Long before the Reef Authority’s Acting Director of Reef Education and Engagement Fiona Merida studied to become a marine biologist - indeed long before she knew what a marine biologist was - she would spend her leisure time accompanying her dad on hiking trips along the coast of her native Victoria.
But it was a trip to tropical North Queensland as a child, when the family crossed the border and made the pilgrimage north - first to K’gari (Fraser Island), then Airlie Beach where she gleaned her first glimpse of the Great Barrier Reef - that would literally change her life.
“It stood out,” she says.
“And still does!
“There was something significant or different about that place to anything I had seen in my daily life before that.”
Fiona says it was when her father helped her don a snorkel mask and she peered below the surface for the first time that she realised, even as a six-year-old, that she was witnessing something special.
“When I looked into the water in that moment, the thing that stood out to me was the colours, shapes, moving textures and clear water,” she says.
“That memory remains with me; I can’t remember what the fish were, I just remember seeing the different shapes and the different colours, some moving and some still, ultimately that’s biodiversity… and it was right in front of my face!”
Biodiversity is the variety of all life forms on earth – the different plants, animals and micro-organisms, and the ecosystems that are their homes.
Australia is part of a unique group of 17 ‘mega-diverse’ countries, which means they cover less than 10% of the world’s area but boast more than 70% of its biodiversity.
And as Australia celebrates Biodiversity Month in September, Fiona is only too happy to explain why preserving biodiversity of the Great Barrier Reef, the largest living structure on earth, is critical, particularly when facing the ever-present threat of climate change and warming sea temperatures.
“When a system has more diversity, it’s proven that it’ is more resilient to change,” Fiona says.
“This means if an ecosystem has a diverse range of species, and one disappears, you can rely on the other species to pick up the slack if you like and potentially take over the function of the species that is no longer there.
“Consider a major shock event like an ice age or an extinction. What has kept life going is the diversity and competition; by having diversity, you’re building resistance into the system, and you may avoid a situation where if one species is removed another one explodes, because you have that diversity of species within the functional group which maintains the balance.
“Biodiversity is about different species competing with one another and ultimately finding their niche.”
But it seems not all animals are created equal in the biodiversity stakes, particularly in an ecosystem like the Great Barrier Reef, which boasts more than 9,000 species of marine life, including those like dugong which play a vital role in shallow water habitats and seagrass meadows… and the list goes on.
“The Reef is so much more than coral. For example, you have incredible fish diversity, over 1600 species of fish, with one family having a fish small enough to swim inside the mouths of other fishes to eat tiny parasites; to species that weigh over 100kg and has enormous lips and huge suction ability that it uses to suck shelled animals out of the sand. That is diversity without a doubt.”
Not to mention, Fiona says, over 100 species of rays and sharks, turtles and dolphins, whales, reptiles, sea snakes, crustaceans… and thousands upon literal thousands of invertebrates.
And its value, as the largest collection of coral reef systems on the planet, simply can’t be underestimated.
Experts estimate that more than 25% of life in the ocean is found on coral reefs. And while that figure is still somewhat a point of conjecture, Fiona says the significance of the Reef on a global scale is irrefutable.
“It's like the Amazon Rainforest. It doesn’t matter what country you are from, these places are significant, scale wise, for planet Earth. [They] feed all these pockets of life and the Great Barrier Reef is critical to that. It is just critical!”
Which is why, Fiona says vehemently, we need to look at protecting biodiversity on the Reef from a global perspective and continually learn from our neighbours who have experienced firsthand the collapse of reef ecosystems from overfishing, water pollution, coastal development, and the looming threat of climate change.
"The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Zoning Plan 2003 is those lessons learned,” she says.
“Poor water quality for example is comparable to poor air quality for a human; it essentially throws out a balance that’s been working in harmony for millennia and helps coral competitors to thrive. It could be microscopic, and we can’t see it with the human eye, but it could affect the entire food chain which affects the biodiversity.”
Which is why we ALL have a part to play when it comes to protecting biodiversity on the Great Barrier Reef, and it’s as simple as watching what we put down the sink.
“All water drains to the Reef. And so ultimately, anything that we're putting down our drains, washing on our lawns right up to scalable industrial type of actions; all that water at some point is going to enter the catchment and make its way somewhere in the Great Barrier Reef.
“That might be very hard for someone who lives in western Queensland to understand but it’s all connected. We all have a ‘connection’ to it and to me that’s what makes the reef so special; that it triggers a curiosity and a connection to nature that can’t be measured by science!”
Check out the Reef Authority’s new Reef in Focus podcast and hear more from Fiona on the importance of biodiversity on the Great Barrier Reef.