Great Barrier Reef

Bill McCormick, Science, Technology, Environment and Resources

Key issue 
Threats to the Great Barrier Reef need to be addressed to ensure the long term sustainability of our uses of the park.

Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef (GBR) extends 2,300km along the coast of Queensland and is the world’s largest system of coral reefs. With great diversity of species and habitats, the GBR is one of the richest and most complex natural ecosystems on earth.

However, managing and conserving this unique piece of Australia’s natural heritage is a challenge. Major shipping lanes run through the region, linked to growing ports on the Queensland coast, exporting coal and other products. The health of the reef can also be affected by agricultural activities on the land, the two million tourists that visit each year, and both commercial and recreational fishing.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 (GBRMP Act) established the Great Barrier Reef Region. Nearly all the GBR region comes under the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (GBRMP), an area of 344,000 square kilometres. In 1981, the Great Barrier Reef Region was placed on the World Heritage List. The resulting World Heritage Area (WHA) includes all waters and islands within the GBR Region, seaward from the low water mark on the Queensland coast.

The GBRMP Act prohibits drilling and mining for minerals within all areas of the GBRMP. In 1999 regulations were promulgated to extend this ban to the entire Region.

GBR industries contributed $5.4 billion to the economy in 2006–07. The three major industries were tourism ($5.1 billion), commercial fishing ($139 million) and recreational fishing ($150 million). The GBRMP is a multiple use park, managed by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA). Activities are regulated according to different zones. These range from general use zones (where most marine activities are permitted) to preservation zones (where people cannot enter without a permit and extractive activities are prohibited).

Under the original zoning plans, about 4.5% of the total area of the Marine Park was declared as ‘no-take’ areas or ‘green zones’, where all fishing (both recreational and commercial) was prohibited. GBRMPA found that this area was inadequate to protect the biodiversity of the GBR, so a new Zoning Plan was developed based on representative examples of each habitat type within a network of ‘no-take’ areas. This revised Zoning Plan, which included the 33% of the GBRMP covered by Marine National Park (Green) Zones, came into operation on 1 July 2004. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Structural Adjustment Package provided $213.7 million in financial support to 1,782 fishers and fishery-related businesses affected by this rezoning.

Shipping lanes and ports in the GBRMP

Shipping lanes and ports in the GBRMP


Threats to the GBR

According to the 2013 Scientific Consensus Statement, coral cover on the whole GBR has declined by about 50% since 1985. This is a worrying finding, but coral cover in the northern GBR has remained stable—probably as a result of less coastal and port development there.

The four main direct causes of damage to reefs are coral bleaching due to prolonged elevated sea temperatures, increasing acidity of seawater, outbreaks of Crown of Thorns starfish (COTS), and cyclones. Warmer water temperatures and acidification are related to climate change and greenhouse gases. It is likely that climate change will also intensify cyclones. The GBRMP developed its GBR Climate Change Adaptation Strategy and Action Plan 2012–2017 to address key climate change impacts on the GBR.

Occasional small COTS outbreaks are considered natural, but research suggests that their frequency has increased as a result of human influence (principally increased sediment and nutrients entering the water in run-off from the land). There are, however, specific short and long term strategies that may reduce the frequency of COTS outbreaks. GBRMPA and tourism operators are working to directly remove COTS from coral reefs of high tourism value.

Indirect Threats: GBRMPA has also identified threats from pesticides and herbicides in run-off water, and from coastal development (e.g. clearing or modifying wetlands and mangroves). The Reef Rescue program (along with the associated Reef Water Quality Protection Plan) aims to minimise runoff of nutrients, pesticides and sediments, and improve water quality entering the Park. This should also reduce the long-term risk to the reef ecosystem from COTS outbreaks.

Ports and Shipping: Large bulk carriers and tankers travelling in narrow channels through the reef can potentially run aground, as happened in 2010 when the Shen Neng1 hit Douglas Shoal 10 km outside the shipping channel and spilt 4 tonnes of heavy fuel oil.

Expansion of ports for coal and other exports requires substantial dredging of the harbours and will result in increased shipping. With more traffic comes increased risk of grounding and oil spills, and there is concern about the impacts of these activities on the GBR.

Dredge spoil from Gladstone harbour is being dumped within the WHA but five kilometres from the GBRMP. The Commonwealth has delayed its decision whether to permit spoil from the Abbot Point expansion to be dumped at a site within the GBRMP.

World Heritage in danger?

All these threats have raised concerns about the cumulative impacts on the GBR’s World Heritage values. In March 2012, a delegation sent by the World Heritage Commission (WHC) visited Australia to ascertain whether the new developments affect the GBR to a level where it would need to be classified as ‘World Heritage in Danger’. The Australian Government provided a State Party Report on the state of conservation of the GBR WHA to the 2013 meeting of the WHC which then requested an updated report to show whether substantial progress is being made to protect the GBR. The 2014 WHC meeting will consider this report in deciding whether the GBR should be listed as ‘World Heritage in Danger’.

In early 2012, the Australian and Queensland governments agreed that a comprehensive strategic assessment of the GBR WHA and the adjacent coastal zone would be undertaken in accordance with section 146 of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). The draft reports are due to be released later this year.

Further reading

F. Douvere and T. Badman, Mission report: reactive monitoring mission to Great Barrier Reef (Australia) 6th to 14th March 2012, UNESCO,Paris, 2012.

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