Dr Evan Hamman, Law and Bills Digest
Dr Rebecca Bathgate, Science, Technology, Environment and Resources
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
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
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
- coastal development
- direct human use (for example, illegal fishing and bycatch)
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
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
in 2009 and 2015.
The division of roles and responsibilities for the
protection of the GBR can be summarised as:
The Queensland Government has primary
responsibility for managing the (terrestrial) GBR catchment under its planning and environmental laws. The Commonwealth Government provides
additional assessments and approvals for major developments (ports,
dredging, coastal hotel development, etc) under the Environment
Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth) (EPBC
- The Commonwealth Government, through GBRMPA, manages
the 344,400km2 Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (Federal Marine Park) in
accordance with its zoning
plan. The plan sets out which activities, such as fishing and boating, are permitted
in particular zones.
- The Queensland Government is responsible for managing
the 63,000km2 Great
Barrier Reef Coast Marine Park (Queensland Marine Park) in accordance with
plan that covers
tidal lands and tidal waters.
The Queensland Marine Park and Federal Marine
Park overlap at the coastline, and, together with islands under the
jurisdiction of Queensland, comprise the GBR World
Heritage area. The Federal Marine Park makes up 99%
of the World Heritage Area.
The Queensland and Commonwealth governments have
fisheries responsibilities under the Fisheries
Management Act 1991 (Cth), Fisheries
Act 1994 (Qld) and EPBC Act.
- In terms of day-to-day operations, a joint
field management program exists between the Queensland and
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)
Heritage Committee decision
- Noted with extreme concern the approval
of Liquefied Natural Gas processing and port facilities on Curtis Island,
- 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.
of a strategic assessment and resultant long-term plan.
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
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
- Welcomed Australia’s
efforts to create the Reef 2050 (long
term) Plan and its commitment to establish a permanent ban on dumping of
- 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
- Decided against including the GBR on the
List of World Heritage in Danger (although the IUCN and the World Heritage Centre had
- 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
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
- a program of corrective measures to help restore the site’s OUV
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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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