SYDNEY, Australia — The Australian government unveiled a plan on Sunday to try to rescue the imperiled Great Barrier Reef, pledging hundreds of millions of dollars in what would be the largest single investment for reef conservation and management in the country’s history.
Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg said 500 million Australian dollars ($379 million) would be set aside to help the reef, an important ecosystem and a global treasure, after years of devastating damage from warming waters caused by climate change.
“We’ll be improving the monitoring of the reef’s health and the measurement of its impacts,” Mr. Frydenberg said from the city of Cairns, a popular jumping-off point for reef tourism. “The more we understand about the reef, the better we can protect it.”
The money would be used to improve water quality, control a major predator, invest in coral restoration and enhance underwater monitoring.
But environmentalists said the plan from Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s government was nowhere near enough. The reef’s health and prospects are increasingly grim. Huge sections stretching hundreds of miles across have died over the past two years, killed by overheated and more acidic seawater caused by climate change.
This month, scientists declared that much of the damage was irreversible, and said the only solution was a global one: Reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the use of fossil fuels, and get climate change under control.
“Science is well aware of what is killing coral on the Great Barrier Reef — it’s the excess heat that comes from burning fossil fuels,” said Bill McKibben, an American environmentalist, author and founder of 350.org, which aims to rapidly end the use of fossil fuels. “If the Turnbull government was serious about saving the reef, they would be willing to take on the industry responsible for the damage.”
Critics seized on Australia’s continued subsidized development of gas and coal, especially its openness to the Adani coal mine in northern Australia that would be among the world’s largest, pushing coal on boats running near the reef. The plan still awaits final approval.
The plan would set aside roughly 200 million Australian dollars ($151 million) for improving water quality, working with farmers to reduce fertilizer use — especially sugar farmers, who dominate the rich coastal lands of tropical northern Australia.
Money would also be set aside for fighting the crown-of-thorns starfish, which feeds on coral and has become an ever-present pest; for enhancing reef health monitoring; and for community engagement and enforcement.
An additional 100 million Australian dollars ($76 million) would finance reef restoration and adaptation, including ambitious plans that amount to growing more resilient corals in laboratories.
Mr. Frydenberg was cautious about whether the reef could be revived, arguing that experts had told him that it could be “remarkably resilient.”
He also acknowledged the value of the reef, which supports 64,000 jobs, and argued that the government was working closely with experts to make sure that the plan would succeed.
But some scientists who are among the world’s greatest experts on the reef — including Terry P. Hughes, director of a government-funded center for coral reef studies at James Cook University in Queensland — said that it was too little, too late, posting maps of the damage to the reef on Twitter.
The Australian Academy of Science was only slightly more supportive of the government’s plan.
“We welcome the investment in the #GBR, particularly funding for science to support reef resilience and adaptation, but the science advises us the #GBR is highly vulnerable to climate change,” the academy said a statement on Twitter, using a hashtag to refer to the Great Barrier Reef.
“We urge the government to address the cause of the problem.”