10 questions with the Great Barrier Reef Foundation’s new Chief Scientist
Professor Peter Mumby
#Professor Peter Mumby is the Foundation's Chief Scientist and Head of the University of Queensland’s Marine Spatial Ecology Lab
1. Describe the first time you saw the Great Barrier Reef.
I visited in 1994 and went to Orpheus Island with Dr Terry Done from the Australian Institute of Marine Science. At this point I’d only worked on Caribbean reefs so I was overwhelmed with the diversity of corals and fish (about 10 times higher in Australia). It was an inspirational moment and I remember looking at all the corals and thinking – how do we ever figure this ecosystem out? I still find myself thinking that today, though I’m not quite as clueless as I was then.
2. You were born and studied in England. How did you come to be working in Australia?
Have you ever experienced an English winter? Or an English spring or autumn for that matter? Actually, I’d been undertaking research in the Caribbean but then started working on Pacific reefs in Palau in around 2003. Pacific reefs are so much more complex than those of the Caribbean and I wanted to rise to the challenge. I’d also spent time at UQ on sabbatical in 2004 and fell in love with Queensland so when you add the prospect of countless English winters and the opportunities here at UQ, it was a no-brainer. My move was greatly facilitated by being awarded a Laureate Fellowship from the Australian Research Council.
3. What’s been your career highlight to date?
Before my research career began I was designing marine zoning plans for the Belize Barrier Reef. At that point we had almost no science to guide us and my career goal became to provide science to help make useful decisions and anticipate the consequences of those actions. So, every time our research helps someone make a decision – be it a fisheries policy, marine park area design, intervention strategy for crown-of-thorns starfish – I feel delighted. But I also love the transformation you see in students and post-docs as they make new discoveries, and the very process of discovering new things. I feel like for every step we take forward in understanding coral reefs, we have to take half a step back as we gain renewed respect for the sheer complexity and resilience of nature.
4. As we know, the Great Barrier Reef is enormous – as big as whole countries. Do you have a favourite part to visit or work in?
I’ve loved visiting the remote northern reaches but it’s difficult to beat the experiences on offer from our research station at Heron Island and recreation at Lady Elliot Island.
5. What sparked your interest in coral reef research?
Watching Jaws at the age of seven convinced me I wanted to become a marine biologist. David Attenborough’s wildlife series, together with the ‘Reader’s Digest Great Barrier Reef’ inspired me to want to work on reefs. At one stage, I think I was 12 years old, I was at a library looking up researchers and discovered that someone worked on both sharks and the Great Barrier Reef and they were based at a place called the University of Queensland. But then I clearly remember chastising myself thinking, “be realistic Mumby – the chance of working on reefs and sharks in Australia is just too remote”…
6. What do you think are the key things we need to focus on to protect and restore the Great Barrier Reef and coral reefs globally?
We know what the threats are. The challenge is changing human behaviour and deciding – as a society – if we’re willing to make the changes, including footing the bill, needed to give reefs a healthy future. The challenges vary from place to place. I do a lot of work in Indonesia where the opportunities for turning things around are less than those here. If reefs can be saved anywhere it’s Australia.
7. What are the key take-outs for you from the Reef 2050 Plan?
The good thing is that the government agencies are honest and upfront about the scale of the problem. Climate change is the number one threat. But the science is clear that healthy reefs need serious action both at the local scale as well as in coordinated and ambitious climate policy.
8. What has been the biggest challenge of your career to date?
Seeing reefs that I knew so well get ruined by a single coral bleaching event in 1998. Having said that, I recently returned to some of those reefs and was delighted to see fantastic improvements where management had been implemented. There’s no question in my mind that management can make a huge difference.
9. What’s your advice for anyone interested in a career that involves working to protect coral reefs?
Don’t listen to people who claim there are no jobs in this: If you’re really passionate about it then you’ll find a job. Volunteer your services to get the experience you need to get the career started.
10. Many people would like to spend their spare time visiting coral reefs. You do that for work, so how do you like to spend your spare time?
Going diving with a camera rather than a transect tape. Marine biologists are an odd breed that tend to live marine biology in their free time too. Oh, and I try to attend as many jazz festivals as I can. I even attend jazz festivals at sea where you can combine both hobbies!