other threats to the environment, including those that apply to the Great Barrier Reef, every difference made, no matter how small, counts. And thankfully, despite the doom and gloom covered in the previous posts on dying coral and badly-made decisions, there are quite a few Star Throwers out there.

1. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA)

The GBRMPA is a government-based organisation meant to oversee the care and proper use of the Great Barrier Reef. The GBRMPA maintains a website of comprehensive guidelines and information that is readily accessible to the general public. It works closely with researchers and scientists to monitor and tackle threats to the Reef (one example is the research cited in the post on the crown of thorns starfish) and also with other government authorities, advisory committees, indigenous peoples groups living on the Reef and even industry players in areas like tourism and fishing. All this is done so as to best maintain the Reef and make sure it is used in a sustainable manner. The GBRMPA also uses this information, gathered from a multitude of perspectives, to legislate policies regarding the Reef and resolve conflicts.

Given the work done by the GBRMPA, it relates to the concept of the management of the so-called ‘commons’, a term used by American ecologist Garrett Hardin in his 1968 essay “The Tragedy of the Commons”. Using the analogy of a pasture utilised by several cattle ranchers, Hardin illustrated a bleak situation. If each rancher were to look out only for his own self-interest, he would add as many heads of cattle to the pasture as he possibly could to maximise the profits he could gain from his herd. No one rancher owns the pasture, and each rancher feels no obligation, no responsibility to care for the pasture or ensure that this common pool resource is being used at a sustainable rate. This results in the tragedy Hardin describes.

The result of the Tragedy of the Commons: unsustainable use of the common pool resource (the road, in this case) to the detriment of all. (
The result of the Tragedy of the Commons: unsustainable use of the common pool resource (the road, in this case) to the detriment of all. (

So how do cows and pastureland relate to marine organisms and the Great Barrier Reef? Hardin’s pasture analogy is widely applicable to just about any type of common pool resource in the world, not excepting the Great Barrier Reef. The one way the Reef differs from the pasture is that its use as a common pool resource extends into the use of the Reef for things such as tourism, as a shipping lane, as an area for naval exercises, as a place of residence for Aboriginal communities… The list goes on. We are no longer talking about a bunch of cattle ranchers, but millions of individual users who, again, have no ownership of the Great Barrier Reef and, again, no real motivation to care for it.

This is where the GBRMPA comes in.

Perhaps the most compelling way by which people could be compelled to care for common pool resources is through the use of government policy. By legislating care of the Reef, the GBRMPA (and other government organisations like it, overseeing other common pool resources) can help to ensure the sustainable use of such resources. Hardin corroborates the view that government bodies are effective and calls for the ‘”legislation of temperance” with regard to common pool resources (Hardin, 1968). Governments, according to Hardin, need to delegate work to various branches and bureaus to ensure sustainable use and enforce prohibitive laws while “corrective feedbacks” should be applied to ensure that these government bodies do not engage in any unscrupulous behaviour (Hardin, 1968).  The type of power that governments wield in setting laws, rules and regulations and using various technique to enforce these laws makes for a powerful system of incentives to encourage desirable behaviour and punishments (such as fines and jail terms for misconduct on the Great Barrier Reef, as outlined here by the GBRMPA) to discourage harmful or undesirable behaviour. Through this means of top-down communication, sustainability of common pool resources can become a reality.

2. Indigenous Groups

As previously mentioned, the Great Barrier Reef is home to many groups of indigenous peoples groups. Perhaps the oldest civilisation on earth, the Aboriginals and Torres Strait Island people have been living on the Reef long before the first Europeans arrived in the area in the late 18th century. As such, their knowledge of the Reef and its biodiversity is incomparably superior and deeply intertwined with a culture that is entrenched in millennia of life the Reef.

Turtle hunting is allowed under agreements with the GBRMPA. (Photgraph by Ludo Kuipers) (
Turtle hunting is allowed under agreements with the GBRMPA. (Photgraph by Ludo Kuipers) (

The Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders’ relationship with the Great Barrier Reef is a form of community-based management of a common pool resource. This occurs when small, local communities form their own rules and regulations about a shared common pool resource, using incentives and disincentives to ensure the fair use of the resource. In this sense, communities are very much like a more localised, area-specific form of government management of a common pool resource. However, there are added advantages. For one, the local community, having used and nurtured the common pool resource in their possession, will most likely have greater knowledge and understanding of it as compared to a  government that may be ignorant, uninformed or separated by sheer physical distance. They are thus in a much better position to manage the resource effectively.

This is what the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have long been doing. The many discrete people groups (separated further by smaller clans and other kinship lines within groups) have learned to use the resources of the Reef in a sustainable manner. For the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, this undertaking was straightforward: the maintaining of a nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyle of moving from one region to another to ensure that no single area would be depleted of resources (Ancient Wisdom, n.d.).

Ancient Aborigine cave art of a fish. ( )
Ancient Aborigine cave art of a fish. ( )

Aware of the knowledge and experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people groups in managing the regions of the Reef occupied by each group, the GBRMPA instituted a system of Traditional Use of Marine Resources Agreements (TUMRAs) and granted these groups status as Traditional Owners of the Reef. The TUMRAs give the Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders freedom to use the Reef’s resources, including the hunting of protected species (a feasible allowance, given the low impact of small-scale hunting and the cultural significance some of these species have for the indigenous peoples groups). At the same time, the GBRMPA enlists the help of these Traditional Owners to help in monitoring the Reef, resulting in a win-win situation for all (GBRMPA, n.d.).

3. The Team of the Catlin Seaview Survey

The final aspect that is useful for the management of common pool resources is education. Though not a particularly fast-acting measure, education is nonetheless useful in ensuring the proper use of common pool resources. This is where organisations such as the Catlin Seaview Survey take centre stage.

A Catlin Seaview Survey diver with the improved SVII-S camera, engineered for rapid deployment. (
A Catlin Seaview Survey diver with the improved SVII-S camera, engineered for rapid deployment. (

Sponsored by Catlin, a ‘global specialty property/casualty insurer and reinsurer’, the Catlin Seaview Survey consists of a dedicated team of 33 researchers, PhD students, scientists, photographers and trained Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) pilots. Combining their specialised expertise with cutting edge technology, the Catlin Seaview Survey has managed to survey the entire length of the Great Barrier Reef (along with other coral reefs worldwide) and has compiled the Catlin Global Reef Record, a database meant to be used in “understanding change and implementing management strategies for arresting the downward trend of coral reefs… providing an unprecedented source of data for scientists, reef managers and global decision makers” (Catlin Global Reef Record, n.d.). In the words of the Survey’s Chief Scientist:

“The Catlin Global Reef Record will, for the first time in history, make ocean change plainly visible for all to see– it’s a game changer ”

– Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Chief Scientist, Catlin Seaview Survey –

The gathering of information, though not as fast in producing results as enforcement, is nonetheless a critical component in helping to give direction to those who seek to act on common pool resource problems. The CGRR aims to provide information to “everyone, from policymakers to the general public” (CGRR, n.d.). Government bodies such as the GBRMPA would benefit greatly from the direction that the CGRR’s information gives in creating new policies and management strategies for the Reef.

On top of this, both the Survey and the CGRR are openly available to the public. This means that anyone can look up this information, which helps to achieve the aims of Environmental Education (EE), which, according to the Belgrade Charter cited by Clayton and Myers (2009), aims to “develop a world population that is aware of, and concerned about, the environment and its associated problems, and which has the knowledge, skills, attitudes, motivations, and commitment to work individually and collectively toward solutions of current problems and the prevention of new ones.” This is done using education, which has traditionally been used to “transmit knowledge as well as the ideals and skills necessary for citizenship” (Clayton and Myers, 2009).

The Catlin Seaview Survey has collected and compiled their material into educational projects for children. (
The Catlin Seaview Survey has collected and compiled their material into educational projects for children. (

Armed with this information, even the everyman can be equipped to assist in mitigating the effects on reefs like the Great Barrier Reef by becoming more informed about and aware of the damaging effects of human activities. With sleek, attractive graphics, high-resolution pictures and layers of interactivity, the CGRR and the Catlin Seaview Survey websites not only effectively bring across a clear picture of the devastation of the Great Barrier Reef, but will also ensure that more and more people will continue to be drawn to the information made available by the Catlin Seaview Survey team.

Finally, to finish up on the topic of EE, there is one last party that can make a difference for the Great Barrier Reef.

4. You

No, this writer is not kidding.

Remember how the Star Thrower was just one person? Yes, he might have been questioned as to how much of an effect he really was having, given the monumental task before him, but consider: what if you, as a single individual, equipped yourself with some information (like from the Catlin sites, for example) and became aware of how the irresponsible dumping of greywater could have long-lasting effects on coral reefs? The logical result of this knowledge would be to be more cautious on your next dive trip. That is one small difference made. One starfish back in the sea.

Now what if you decided to take action and make a contribution to an organisation like ARKive, Mission Blue or the WWF? Such organisations would definitely have the ability to generate a greater impact than single individuals, and whatever resources can be given (whether time, funding or even a simple ‘like’ of a Facebook page) will help in the work these organisations are doing to conserve and protect reefs all around the world. A slightly larger difference made, maybe ten starfish this time. Still a difference made.

You could go even further if you wanted. You could start a petition, write to a government official, get involved with (or start) a Non-Government Organisation (NGO). You could raise awareness with artwork. You could make less trips to reefs and lessen your impact on them (and take virtual dives instead. Or play video games). You could do a lot of things, and all of them, no matter how seemingly small they are or how many funny looks any of those things gets you, will still make a difference.

And you could start right now.

 “What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”

– Jane Goodall –

Conservation and Preservation of the Great Barrier Reef

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