Big sections of WA's world heritage-listed Ningaloo Reef face being wiped out by coral bleaching and storms as ocean temperatures rise, one of the State's top marine scientists has warned.
Jamie Oliver, the local head of the Australian Institute of Marine Science, said an alarming report released yesterday on the decline of the Great Barrier Reef held parallels for WA's most important reef system.
The report, compiled by the institute's Townsville researchers, found that half of the Great Barrier Reef's coral had disappeared in the past 27 years and much of the rest was in jeopardy.
It said almost half the decline had been caused by damage from tropical cyclones, 42 per cent was the result of crown-of-thorns starfish and the remaining 10 per cent came from coral bleach- ing.
Dr Oliver, who has spearheaded much of the scientific work on Ningaloo over the past five years, said the circumstances affecting the Great Barrier Reef were not identical to those at Ningaloo.
Importantly, he said crown-of-thorns starfish, which were a natural predator of coral, were not believed to be a problem off the Gascoyne coast.
But he said Ningaloo was becoming increasingly susceptible to coral bleaching and cyclone damage.
A marine heatwave in 2010 had killed significant numbers of coral, dispelling beliefs the system was more resilient to warming sea temperatures than other reefs.
And he noted that tropical storms were projected to get more intense and possibly more frequent as climatic conditions changed and ocean temperatures warmed.
"If sea temperatures rise significantly, then the kind of bleaching we have seen at Ningaloo Reef is what we can expect," Dr Oliver said.
"From my point of view, there's no question that the seas are warming.
"What we need to be careful about is saying, 'Are we actually seeing the signs in the coral yet' and I think we need to continue to monitor that.