As Australian scientists yesterday said at least 35 per cent of corals in the northern and central parts of Australia's Great Barrier Reef have been destroyed by bleaching, a British billionaire and Australian politician announced plans to help save the reef.

A year after the founder of the Virgin empire, Richard Branson, triggered a furore by describing the Great Barrier Reef as an industrial dumping ground, he has launched his own campaign to "save" the world's largest living organism. He announced a partnership between Virgin Australia and Greening Australia to address soil erosion in the reef at a function in Sydney, 2000km away.

The announcement comes on the same day Opposition Leader Bill Shorten unveiled his own A$500 million ($535.6 million) "save the Reef" package in Cairns.

Experts from James Cook University (JCU) said yesterday that the Great Barrier Reef is suffering the most extreme case of mass bleaching they have ever measured at the World Heritage Site.


Bleaching, which has been linked to climate change, happens when warmer water causes coral to weaken and lose the colourful algae that provide oxygen and nutrients.

"We found on average, that 35 per cent of the corals are now dead or dying on 84 reefs that we surveyed along the northern and central sections of the Great Barrier Reef, between Townsville and Papua New Guinea," Professor Terry Hughes, the head of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at JCU, said in a statement.

"This year is the third time in 18 years that the Great Barrier Reef has experienced mass bleaching due to global warming, and the current event is much more extreme than we've measured before.

"We're rapidly running out of time to reduce greenhouse gas emissions."

Hughes said the damage "varies hugely from reef to reef, and from north to south". "It basically ranges from zero to 100. In the northern part of the reef, 24 of the reefs we sampled, we estimate more than 50 per cent mortality."

Fortunately, the southern sector of the reef was largely spared, thanks to the ocean churning and rainfall caused by Tropical Cyclone Winston, which cooled waters in the area, Hughes said.

However, Hughes said an average of 35 per cent damage is quite shocking and that "there's no other natural phenomenon that can cause that level of coral loss at that kind of scale".

He noted that tropical cyclones also kill corals at landfall, but typically over an area of about 80km. In contrast, the swath of damage from the bleaching event, he said, was about 800km wide.

"This coral bleaching is a whole new ball game," said Hughes.

Shorten, who is on the campaign trail for Australia's July 2 general election, said saving the reef was a priority for his Labor party.

"This reef is worth saving and if we do not act it's in serious danger of being irreparably damaged," Shorten said.

"Labor can afford this because it's not going ahead with a A$50 billion tax cut for businesses. Our priority is the reef first, second and third.

"I want to be able to look at future generations and say when we were asked to support the reef we did."

Branson said Virgin Australia's three-year partnership with Greening Australia would help raise A$10 million over the next three years for the first stage of an estimated A$100 million major restoration project. The Australian Government Reef Trust would match private contributions dollar for dollar, up to A$2 million.

"I have long been passionate about the health of the ocean, having spent many hours in and among its waves, particularly in Australia," Branson said.

"Like me, Virgin Australia is passionate about doing what we can to help save one of the most complex and beautiful natural systems on earth, the Great Barrier Reef."

Greening Australia chairman Gordon Davis said roughly 10,000 hectares needed to be repaired.

- Washington Post,