Chapter 2

Chapter 2

Background

2.1        This chapter provides some background relating to the management of the Great Barrier Reef, including a summary of the legal framework at the Commonwealth level. It also examines the World Heritage Committee deliberations and outlines some of the relevant recent policies, reports, plans and strategies.

About the Great Barrier Reef

2.2        The Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area stretches for approximately 2300 kilometres along the coast of Queensland from the northern tip of Queensland down to just north of Bundaberg. The Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1981, and:

2.3        Coral reefs 'only comprise about seven per cent of the Marine Park and the World Heritage Area' and the rest is:

...an extraordinary variety of marine habitats, ranging from shallow inshore areas—such as seagrass, mangroves, sand, algal and sponge gardens, and inter-reefal communities—to deep oceanic areas more than 250km offshore.[2]

2.4         The Great Barrier Reef was inscribed in 1981 for meeting all four of the natural criteria for Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) and for its integrity. This includes having superlative natural phenomena and areas of exceptional natural beauty; being an outstanding example of major stages in the Earth's evolutionary history; representing significant ongoing ecological and biological processes and Traditional Owners' interaction with the natural environment; and containing the most important and significant natural habitats for in situ conservation of biological diversity.[3]
Figure 1- the Great Barrier Reef region

Figure 1- the Great Barrier Reef region[4]

2.5        A distinction can be made between the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, the Great Barrier Reef region and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (see Figure 1 above):

The Region's boundaries match those of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, except the Region includes the areas around major ports that are not part of the Marine Park. The Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area also has similar boundaries to the Region, except that it includes all islands and all Queensland internal waters that are within its outer boundary.[5]

2.6        The Great Barrier Reef is the world's largest marine park, and is a multi‑use area. Activities in the area include tourism, fishing, shipping, research, agriculture and defence.[6] It is estimated that the Great Barrier Reef's goods and services contribute around $6 billion annually to the Australian economy and support around 69 000 jobs. These estimates are likely to be 'only a portion of the total economic value' of the Great Barrier Reef as 'most ecosystem services have not yet been calculated'.[7]

2.7        A significant proportion of the economic value of the area comes from the tourism industry:

The Great Barrier Reef is one of Australia's most iconic tourism assets receiving up to 2 million visits each year. Tourism is an important economic driver for the Great Barrier Reef, contributing $5.7 billion to the national economy in 2012–13. The diverse range of tourism opportunities available on the Great Barrier Reef mean it is also an important creator of jobs.[8]

Legal framework

2.8        There is a range of legislation specifically applicable to the Great Barrier Reef. Key Commonwealth legislation relevant to the Great Barrier Reef includes the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act); the ¬†Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 (GBRMP Act) and the Environment Protection (Sea Dumping) Act 1981 (Sea Dumping Act). Key aspects of these Acts are summarised below.[9]

Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999

2.9        The EPBC Act is the primary piece of Commonwealth legislation regulating environmental matters, and has among its objects:

2.10      In general, the EPBC Act prohibits a person from taking an 'action' without approval from the environment minister if the action is likely to have a significant impact on a 'matter of national environmental significance'.[11] Matters of national environmental significance currently covered by the EPBC Act are:

2.11      The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park has been recognised as a matter of national environmental significance under the EPBC Act in its own right since 25 November 2009. It is prohibited to take any action in, as well as outside, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park that will have a significant impact on the environment within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, unless the action has previously been approved, or is being undertaken, by the Commonwealth.[13]

2.12      The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is also protected under the EPBC Act, for example, as a world heritage area,[14] a national heritage place,[15] and to the extent that it provides habitat for listed threatened species and listed migratory species. There are also two internationally listed Ramsar wetlands in the Great Barrier Reef region: Bowling Green Bay and Shoalwater and Corio Bays.[16]

2.13      In 2014, the Department of the Environment released EPBC Act Referral Guidelines for the Outstanding Universal Value of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. The referral guidelines are intended to provide guidance to proponents on the need to refer an action to which the EPBC Act applies.[17]

Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975

2.14      The GBRMP Act established the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (Marine Park) and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA). The main object of the GBRMP Act is to provide for the long-term protection and conservation of the environment, biodiversity and heritage values of the Great Barrier Reef region.[18]

2.15      In the second reading speech to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Bill 1975, the then Minister for Environment and Conservation, Dr Cass, stated that:

Conservation and protection of the Great Barrier Reef will be the paramount aim of the [Great Barrier Reef Marine Park] Authority.[19]

2.16      To this end, the GBRMP Act and associated Regulations contain provisions which:

Zoning under the GBRMP Act

2.17      As noted above, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is recognised as a multiuse area that provides for a range of activities, including commercial marine tourism, fishing, recreation, scientific research, Indigenous traditional use and ports and shipping. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Zoning Plan 2003 (Zoning Plan)[21] is the primary planning instrument for the conservation and management of the Marine Park. Each zone has different rules for the activities that are allowed, the activities that are prohibited and the activities that require a permit. Zones may also place restrictions on how some activities are conducted.[22] The Zoning Plan divides the Great Barrier Reef into eight zones and sets out the purposes for which each zone may be used or entered.[23] The major zones are:

2.18      ¬†Other zones include Preservation (Pink), Scientific Research (Orange), Buffer (Olive Green) and Commonwealth Island Zones, which make up less than five per cent of the Marine Park.[24]

2.19      Plans of management complement the Zoning Plan and address issues specific to an area or species.[25]

Environment Protection (Sea Dumping) Act 1981

2.20      The Sea Dumping Act regulates the disposal of waste at sea in waters surrounding Australia's coastlines. Under the Act, permits are required from the Department of the Environment for all ocean disposal activities, including dredging operations. The Sea Dumping Act fulfils Australia's international obligations under the London Protocol to prevent marine pollution caused by dumping of wastes and other matter.[26]

2.21      Some sea dumping projects may require approval under both the EPBC Act and the Sea Dumping Act. In these cases, applications can be assessed concurrently under both Acts. If sea dumping activities within the boundaries of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park are proposed, they will be assessed by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.[27]

2.22      Through the Sea Dumping Act, to mitigate and manage environmental impacts, the Australian Government assesses proposals to load and dump wastes and other matter at sea, permits acceptable activities, and places conditions of approval. The National Assessment Guidelines for Dredging 2009 set out the framework for the environmental impact assessment and for permissions relating to ocean disposal of dredged material. The guidelines set out a framework for:

2.23      GBRMPA also has a policy on dredging and spoil disposal that guides assessment and management processes for dredging and dredge material disposal, which includes restrictions on: the location of dredging and dredge material disposal; contaminated dredge material disposal; and annual volumes of sea disposal within the Marine Park.[29]

Background—World Heritage Committee concerns

2.24      As noted earlier, the Great Barrier Reef was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1981. In recent years, the World Heritage Committee has considered the state of conservation of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area and made a number of decisions and recommendations relating to the area. A summary of these is set out below.

UNESCO Reactive Monitoring Mission to Great Barrier Reef Report

2.25      In response to a 2011 decision of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) World Heritage Committee,[30] the Committee researched and drafted a Reactive Monitoring Mission Report into the Great Barrier Reef in June 2012 (UNESCO report).[31] The UNESCO report noted that there had been positive trends with regards to managing threats such as oil and gas development and fishing and tourism in the Great Barrier Reef, and water quality from catchment run-off. However, the report stated that:

Despite these positive trends, the future conservation of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area is at crossroads and decisions that will be taken in the immediate future will be decisive for the long-term health of the property as a whole. The mission concludes that the property is affected by a number of current and potential threats and that decisive and immediate action is required to secure its Outstanding Universal Value over the long‑term. Climate change, catchment runoff, coastal development, ports and shipping and direct extractive use pose the most important threats to the long-term conservation of the property.[32]

2.26      In particular, the report stated that:

Considering the rapid increase of coastal developments, including ports infrastructure, and the fact that circa 35 new development proposals are awaiting determination by 2013, including in highly sensitive or already pressured areas, the mission concludes that this is of high concern to the conservation of the OUV for which the property is inscribed on the World Heritage List.[33]

2.27      Due to these concerns, the UNESCO report made 14 recommendations designed to keep the Great Barrier Reef off the 'List of World Heritage in Danger'.[34]

World Heritage Committee decisions

2.28      Following the UNESCO Mission Report, the committee has considered the state of conservation of the Great Barrier Reef at its meetings in 2012, 2013 and most recently in June 2014.

2.29      A summary of the World Heritage Committee's decisions and requests in relation to the Great Barrier Reef is set out below.

2012 decision

2.30      In 2012, the World Heritage Committee requested that Australia address a number of matters, including the mission report recommendations. Other matters included:

2.31      The World Heritage Committee requested a response to its recommendations by 1 February 2013, stating that a lack of substantial progress could place the Great Barrier Reef on the 'List of World Heritage in Danger'.[36]

2013 decision

2.32      In 2013, the World Heritage Committee's decision:

2.33      The World Heritage Committee requested a response to these recommendations by 1 February 2014, again stating that a lack of substantial progress could place the Great Barrier Reef on the 'List of World Heritage in Danger'.[37]

2014 decision

2.34      Most recently, earlier this year, the World Heritage Committee:

2.35      The World Heritage Committee requested that the Australian Government submit an updated report on the conservation of the property, and on the implementation of actions outlined in its decision, by 1 February 2015. The World Heritage Committee will consider the possible inscription of the Great Barrier Reef on the 'List of World Heritage in Danger' at its 39th session in 2015.[39]

Responding to the World Heritage Committee recommendations

2.36      In response to the World Heritage Committee's requests, Australia submitted State Party Reports to the World Heritage Committee in 2012, 2013 and 2014. These reports outlined the nature of the threats to the Great Barrier Reef as well as the initiatives taken in response to these challenges.[40] The Australian and Queensland Governments noted that a further State Party Report will be provided by 1 February 2015.[41]

2.37      The Australian and Queensland Governments' submission also contained a table outlining Australia's progress in responding to the World Heritage Committee's 2013 decision, claiming that 'significant progress' has been made in relation to a number of recommendations.[42] The two Governments submitted that further progress will be made in 2014 on a number of matters, including:

Plans, policies and strategies relating to the Great Barrier Reef

2.38      There are a plethora of plans, policies and strategies relating to the Great Barrier Reef, many of which have been prepared in response to the World Heritage Committee's concerns and requests. This section provides a brief overview of some of the key policies, plans and strategies relating to the Great Barrier Reef, including, amongst others:

Great Barrier Reef region and Coastal Zone Strategic Assessment 2014

2.39      The Australian Government and the Queensland Government have completed a comprehensive Strategic Assessment of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area and adjacent coastal zone under section 146 of the EPBC Act. The final Strategic Assessment was released on 12 August 2014 and was described as a 'comprehensive analysis of issues affecting the reef and what is needed for its protection'.[44]

2.40      The comprehensive Strategic Assessment had two key components—a marine component led by GBRMPA (the Great Barrier Reef Region Strategic Assessment) and a coastal component led by the Queensland Government (the coastal zone Strategic Assessment).[45] The coastal zone Strategic Assessment focused primarily on the terrestrial values of the coastal zone adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef while the Great Barrier Reef Region Strategic Assessment focused mainly on the marine values of the Great Barrier Reef region. Where there were areas of joint management or overlap in values, they were covered in both Strategic Assessments.[46]

2.41      Each component of the Strategic Assessment culminated in two reports—a program report which outlined the suite of policies, plans and programs being assessed, and a Strategic Assessment Report, which analysed how effective these policies, plans and programs have been at protecting matters of national environmental significance, including the Outstanding Universal Values of the Great Barrier Reef.[47]

2.42      The Great Barrier Reef Region Strategic Assessment Report found that:

The Reef remains one of the most resilient tropical marine ecosystems in the world. However, the accumulation of impacts through time and over an ever‑increasing area is diminishing the Reef's resilience and its health in the southern two-thirds is declining...A decade of extreme weather, including severe cyclones and floods, has contributed to the decline, and reduced the capacity of the ecosystem to recover from these and other disturbances.[48]

2.43      According to the Minister for the Environment, a number of initiatives are to be adopted by the Australian and Queensland Governments, as a result of the Strategic Assessments, including:

2.44      The outcomes of the Strategic Assessment will inform the Reef 2050 Long‑Term Sustainability Plan.[50]

Proposed Reef 2050 Plan

2.45      The 'Reef 2050 Plan' is being developed by the Australian Government, Queensland Government and GBRMPA. It will 'guide the sustainability and management of the Great Barrier Reef, to continue efforts to protect species such as dugongs and turtles, and deal with key threats like nutrient run-off and crown‑of‑thorns starfish outbreaks'. The Reef 2050 Plan will be supported by the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan and the new Reef Trust.[51]

Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan

2.46      The Reef 2050 Long-term Sustainability Plan aims to inform future development by drawing together the Strategic Assessment, providing an overarching framework to guide protection and management of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area from 2015 to 2050.[52]

Reef Trust

2.47      As part of the Reef 2050 Plan, the Australian Government has committed $40 million to the Reef Trust program to 'build on existing investment in the Great Barrier Reef focusing on known critical areas for investment—improving water quality and coastal habitat, controlling the current outbreak of crown-of-thorns starfish, and protecting threatened and migratory species, particularly dugong and turtles'.[53] Funding for the Reef Trust will also be derived from the pooling of offset funds that target specific impacts on the Great Barrier Reef from development activities, and there may be opportunity for future funding through private investments and philanthropic contributions. The program will draw on advice from the Australian Institute of Marine Science, CSIRO and other science organisations and is jointly coordinated by the Australian Government and the Queensland Government.[54]

2.48      The trust is 'designed to consolidate investments in the Great Barrier Reef and disburse funds strategically to maximise outcomes that improve the health and resilience of the Great Barrier Reef'. The program is designed to build on, and not duplicate, existing programs and to complement new initiatives, such as the Green Army and the National Landcare Programme.[55]

Great Barrier Reef 2014 Outlook Report

2.49      Under the GBRMP Act, GBRMPA is required to prepare an 'outlook report' every five years to assess the health of the reef ecosystem and its management.[56] GBRMPA published the first Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report in 2009 and has recently released its Outlook Report 2014. The 2014 report identified climate change, poor water quality from land-based run-off, impacts from coastal development and some remaining impacts from fishing as the main threats to the health of Great Barrier Reef ecology. The report noted that a series of major storms and floods in recent years affected the ecosystem, which was already under pressure. These natural events highlighted the fact that the accumulation of all impacts has the potential to further weaken the resilience of the Great Barrier Reef ecology, which will affect its capacity to recover from further serious disturbances, such as major coral bleaching events, which are predicted to become more frequent in the future.[57] The report concluded that:

Even with the recent management initiatives to reduce threats and improve resilience, the overall outlook for the Great Barrier Reef is poor, has worsened since 2009 and is expected to further deteriorate in the future. Greater reductions of all threats at all levels, Reef-wide, regional and local, are required to prevent the projected declines in the Great Barrier Reef and to improve its capacity to recover.[58]

Scientific Consensus Statement 2013 and Reef Water Quality Protection Plan 2013

2.50      The Great Barrier Reef Water Quality Protection Plan (Reef Water Quality Plan) is a joint initiative of the Australian and Queensland Governments, and has been in existence since 2003. The Reef Water Quality Plan is a collaborative program of coordinated projects and partnerships aimed at improving the quality of water entering the Great Barrier Reef. The long-term objective is to ensure that by 2020 the quality of water entering the reef from broadscale land use has no detrimental impact on the health and resilience of the reef.[59]

2.51      The Reef Water Quality Plan is primarily focused on diffuse source pollution from broad-scale land use and aims to take an innovative, targeted and whole‑of‑catchment approach to reducing agricultural run‑off and improving water quality outcomes through the implementation of three priority areas: prioritising investment and knowledge; responding to the challenge of maximising improvements to reef water quality; and evaluating the performance of all stakeholders. The plan also states that:

Reducing the impacts of land use on reef water quality is not solely the responsibility of governments. Achieving the goals of [the] Reef [Water Quality] Plan will rely on a partnership involving all levels of government, industry, community groups and individual landholders.

The Australian and Queensland Governments will incorporate Reef [Water Quality] Plan goals, targets and actions into relevant planning processes (e.g. business and strategic plans) to ensure actions are achieved in appropriate timeframes with maximum efficiency. The lead organisations are responsible for driving implementation of the actions and working with the identified stakeholders to achieve outcomes.[60]

2.52      The Reef Water Quality Plan is renewed every five years, and was last signed in July 2013. The updated plan built on the successful Reef Rescue program, which provided funds to land managers to improve land management practices with a mind to deliver water quality improvements.[61]

2.53      An annual report card measures progress towards the Reef Water Quality Plan’s goals and targets. The first Report Card was based on 2008-09 data and established the baseline for future reports. Report Card 2012 and 2013, released in June 2014, has shown positive trends in land management practice change which have been translated into reductions of key pollutants.[62]

2.54      The 2013 Reef Water Quality Plan was guided by the 2013 Scientific Consensus Statement, which was made by a multidisciplinary group of scientists, with oversight from the Reef Water Quality Plan Independent Science Panel, engaged to support the development of the updated Reef Water Quality Plan and 'to review and synthesise the significant advances in scientific knowledge of water quality issues in the Great Barrier Reef and to reach consensus on the current understanding of the system'.[63] The scientists found:

The overarching consensus is that key Great Barrier Reef ecosystems are showing declining trends in condition due to continuing poor water quality, cumulative impacts of climate change and increasing intensity of extreme events.[64]

Queensland Ports Strategy 2014

2.55      The Queensland Government recently released the Queensland Ports Strategy, which outlines the Queensland Government's framework for port development over the next 10 years. The vision of the strategy is to:

Drive economic growth through the efficient use and development of Queensland's long-established major port areas, while protecting and managing Queensland's outstanding environmental assets.[65]

2.56      The strategy proposes a new Ports Act to prohibit dredging within and adjoining the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area for the development of new, or the expansion of existing port facilities, outside Priority Port Development Areas (PPDAs) at Gladstone, Hay Point/Mackay, Abbot Point and Townsville, over next 10 years.[66]

Proposed North-East Shipping Management Plan

2.57      The North-East Shipping Management Plan is being developed by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority in consultation with a range of government agencies and stakeholders. The draft plan 'sets out Australia's intentions to enhance ship safety and environmental protection' in the Great Barrier Reef, Torres Strait and Coral Sea regions'. The plan was made available for public comment and consultation in late 2013. The Australian and Queensland Governments advised that the plan will be finalised in 2014.[67]

Independent Review of the Port of Gladstone and Gladstone Harbour Bund Wall Review

2.58      As part of its response to the 2012 decision of the World Heritage Committee, the Australian Government commissioned an Independent Review into the Port of Gladstone. The review provided an initial report on findings to the Australian Government on 30 July 2013. Interested parties were invited to provide comments on the initial report by 6 September 2013. The review delivered a Supplementary Report focused on port optimisation issues on 1 November 2013.[68]

2.59      According to the submission from the Australian and Queensland Governments, the review found 'that environmental management and governance within the Port of Gladstone is generally comprehensive'. The three key areas for improvement are:

2.60      After the review reported on its findings in 2013 information came to light regarding the design and construction of the reclamation bund wall at the Port of Gladstone. As a result, on 30 January 2014, the Minister for the Environment commissioned an addendum to the independent review so that an independent panel could examine the latest information. On 9 May 2014, the Minister accepted and released the independent review into the leaking bund wall incidents at the Port of Gladstone. The review contained 37 findings and 19 recommendations.[70]

2.61      The Australian and Queensland Governments advised that 'the relevant findings will be used to inform the assessment of future developments with reclamation areas in coastal environments' and that an Australian Government response to the reviews is being prepared.[71]

Other relevant reports

2.62      The following reports are also relevant to the management of the Great Barrier Reef.

Great Barrier Reef Biodiversity Conservation Strategy 2013

2.63      GBRMPA has also published the Great Barrier Reef Biodiversity Conservation Strategy 2013, which 'provides a framework for improving biodiversity conservation in the Great Barrier Reef Region'. The GBRMPA website states that:

In developing the strategy it has become clear that inshore habitats along the developed coast and many of the species that rely on them are impacted by a range of threats. These include declining water quality due to catchment run-off, loss of habitat due to coastal and port development, and climate change. Illegal fishing and poaching are also having some impact.[72]

2.64      The strategy further states that 'there is an urgent need for a systematic approach to addressing the cumulative impacts on inshore biodiversity'.[73]

Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee Report: Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Great Barrier Reef) Bill 2013

2.65      In June 2013, the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee considered the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Great Barrier Reef) Bill 2013. The Bill was a private senators' bill which proposed to prohibit certain port developments on the Great Barrier Reef coastline in order to implement recommendations made by the World Heritage Committee to ensure that the Great Barrier Reef is not included on the 'World Heritage in Danger' list. Although the report recommended that the bill not be passed, it did make a number of recommendations, including that:

Navigation: Previous Page | Contents | Next Page