‘It’s time to start a reef revolution’

15 Mar 2018
Australia's Great Barrier Reef
Australia's Great Barrier Reef


MBA alumnus, Dr Adam Smith is on a mission to save the world’s coral reefs. With over 30 years’ experience as a marine scientist and conservationist, he now runs Reef Ecologic, which has received widespread acclaim for its Reef Recovery scheme, allowing tourists and students to help restore smothered coral reefs by removing seaweed. Adam is also an experienced business leader who is now working on plans to create Australia’s first underwater museum.

How did you become interested in conservation, and why?

I grew up near the ocean in Sydney, surfing, diving and watching Jacques Cousteau’s early movies on the underwater world. Driven by my quest for knowledge, I studied marine biology and became an environmental consultant, then I went on to work for NSW Fisheries and the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) Marine Park Authority.

One way or another, I have spent much of my career underwater – counting fish, looking at corals or interacting with sharks – and I’ve loved every minute. But I’ve also been shocked and saddened by the changes in my lifetime. In the past 30 years, 50 per cent of our coral reefs have been lost.

In recent years, my focus has been on conservation and trying to address the problems and reverse some of the damage, which is why I set up Reef Ecologic. Our team is at the forefront of reef management and have implemented projects in all the coral reef regions of the world.

In your TEDx Townsville talk, you call for a ‘reef revolution’. Tell us more about your ideas?

On our doorstep we have one of the largest living ecosystems on the planet, one that can be seen from space! The GBR supports thousands of species and a multi-million dollar tourism and fishing industry, however, reefs globally are under threat and while scientists give different reasons, such as pollution or overfishing, the common factor is people.

It is people who do the damage, yet people are also very creative and can do amazing things. I have a lot of hope for the future and in the TEDx Talk, I’ve tried to show that people can make a difference. I’ve developed my own model to demonstrate the relationship between people, fish and the reef. Hopefully I have tapped into the rare formula for change, which leads to a conservation result.

What made you decide to complete an MBA?

Most of my background is in science, but during my time as a Director of the GBR Marine Park Authority, I had reached a point where I was managing a large group of people and needed more formal management skills and knowledge. I completed the UQ MBA in 2003 and it was life-changing – the best degree I have ever done.

I learned new skills in leadership, management, negotiation and human resources – and how to link these with my existing science and environmental skills to help change things for the better.

What inspirational figures have influenced your career?

I mentioned Jacques Cousteau, the Frenchman who developed scuba diving and created undersea documentaries. As a youngster growing up by the beach, it was Jacques Cousteau who I wanted to be. Also, David Attenborough is a giant in terms of communication – he’s taken his conservation message to prime ministers and presidents.

Ian Kiernan is an average Aussie bloke and a sailor who was concerned about rubbish. Starting at Sydney Harbour, he has gone on to try to clean up Australia and the world. Judith Wright is little known, but 40 years ago she campaigned to try to stop coral mining and oil drilling on the reef and wrote a book called 'The Coral Battleground'.

What’s next for you?

There are two things that get me really excited at the moment. I am running a leadership course which brings together people from all over the world to train them in coral reef conservation, and we are in the early stages of a new project to set up an underwater museum – like a giant botanical garden but underneath the sea. We have already raised some funding and are looking for a further one to two million dollars. The aim is to bring science, art, business and government together and proudly create a worldwide education-tourist attraction that increases knowledge and sustainability of the Great Barrier Reef.

What advice would you give to others?

1. Follow your passion.
2. Aim for excellence.
3. Listen closely and be considerate of others’ needs before yours.
4. Read a lot and widely.
5. Commit to lifelong learning of new skills.
6. Teach and empower others.
7. Exercise regularly.
8. Take action to increase the sustainability of your house, your work or your community.
9. Communicate widely.
10. Be optimistic.