Misinformation in Ecotourism: An Example from the Great Barrier Reef

Miscommunication concerning ecosystems like the Great Barrier Reef can be extremely harmful to their future. I recently encountered a frustrating example of such misinformation. (Image Credit: Workfortravel, CC BY-SA 4.0, Image Cropped)

Scientific communication is at the forefront of what we do here at Ecology for the Masses. We like to celebrate good examples of SciComm whenever we can. But every now and then it’s misused so overtly that you have to talk about it. So today I want to share a recent example of scientific communication that confused and worried me.

In the last month I’ve been lucky enough to travel around Australia with my partner and our son. We’ve seen rainforests, reefs and the outback, and we’ve had a great time. The Great Barrier Reef was a definite highlight; it was number one on my partner’s bucket list and I have great memories of it from when I was a kid. And it was on the reef that this misuse of scientific communication occurred.

We went out on the reef twice. The first time was with Ocean Safari, a group who I won’t hesitate to recommend. We saw a green sea turtle, stingrays, and more fish species than I could count. And when the tour ended, the guide spoke briefly about mass bleaching and why minimising our impact on the climate was so important to ensure the future of the reef. Perfect.

But on our second trip out, we used a different company. During the trip out to the reef, my partner was at a talk held by a marine biologist on the reef. I missed quite the show apparently, as my partner came back looking slightly confused. The biologist had told people that the temperatures on the reef for the last two years had been ‘perfect’, that the coral reefs would easily recover from bleaching, and that they would plant new ‘supercoral’ to restore the reefs.

Now I don’t want to spend too much time arguing that the guide was wrong. If you need convincing, please read my interview with Sean Connolly. In short, extreme warming events in 2016 and 2017 led to mass bleaching (in 2016 on a global scale). Temperatures were NOT ‘perfect’. Some coral does re-uptake algae after bleaching, but they often starve to death before they are able to do this, which happened on a massive scale over the last two years. And whilst coral restoration can work on a small scale, it is costly and time-consuming.

But why did this irritate me so much? In Australia we’re constantly faced with misinterpretation and downright lies about the reef from anti-conservation politicians all the time. Why is this worse?

It’s because the guide was someone posited as an ‘expert’, and asked to speak in front of people who were assumed to have little knowledge about the concept of coral bleaching. Most Australians are aware at least of the fact that the reef is in danger, but the group on the boat were mostly from overseas. So they hear a marine biologist speak, and assume that those words are fact. The take-away message from the talk becomes one of negligence; nothing to worry about here, nothing needs to be done to help. At worst, that attitude even spreads to people they talk to later on.

It also angered me because talks like the one given are excellent opportunities for scientific communication. You have a group of people who are obviously interested in seeing an ecosystem and are about to enter it, so it’s the perfect moment to engage them in the ecological and conservation issues surrounding that ecosystem. It’s a great way to spread ecological awareness. Unfortunately it was used here to spread misinformation. I can only get so angry at the biologist here though, as the message has clearly been condoned by the company, and they need to take responsibility. Confusing, seeing as there future livelihood depends on that of the reef.

The Great Barrier Reef, along with countless other ecosystems worldwide, are not doing well. But with a concerted effort from the scientific community and the public we hope to keep informed, they’re hopefully not beyond repair. But the damage done by misinformation in this sort of forum needs to be mitigated, as quickly as possible.


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