Sir Richard Branson fights to save Great Barrier Reef

(AAP)
(AAP)

Australia's Great Barrier Reef is one of the seven wonders of the natural world, but it's at risk of disappearing.

Months of aerial and underwater studies have found more than a third of the coral reefs in the central and northern regions have died because of mass bleaching this year.

"It's about the worst we've ever seen on the Great Barrier Reef," says University of Queensland's Professor John Pandolfi.

"That is a very dramatic loss."

The Australian government's reaction is to bury its head in the sand, but billionaire businessman Sir Richard Branson has stepped in to help.

The reef has been under pressure for years but the mass coral bleaching is unprecedented -- the same damage inflicted in a single summer is the same as the past 30 years combined.

To put that in perspective: a severe tropical cyclone can destroy a 50-kilometre wide stretch of reef, but this year's event has been described as "10 cyclones holding hands and marching across the reef".

"This is as bad as it gets and we're all very concerned about what it means for the continuity of the Great Barrier Reef," says Prof Pandolfi.

But the Australian government hasn't had a positive response so far.

Fearing a negative impact on tourism, the Australian government successfully lobbied UNESCO's World Heritage Committee to scrub any reference to the reef from its list of endangered sites.

Strangely, Australia's Prime Minister is claiming a win.

"The German Chairman of the Committee, said that our management, that is to say Australia's management of the Great Barrier Reef, was a world class exemplar of coral reef management," Malcolm Turnbull says.

"So there is no question that we are doing a good job."

Opposition leader Bill Shorten disagrees with that.

"We see a government who managed to censor the UNESCO report on the Great Barrier Reef," he says.

"This is a government who doesn't want to hear the problem."

And coral bleaching isn't the reef's only problem -- the crown of thorns starfish consumes any coral in its path, and then there's toxic runoff.

Millions of tonnes of nutrients and pesticides flow from farmland onto the Great Barrier Reef each year. 

"The influence of sediment on the health of the reef is probably larger than people had previously imagined," says Gordon Davis from Greening Australia.

The toxic sediment chokes fish and coral and creates harmful algal blooms.

Virgin founder Sir Richard is partnering with Greening Australia to raise $10 million to plant vegetation and regrade land, which would halve the amount of contaminated sediment pouring into the reef.

"The work that Greening Australia are doing will go some way hopefully saving the reef for generations and generations to come," Sir Richard says.

The project will take a decade and cost more than $100 million, but it's a pittance when you consider the Reef raises around $6 billion a year in tourism for Australia, and supports 70,000 jobs.

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