Protecting the Great Barrier Reef

Dr Evan Hamman, Law and Bills Digest

Dr Rebecca Bathgate, Science, Technology, Environment and Resources

Key issue

The iconic Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is a World Heritage site, a national heritage place and an area of tremendous cultural significance for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. The GBR also has an estimated economic value of $56 billion and the industries associated with the ecosystem employ over 60,000 people.

The latest Outlook report, from 2019, found that the GBR ecosystem and its heritage values had deteriorated and were projected to deteriorate further without effective action. The main factors influencing the GBR’s values are climate change, land-based run-off, coastal development and direct use.

In 2021, the World Heritage Committee decided against placing the GBR on the List of World Heritage in Danger, although the possibility is likely to arise again. Both major and minor parties, as well as some independents have promised increased action on the GBR including through addressing climate change and improving water quality.

The significance of the Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef (GBR) covers an area of over 340,000 km2 and is the world’s largest coral reef system. The GBR is comprised of some 3,000 coral reefs and is roughly the same size as Italy or Japan. It stretches 2,300 km along the Queensland coastline from north of K'gari (Fraser Island) in the south, to the tropical waters of the Torres Strait.

Ecologically rich, the GBR is home to more than 600 different types of soft and hard corals, 1,625 types of fish and more than 30 species of whales and dolphins. The 1,050 individual islands and cays provide important breeding and roosting habitat, feeding grounds and migratory pathways for at least 23 seabird and 32 shorebird species (p. 4).

The GBR itself, plus its associated islands and intertidal areas of coastal state waters are made up of a huge variety of marine habitats including coral reefs, seagrass shoals, mangroves, algal beds and sponge gardens. Since 2004, management of the GBR has been based on the recognition that each of these habitats plays a critical role in supporting the overall health and functioning of the GBR ecosystem. Although separately classified, the 30 defined bioregions of reef habitat and 40 bioregions of non-reef habitat within the GBR are inextricably interconnected.

The GBR is also of tremendous cultural and spiritual significance to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. There are some 70 Aboriginal Traditional Owner groups with authority for Sea Country management. Torres Strait Island Traditional Owner groups are also connected to the GBR and hold cultural knowledge of the broader GBR region. There are several Native Title claims along the Queensland coastline as well as dedicated Indigenous Protected Areas.

At the global scale, the GBR is an iconic and instantly recognisable location. Under the World Heritage Convention, the GBR is recognised for its ‘Outstanding Universal Value’ (see further below) and attracts more than 2 million tourists each year.

Economically, the GBR supports over 60,000 jobs (mostly in the tourism sector) with an estimated total ‘economic, social and icon asset value’ of $56 billion (p. 5).

The current state of the GBR

The most recent Scientific consensus statement on land use impacts on GBR water quality and ecosystem condition shows that the GBR is an ecosystem under pressure. Every five years, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) prepares an Outlook Report. The latest report, released in October 2019, indicated the GBR’s continued deterioration. Collectively, the GBR’s ecosystem was assessed as being in ‘very poor’ condition and its heritage values in ‘poor’ condition (p. 270). The next Outlook report is expected in 2024.

In November 2020, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), in its World Heritage outlook 3, described the outlook for the GBR as ‘critical’, noting that the GBR had deteriorated since its previous report in 2017 (p. 22).

The GBR’s greatest threat is widely acknowledged to be climate change, which impacts the GBR through marine heatwaves, ocean acidification, rising sea levels and increased frequency of damaging cyclones. Other threats identified in the 2019 Outlook report and Reef 2050 long-term sustainability plan (Reef 2050 Plan) are:

  • run-off of sediment, nutrients and other pollutants from land-based activities
  • coastal development
  • direct human use (for example, illegal fishing and bycatch)
  • marine debris (such as microplastics, foam, rubber, glass and metal rubbish)
  • spills (for example, chemical or oil spills)
  • grounding vessels and damage to reef structure.

Accordingly, the GBR faces a raft of cumulative pressures that will continue to test its resilience.

Coral bleaching and the GBR ecosystem

The effect of marine heatwaves on the health of coral within the GBR has been particularly marked. These heatwaves cause coral to become stressed, a phenomenon known as bleaching. If the temperature anomaly continues for long enough, the coral will gradually starve to death. These bleaching events are becoming increasingly frequent (Figure 1), posing a threat to the GBR as coral both builds the habitat and defines the entire ecosystem, so without it, the ecosystem can no longer exist. When coral is lost, the reef ecosystem undergoes an irreversible phase shift into an alternative, degraded state. The alternative state cannot produce the same products and services that the system once did and key biological and chemical interactions with neighbouring habitats, such as mangroves and seagrass beds, are lost. The preservation of coral reef habitat is therefore intrinsic to the health and functioning of the wider GBR ecosystem as a whole.

The Australian Institute of Marine Science has monitored bleaching events since the early 1980s. Severe coral bleaching took place in 2016 and 2017 and most recently in the summer of 2022. This was the fourth mass bleaching event since 2016 and the sixth to occur since 1998 (Figure 1). This 2022 event notably occurred during a La Niña year, typically associated with greater cloud cover and cooler ocean temperatures.

Figure 1         A history of bleaching events impacting the GBR

Info graphic - A history of bleaching events impacting the Great Barrier Reef

Inter-governmental cooperation

The need for federal-state collaboration on the GBR has been recognised for some time. In 1979, the Queensland and Australian governments signed the Emerald Agreement to more effectively cooperate in reef management. The agreement was updated in 2009 and 2015.

The division of roles and responsibilities for the protection of the GBR can be summarised as:

The World Heritage Convention and the possibility of an ‘in danger listing’

As a signatory to the World Heritage Convention, Australia is committed to protecting the ‘Outstanding Universal Value’ (OUV) of World Heritage-listed sites like the GBR. Amongst other things, Australia is obliged to:

[endeavour, insofar as possible and as appropriate] … to take the appropriate legal, scientific, technical, administrative and financial measures necessary for the identification, protection, conservation, presentation and rehabilitation [of its World Heritage sites] (Article 5(d)).

Australia has responded to its obligations under the convention through policy initiatives and legislated environmental impact assessment and approval provisions under the EPBC Act.

Within the World Heritage Convention, a 21-member World Heritage Committee makes decisions about listed sites, including those included on the List of World Heritage in Danger. Since 2011, the committee has consistently requested Australia take stronger action to protect the GBR’s OUV (see Table 1).

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Centre is the committee’s secretariat and the IUCN is the official advisory body for natural sites like the GBR. While the World Heritage Centre and the IUCN work together to make recommendations for action, the committee ultimately makes the decisions.

Table 1           Summary of World Heritage Committee decisions relating to the GBR (2011–2021)

Year World Heritage Committee decision
  • Noted with extreme concern the approval of Liquefied Natural Gas processing and port facilities on Curtis Island, Queensland.
  • Urged Australia to undertake a strategic assessment and invite a monitoring mission from IUCN/UNESCO.The mission subsequently took place 6 - 14 March 2012.
  • Noted the unprecedented scale of coastal development currently being proposed within and affecting the property.
  • Requested completion of a strategic assessment and resultant long-term plan.
  • Considered possible inscription on List of World Heritage in Danger in the absence of progress.
  • Welcomed the progress on the strategic assessment and long-term plan.
  • Urged Australia to ensure no development permitted if it would impact individually or cumulatively on the OUV of the GBR, or compromise the strategic assessment and resulting long-term plan.
  • In the absence of progress, suggested possible inscription on List of World Heritage in Danger.
  • Welcomed progress on the strategic assessment and endorsement of the 2013 Reef Water Quality Protection Plan.
  • Noted with concern recent approvals for coastal developments, including the dumping of 3 million cubic metres of dredged material.
  • Considered possible inscription on List of World Heritage in Danger in the absence of further action.
  • Noted findings of GBRMPA’s 2014 Outlook Report about the GBR’s deterioration and that climate change, poor water quality and impacts from coastal development were major threats.
  • Welcomed Australia’s efforts to create the Reef 2050 (long term) Plan and its commitment to establish a permanent ban on dumping of dredged material.
  • Welcomed the progress on the implementation of Reef 2050 Plan.
  • Requested that Australia accelerate efforts to ensure meeting targets in relation to water quality entering the GBR from land-based run-off.
  • Commended Australia on efforts to implement the Reef 2050 Plan, although noted that water quality targets were not met.
  • Decided against including the GBR on the List of World Heritage in Danger (although the IUCN and the World Heritage Centre had recommended inclusion).
  • Noted that climate change is the biggest threat to the GBR and requests Australia invite a monitoring mission to examine the Reef 2050 Plan (which had been revised in 2018).
  • Requested Australia submit a report on the State of Conservation of the GBR by 1 February 2022.

Source: UNESCO World Heritage Convention, Great Barrier Reef, Documents.

In accordance with the 2021 committee decision, the Australian Government submitted a report on the state of conservation of the GBR. The report acknowledged that climate change is the biggest threat facing the GBR but argued that the OUV of the site remained intact. In the context of ’addressing the impacts of a changing climate’, and the possibility of an In Danger Listing, the report sought to delineate between threats it could and could not control:

While the List of World Heritage in Danger remains a relevant and important tool where corrective measures can be undertaken by individual States Parties to address threats to their World Heritage properties that they can control, it is less instructive where the ongoing impacts of a threat are beyond the control of any individual State Party to address, and where changes to the OUV of a property as a result of climate change will continue for many decades. For climate-impacted properties there may be no prospect of removal from the List regardless of the level of investment or the extent of the program of corrective measures implemented by any individual State Party (p. 33).

The IUCN and the World Heritage Centre undertook a monitoring mission to Australia from 21–30 March 2022 but have not yet reported their findings. The Committee is likely to consider these findings at its next meeting and may again consider inclusion of the GBR on the In Danger List.

In accordance with the Operational guidelines for implementation of the convention consideration of an In Danger Listing will result in:

  • the joint development by the Committee and Australia of a Desired State of Conservation for the Removal (DSOCR) of the GBR from the In Danger List
  • a program of corrective measures to help restore the site’s OUV (para 183).

If the GBR is inscribed on the In Danger List, this would establish a cycle of annual review and possible further monitoring missions by the World Heritage Centre and the IUCN. Based on this information, the committee will then decide to either retain or remove the GBR from the In Danger List, or, in the most extreme case, to delete it altogether from the World Heritage List. The latter occurs only if the committee determines a property has deteriorated to the point that it has lost the OUV for which it was first inscribed. In the 50-year history of the convention, this has only occurred for 3 sites: Arabian Oryx Sanctuary (Oman) in 2007, Dresden Elbe Valley (Germany) in 2009 and Liverpool Maritime Mercantile City (United Kingdom) in 2021.[1]

If the GBR is listed In Danger, the designation could remain for many years, as is the case with the US Everglades National Park which faces similar water quality and climate change issues.

Funding, planning and ongoing reporting

Since 2014, the GBR and its terrestrial catchments are reported to have received an ‘unprecedented’ level of investment (p. iv). In 2014–2015, the Reef Trust commenced and is now administered by the Commonwealth Environment Department. The Reef Trust is primarily government-funded but can also receive offset funding (from developments), as well as philanthropic and private contributions.  

The $443 million partnership with the Great Barrier Reef Foundation (2018–2024)

In 2015, the Reef Trust entered into a partnership with the Great Barrier Reef Foundation. The initiative began in July 2018 and is a 6-year, $443 million arrangement. The investment was allocated across the following programs:

Prior to the 2022 election, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and Australian Greens committed to terminating the funding arrangement with the foundation.

As part of its 2022–23 Budget, the Coalition Government announced a 9-year $1 billion investment in GBR management and protection, across 4 key areas. During its election campaign, the ALP promised an additional $194.5 million over the forward estimates on top of existing programs for the same purposes. The Greens presented a $2 billion plan that included grants to improve farming practices to address land-based run-off. Several independent parliamentarians and candidates have also called for stronger action on climate change.

At the state level, in June 2021 the Queensland Government announced close to $330 million for GBR-related programs, creating a cumulative total estimated investment of more than $700 million since 2015. In March 2022, the Queensland Government further announced that $65 million (of the $270 million for Reef Water Quality Improvement programs) would be allocated to catchment and waterways to tackle water pollution.

The Reef 2050 water quality improvement plan 2017–2022 (RWQP) is the Queensland and Australian Government’s key approach to improving water quality. The RWQP’s main focus is reducing nutrient and chemical run-off from agricultural activities (grazing and sugarcane in particular), but also targets pollution from urban, industrial and public lands.

Annual Reef water quality report cards measure progress towards the RWQP’s water quality targets. The 2020 report card (released on 8 April 2022) details progress up to June 2020 and, amongst other things, concluded:

According to the modelling we are more than halfway to the sediment target and almost halfway to the dissolved inorganic nitrogen target. Reductions are mostly due to improved nitrogen fertiliser management and mill mud application in the sugarcane industry and significant investment in fencing to exclude cattle from waterways (p. x).

The RWQP is ‘nested’ within the Reef 2050 plan, which is the overarching GBR management strategy. The Reef 2050 plan was developed following Australia’s largest ever Strategic Environmental Assessment in 2012–2014 (see Table 1). Annual reports under the Reef 2050 plan continue to track the progress of its implementation.

Further reading

Australian Government and Queensland Government, Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan ‘Report Cards'-, 2022.

Australian Government and Queensland Government, Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan 2021-25-, 2021.

Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report 2019 (Townsville: GBRMPA, 2019).

UNESCO, World Heritage Convention, Great Barrier Reef Documents.  

[1] Whilst not a formal deletion, per se, the Bagrati Cathedral and Gelati Monastery in Georgia (together, listed as one site) was ‘partially deleted’. The Bagrati Cathedral was removed from the official listing in 2017 leaving just the Gelati Monastery covered by the Convention.


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