Leaving A Place Better Than You Found It; Making A Difference And Restoring Ecosystems On The Great Barrier Reef


In Brief

Lady Elliot Island is a coral cay on the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef, and it is considered to be one of world’s best examples of marine ecotourism. With the implementation of solar and gas technology, water desalination and strategic behavioural adaptations, this multi award-winning ecotourism destination has committed to sustainable operations on a long-term basis.  The Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort has also played a lead role in achieving a ‘Green Zone’ designation for the island and surrounding waters from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, which is the statutory protected area management agency responsible for the reef. The island is managed jointly by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service and in close collaborative lease arrangement with Peter Gash, who is considered by many to be a leader in ecotourism conservation and an ‘environmental crusader’.


Introduction

To ‘leave a place better than you found it’ is easier said than done. Yet on a small island at the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR), one visionary with a team of dedicated individuals is doing just that. Part of the GBR World Heritage Area, Lady Elliot Island (LEI), is a coral cay situated within a highly protected Marine National Park (Green) Zone. The Green Zone is a ‘no-take’ area where extractive activities like fishing or collecting are not allowed without a permit. LEI is a sanctuary for over 57 species of migratory birds, 1,200 species of marine life, including an abundance of large marine fauna such as manta rays, turtles, sharks, and dolphins, and a pristine coral reef. A relatively short time ago, however, this island’s ecosystems were on the brink of collapse. LEI’s soils, enriched with guano from migratory birds, were mined for phosphorus and fertilizer between 1863 and 1873. 1  The majority of the vegetation and all of the guano was removed, the natural ecosystems were destroyed, and the island was left barren and inhospitable with only a flock of introduced goats remaining. Since then, LEI remained uninhabited for almost 100 years.

Today LEI is home to the famous Lady Elliot Island Eco-Resort (LEIER). Considered to be one of the world’s most sustainable examples of marine ecotourism, this resort actively monitors the health of the island and surrounding reef, promotes environmental conservation, and runs almost exclusively on renewable energy. Awarded the Advanced Ecotourism Certification in 2009, Climate Action Business Certification in 2014, Climate Action Business Leader in 2017, and Australian Tourism Awards in 2017, LEIER has developed strict policies and guidelines to ensure that it operates with minimal environmental impact and actively supports and protects marine and coastal ecosystems.

Among other achievements in environmental stewardship, LEIER has reduced energy consumption and carbon emissions by introducing a combination of solar and gas technology, water desalination and various strategic behavioural adaptations on the island. In conjunction with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), the LEIER has developed the first dedicated Climate Change Trail and Tour education program to highlight the impacts of climate change on coral reef ecosystems (Fig. 1).

Coral reefs are some of the most biodiverse ecosystems on Earth.2-5 These ecosystems contain over 3 million species and support approximately 25% of all marine life 6,7. Reef islands are also critical ecological reservoirs: they provide nesting grounds for turtles, resources for birds to build nurseries and habitable space for reptiles, mammals and terrestrial amphibians.8-10 Importantly, coral reef ecosystems are essential for human wellbeing, directly benefiting hundreds of millions of people around the world.3,4,11-13 Coral reef ecosystems not only provide coastal protection, raw materials, cultural and recreational benefits, they also support livelihoods and food systems, regulate climate and water quality, and are closely associated with spiritual values.14,15

Some estimates suggest that coral reefs provide close to US$30 billion each year in goods and services including fisheries, coastal protection and tourism.4,16-19 In fact, the social, cultural and economic benefits of coral reefs globally has been conservatively estimated at US$1 trillion.20,21 The richly biodiverse Great Barrier Reef includes the world’s largest coral reef ecosystem, and is home to approximately 600 species of coral, 30 species of dolphins and whales, 1625 types of fish, 13000 dugong, 6 species of turtle and 133 varieties of rays and sharks.22,23 The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park generates more than US$5 billion in revenue per year.24

Despite their remarkable biodiversity and economic significance, coral reefs occupy less than 600,000 km2 of Earth’s surface.12 This is equivalent to just 5% of Earth’s rainforest area and 0.07% of Earth’s ocean surface.7,25,26 Globally, the health of these unique ecosystems is rapidly declining. Pertinent threats to coral growth and reef accretion include overfishing, pollution and rising atmospheric CO2 levels that cause ocean warming and acidification, and ultimately, coral bleaching and mortality.3,7 Some scientists believe that there are no unharmed reefs left on Earth.27-29 Recent estimates suggest that up to 90% of coral-dominated ecosystems may be lost if global temperatures rise by more than 1.5 °C, an amount that has already been exceeded in several regions 22,30.  Climate change-driven coral bleaching resulted in the loss of 50% of shallow water coral in the northern part of the Great Barrier Reef in the last three years alone.22,31 Moreover, because most reef islands are founded upon sediments derived from the surrounding coral reef, natural and anthropogenic changes of seawater chemistry, seawater temperature, sea level and reef growth affect the health of both coral reefs and islands.10

The link between natural resource conservation and the competitiveness of an ecotourism destination is an important one.32 For example, Boley and Green 33 point out that without environmental conservation ecotourism would simply be a form of nature-based tourism focused on commodifying nature for economic gain.  Efforts to link ecotourism to conservation have been made throughout the world including in Costa Rica, the Galapagos Islands, Zanzibar, South Africa, the United States, Tanzania, Kenya and Australia.32,34-36 Literature shows that socio-economic and environmental benefits derived from successful ecotourism may include: scientific research funding, improved ecological and cultural sensitivity, boosted infrastructural development and enhanced protection of vulnerable, fragile and delicate ecosystems.36,37 However, not all ecotourism ventures result in conservation outcomes. LEIER is a unique case. In less than a couple of decades, LEI has been transformed from an inhospitable, rocky landscape to a premier example of best practice in ecotourism and ecosystem restoration. Its extraordinary success can arguably be attributed to a handful of dedicated individuals.

Figure 2. The biodiversity and health of the coral reef ecosystem at Lady Elliot Island is almost unparalleled across the Great Barrier Reef. A. Branching corals (Acropora sp.) surrounding the island. B. Damselfish (Family: Pomacentridae) traversing the reef in the early morning. C. Multiple species of soft and hard corals in full health (i.e. completely unbleached). D. A green turtle (Chelonia mydas) resting beneath branching coral. Image credit: Lily Fogg (A, B and C) and Jack Ward (D)

 

The man and the vision

In 1980, a young Australian motorcycle racer, Peter Gash, and his girlfriend Julie (now wife of 35 years) sailed off Queensland’s Fraser Coast to LEI. At the time the island had virtually no trees or bird life. It was isolated, rocky and barren, and its future appeared bleak. Despite this, the pair immediately fell in love with this stark yet beautiful coral cay. While at the time Peter and Julie had very little money, they had plenty of dedication and a willingness to make a difference. Peter initially learned to fly seaplanes and saw the potential that aviation and tourism offered. After many years of returning to the island while running a chartered flight service called Seair Pacific, Peter took over operations of LEI in 2005. A new era for this remote coral cay had begun. Today, LEI is considered one of the “jewels in the crown” of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Peter’s commitment to conservation and sustainability is unwavering, and he humbly refers to himself as the long-term steward of the island.

Peter speaks of how the Australian Indigenous people have been telling the story of the GBR for tens of thousands of years and how their ancestors retreated further west as the seas rose – “Australian Aboriginals were the ultimate sustainable managers. Like Native Americans, they didn’t just think about their children’s future, they thought about the future of multiple generations”.  For Peter, ‘custodianship’ is very personal – “it’s about long-term thinking, preserving and protecting”. His primary aim is to bring people to the island and immerse them in the experience of being on the GBR so that they can fall in love with its uncharacteristic beauty, and perhaps also be inspired to help protect and preserve it for future generations.  In Peter’s own words, “If we help people to fall in love with the Great Barrier Reef and play with it…. they go away, they get inspired, and maybe make a difference to the planet in their own way”. To help achieve his vision for LEI, Peter has developed the ‘4E Philosophy’ (Table 1), stating that “to look after our environment we must be efficient, economically sustainable and able to educate effectively….. We’re all interconnected, we need to look after each other”.

Table 1. Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort 4E Philosophy

Peter’s approach includes continuous reinvestment of the profits generated by LEIER into new sustainability initiatives, and sharing the insights and knowledge gained with everyone who visits the island. His enthusiasm for conservation is contagious and has inspired many people. The LEIER also employs a dedicated team which includes rangers, naturalist, marine biologists, divers, and botanists among others.  Everyone on the LEIER team is encouraged to incorporate their own ideas for further impact on making positive change and to share their knowledge with visitors. Peter hopes that when visitors and other tourism operators see what is possible, they will also be inspired to implement similar sustainable practices. Peter reflects back that as a young man he did not necessarily see the world through a sustainability lens. He admits that his ‘long-term thinking philosophy’ evolved from working on LEI for many years and observing what it means to operate in balance with the natural environment.

“The more I give to this island, the more it gives back to me” Peter Gash

Who inspires a man like Peter Gash? While the list is long, and includes previous visitors to LEI such as David Attenborough and Jane Goodall, the one individual who stands out for Peter is Prince Charles. “I was very fortunate to have him come out, he’s very inspirational to me – his heart, his values and principles…”  Peter explains that although Prince Charles comes from a privileged background, he sees it as his duty to do what he can to help others. This is a philosophy Peter and Charles clearly share, as Peter says “we can all make a difference, we are all in this together”.

 

What is unique about Peter’s approach is that his ecotourism business focuses on ecological restoration. LEIER not only protects an existing area and mitigates future damage, but it also actively assists the recovery of previously damaged ecosystems.

Figure 4. Peter Gash on Lady Elliot Island “We’re in desperate need to protect the whole planet for the future of our children and grandchildren. If we don’t, they might not have a future. So for us, we are very blessed, it’s an opportunity for us – we are doing something we’re passionate about”
– Peter Gash

How do you restore a coral cay ecosystem?

Coral cays such as LEI are unique habitats composed of calcium-rich sediments that are cemented by carbonate upon a reef platform.38 Carbonate cements may also lithify clastic sediments such as sand, leading to the formation of ‘beachrock’.39 The accumulation of sand and calcium-rich sediment, which occurs over thousands of years, may generate conditions favorable for the occupation of birds and other migratory animals. In turn, faunal excrement adds nutrients to the weathered parts of the cay. The culmination of this process is the creation of a soil profile that allows for the growth and development of vegetation, and ultimately, a functioning ecosystem.

The original founder of the LEIER, Don Adams, described 1960s LEI as “a desolate place with only a few gnarled Pisonia trees”, (Figure 6A).40-42 In an effort to revegetate the island, Adams began to repopulate LEI with over 80 species of seedlings and shrubs sourced from nearby islands of the Great Barrier Reef and mainland Australia. As a result, bird diversity quickly recovered, with 32 species being recorded on LEI in 1986.42,43 Although several of the plant species were not native to Australian coral cays, Adams’ revegetation efforts sparked the revival of LEI’s ecosystem and laid the foundation for Peter Gash’s Re-Greening program.

The LEI Re-Greening program, which is conducted in collaboration with Queensland Parks and Wildlife and the GBRMPA, and with support from the Great Barrier Reef Foundation’s Reef Islands Initiative aims to restore the natural ecology of LEI to pre-mining conditions. To date, 5.6 ha have been cleared of invasive plant species, and the island has been revegetated with over 6,000 coral cay natives. A particular focus has been placed on re-establishing a mature Pisonia Grandis forest on LEI (Figure 6C).44 The forest also includes shrub land, grassland and coastal vegetation to provide habitat for a range of various seabirds species and nesting sea turtles. Although these type of forests support 75% of the breeding seabirds in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, they are listed as ‘of concern’ under the Vegetation Management Act 1999, being found on only a few of the Capricornia Cay islands.45

The Re-Greening Program is part of the ‘Lady Elliot Island Ecosystem Resilience Plan’ which is based on a regional ecosystem model. This program includes removing weeds and planting native species to create major vegetation communities. Approximately 8,000 more plants are currently awaiting transplantation in LEI’s established nursery. Compost used to fertilize the plants is produced in the On-Site Composting Apparatus (OSCA), which combines soil and lime with resort waste products including food scraps, paper, and cardboard. Treated greywater is also used to water plants during extended dry periods.

The careful monitoring of vegetation and proactive rehabilitation strategies implemented on LEI have led to a significant increase in terrestrial biodiversity.41 LEI is now home to approximately 150 plant species including the ‘vulnerable’ Red-tailed Tropicbird (Phaethon rubricauda; Figure 6D). LEI’s location makes it an important site for migrating seabirds to access the rich food supply of the southern GBR. Today, LEI hosts the second highest diversity of breeding seabirds in the GBR, with more than 200,000 birds arriving during breeding season.44 Consequently, the health of the environment has benefited from the deposition of fresh bird guano, which has improved soil quality, encouraged seed dispersal and contributed towards re-establishing a healthy and functional ecosystem. The health of the Island has also benefited from the presence of weed species such as lantana which contributed to the redevelopment of the island’s soil profile. Now, however, lantana and other weeds are dominating and inhibiting the growth of native species and disrupting sea bird nesting. Weed removal is a key priority of the Re-Greening Program.

Figure 5: (A) Lady Elliot Island circa 1973; showing the barren state of the island caused by guano mining in the 1800’s; (B) Lady Elliot Island in 2017; showing the success of revegetation program; (C) Pisonia grandis, a major focus species in the revegetation program; (D) Red-tailed tropicbird (Phaethon rubricauda), one of the threatened bird species currently found breeding on Lady Elliot Island.

Coral reefs occupy low nutrient environments.46,47 Elevated concentrations of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous can reduce reef calcification, alter coral growth rates, and, ultimately, cause shifts from coral to algal domination.46,48,49 Because revegetation and fertilization can lead to increased contributions of nutrients to the surrounding coral reef, the use of insecticides and herbicides is avoided on LEI, and the composition of wastewater outlet material is closely monitored.

In addition to the Re-Greening program, other initiatives are undertaken by the LEIER to protect and manage the island’s environment. LEI is located within a GBRMPA Green Zone, from which the extraction of marine flora and fauna is banned. ‘No-take’ zones (such as those surrounding LEI) significantly contribute to sustaining fisheries, enhancing habitat quality and maintaining ecosystem services on the GBR.50-53 Guests are informed of these bans and educated via signage and information sessions that explain how they can minimize their impact on the environment during their stay. Additionally, only 100 day visitors and 150 overnight guests are permitted on the island at any one time. As a means of further minimizing potential damage to the reef that surrounds LEI, designated mooring sites have been made available and anchoring is prohibited on certain parts of the reef.

Ongoing research collaborations actively monitor populations of ecologically significant marine organisms and provide valuable insight into how regulations may be adjusted to better favor the survival of these species. For example, LEIER is a partner with the University of Queensland in Project Manta; a multidisciplinary research program investigating the population biology and ecology of manta rays in eastern Australia. The LEIER assists in facilitating the citizen science component of the research by educating the broader community about this species and their marine environment. Resort patrons and visiting researchers are also encouraged to participate in other active reef monitoring programs such as Eye on the Reef, the Rapid Monitoring Survey, Reef Search, and Coral Watch. Moreover, because of its conservation practices, environmental significance and strategic positioning, the Great Barrier Reef Foundation54 selected LEI as the first island of the 2018 Climate Change Arks for the Reef – Reef Island Initiative. This 7-year project aims to demonstrate how expanding upon and accelerating LEI’s on-ground and in-water practices can minimize the impacts of climate change on marine ecosystems. The initiative brings together local businesses, government, community and Traditional Owners together to establish a series of climate change refuges in key sections of the GBR.

Figure 6. The re-vegetation program at Lady Elliot Island provides habitats for nesting seabirds. A. Peter Gash educating resort guests on the re vegetation program. B. Black noddies (Anous minu – tus) nesting on LEI. Image credit: Jack Ward (A) and Coral Watch (B).

What about power and water?

Running a sustainable tourism operation 80 km out to sea on the edge of the outer Great Barrier Reef is no simple feat. When Peter Gash obtained custodianship in 2005, the Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort was solely dependent on the daily burning of 550 litres of diesel fuel to power vital services including power, water desalination and wastewater treatment.  “That was almost 200,000 litres per year at approximately $300,000 per annum. The fact that the fuel was barged out from the mainland added more diesel burn and another 540 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per annum to the environment” explains Peter. Soon after the IPCC released the 2007 report on the impacts of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions,55 Peter decided to transition LEIER from diesel power to solar power. In 2008, LEIER invested in 140 square meters of photovoltaic cells integrated with 4 banks of commercial battery storage and inverters, reducing the diesel consumption of the resort from 550 to 300 liters daily. The pioneering hybrid solar power system produced approximately 120 kWh, reducing LEIER’s fossil fuel emissions by approximately 40%. In order to minimise demand, energy efficiency measures were implemented including the replacement of halogen globes with compact fluorescents and removing clothes dryers. In 2009, LEIER estimated that it had reduced energy demand by 24%. Today, the resort has more than doubled its return on investment, and through further expansion of the system, is powered entirely by solar energy.

Sustainable development on the island was further supported through the utilisation of integrated water desalination and waste management systems. The island’s reverse osmosis (RO) desalination plant generates up to 25,000L during a 9-hour solar window, outputting 1L of potable water for every 3L of ocean water processed. The resulting 2L of hypersaline water is returned to the ocean beyond the coral cay’s perimeter, provided its salinity does not exceed 0.005ppm.

To reduce daily water demand, water saving initiatives have also been implemented. LEI handles blackwater and greywater waste onsite using an Orenco® Effluent Sewer and AdvanTex® Treatment System, an energy-efficient system which removes microorganisms and impurities using a series of filters. The treated water is subsequently used to irrigate the island’s airstrip, infrastructure vital to the continued success of the resort.

The sustainable management of organic waste on a coral cay such as LEI is crucial to ensure minimal impact to the reef. LEIER policy is to minimize the use of single-use consumables. Each item that is brought to the island is carefully assessed for its longevity, ability to be repurposed and ultimate disposal method. In 2012, the resort ceased its sale of plastic water bottles and removed the use of straws from food and beverage facilities. There are a number of sources of organic waste on the island including food, green waste and cardboard. Food and green waste were formerly decomposed on the island using a trenching system to produce composting material. Compost can improve soil health by increasing soil microbial biomass and nutrient and moisture availability.56,57 This has been a valuable resource in the success of LEI’s revegetation efforts. In 2016, the composting system was updated to a solar-powered, automated continuous-batch composter system. In addition to the efficiency associated with automation, the on-site composting system also benefits the island by providing odourless compost material in 10 – 14 days. With the absence of feasible alternatives at present, all other waste including glass, aluminium and tin cans is sorted on the island prior to exportation by barge every three months to the closest resource recovery facilities on mainland Australia.

Conclusion

Located on the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef, Lady Elliot Island was unsustainably mined for guano in the 1860s. The destructive practice led to the removal of all the vegetation on the island leaving it barren. Following an initial revegetation program in the late 1960s, a succession of tourism ventures were licensed to operate on the island. Since securing the lease on LEI and its small resort in 2005, Peter Gash has transformed this coral cay island into a shining example of best practice in innovative ecological tourism.

Leaving a place a little better than you found it is an inherently difficult task. Peter’s passion for conservation and long-term sustainability, along with dedication and care, is creating positive environmental, social and economic impact. Sustaining a coral cay in the Great Barrier Reef as a tourist destination requires three basic necessities: electricity, clean drinking water and sustainable waste management. Peter Gash and the LEIER team have not only met these needs, they have transformed the once desolate island into what it was always meant to be: a refuge for native plants and animals. In ten years, the resort has greatly reduced its dependence on fossil fuels and lowered the production of material waste through the installation of solar power, innovative waste management technologies and environmentally-sustainable policies. The reintroduction of native species of flora, which are fertilised by composted material, has lured native seabirds back to the island and sparked a remarkable recovery of the island’s biodiversity. The business strategy of ecological tourism has allowed for a sustainable revenue stream and the rehabilitation of the island to go together.

The story of LEIER promotes sustainable development through education, energy efficiency, waste reduction, environmental monitoring and restoration. The enthusiastic approach taken in maintaining the island has put it at the forefront of innovative ecotourism. It can be seen as a major inspiration to the global tourism industry and an excellent example of ‘leaving a place a little better than you found it’. What’s next for Peter and the LEI team? They hope to continue to revegetate the island; to establish a formalised volunteer program which will include accommodations and research hub; to continue collaborating with research projects and initiatives; and to work in harmony with all stakeholders for the future of the island and the surrounding ecosystems.

Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank Peter Gash and the staff of Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort for sharing their story, including Chelsea Godson, and the amazing LEI rangers and staff. The authors would also like to thank Oladipupo Adiamo, Shaikat Debnath and Md. Shazib Uddin for their important contributions, comments and suggestions during the preparation of the manuscript. And finally, the authors would like to sincerely thank the University of Queensland’s Global Change Scholars Program for providing the opportunity to visit LEI and for supporting this project.

Figure 7: Lady Elliot Island from SeaAir Pacific on approach

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