The Science: Health of the Great Barrier Reef
This chapter provides an overview of the scientific evidence on the
health of the Great Barrier Reef, including:
evidence that the Great Barrier Reef is in decline and the
reasons behind this decline; and
the importance of scientific work underpinning decision-making,
including incorporation of the precautionary principle.
Decline of the reef
The evidence to the committee indicated that there has been a
considerable decline of the health in the reef in recent years, and that the
decline is continuing. As noted in Chapter 2, GBRMPA's Outlook Report 2014
...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.
Many submissions and witnesses referred to a 2012 paper which showed
that, in the past 27 years, the Great Barrier Reef has lost around 50 per cent
of its coral cover.
Professor Peter Mumby of the Australian Coral Reef Society told the committee that
'the reef is in the worst state it has ever been since records began'.
By 2050, he predicted that:
...the reef will be vastly less healthy than it is now...it would
look pretty ugly. There would be very few corals, lots of big seaweed waving
everywhere and relatively few fish.
The committee heard that the decline in health is not uniform across the
entire reef. The Australian and Queensland Governments submitted that the
northern third of the reef and offshore areas 'remain in good condition', with
'southern inshore areas feeling the effects of human use and natural
As the Outlook Report 2014 states:
...the northern third of the Great Barrier Reef Region has good
water quality and its ecosystem is in good condition. In contrast, key
habitats, species and ecosystem processes in central and southern inshore areas
have continued to deteriorate from the cumulative effects of impacts. For
example, the population of the iconic and culturally important dugong, which
was already at very low levels compared with a century ago, has declined
further in this part of the Region.
The Cairns and Far North Environment Centre (CAFNEC) similarly noted
that the health of the reef is 'considered to be much better north of Cooktown
than south, particularly for inshore reefs'. CAFNEC suggested that the reason
for this difference was due to 'the absence of large scale land based
activities adjacent to the reef north of Cooktown'.
Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg also told the committee that 'the threats
and changes to the Great Barrier Reef are accelerating as opposed to slowing':
Fifty per cent of the corals in the Great Barrier Reef have
disappeared since the early 1980s. If you had told me that in the early 1980s
when I was exiting my university degree I would have said, 'That's impossible,'
but it is happening and the pace is quickening.
A key concern for many submitters and witnesses was the prospect that
the decline of the reef could result in the listing of the Great Barrier Reef
as 'World Heritage in Danger' by the World Heritage Committee.
Professor Mumby expressed concern about the consequences of the decline
of the reef and what might be lost for commercial fishing, the tourism
industry, recreation, and coastal defences.
The Outlook Report 2014 similarly noted:
The Great Barrier Reef remains a significant economic
resource for regional communities and Australia. Major changes to the condition
of the ecosystem have social and economic implications for regional communities
because some uses, such as commercial marine tourism and fishing, depend on an
intact, healthy and resilient ecosystem.
A key concern was the impact on the tourism industry, and particularly
the detrimental impact that a 'World Heritage in Danger' listing might have on
the tourism industry.
For example, the Whitsunday Charter Boat Industry Association submitted that:
Commercial marine tourism is the largest direct contributor
to economic activity in the region when compared to other reef-based
industries. A loss of World Heritage status, or actual loss of ecological
values....would have significant implications for the [Great Barrier Reef]
Similarly, the Whitsunday Charter Boat Industry Association submitted
It has taken a long time to build the brand that is the World
Heritage Great Barrier Reef and making the wrong decision could ruin that
At the same time, some witnesses noted that a 'World Heritage in Danger'
listing could spark 'last chance to see'-type tourism in the short term.
However, the Australian and Queensland Governments submitted that they
are 'determined to continue to manage and protect the World Heritage site for
future generations' and 'do not consider that the Great Barrier Reef World
Heritage Area warrants inclusion on the List of World Heritage in Danger'.
Reasons behind the decline
The Outlook Report 2014 identified the
greatest risks to the Great Barrier Reef as climate change, poor water quality
from land-based run-off, impacts from coastal development and remaining impacts
It further noted that:
These threats have the potential to work in
combination to weaken the resilience of the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem and
therefore its ability to recover from serious disturbances (such as major coral
bleaching events) that will become more frequent in the future.
The Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) similarly submitted
that the Great Barrier Reef:
...faces pressures from multiple sources, ranging from coral
bleaching events, a series of severe cyclones, Crown of Thorns Starfish
outbreaks, declining water quality from agriculture run-off and dredging
operations. Understanding of the impact of these stressors on the Reef,
especially their cumulative impacts and the Reef's capacity to respond to these
stresses (its resilience) is critical for ongoing effective management.
This section contains some general observations about the relative
contributions of these threats and the key underlying causes. The issues of
climate change, and storms and cyclones are discussed further later in this
chapter. Water quality from catchment run-off, crown-of-thorns starfish and
coastal development is discussed in further detail in the next chapter. A more
specific consideration of coastal development relating to ports and shipping, including
dredging and disposal, is contained in Chapters 5 and 6.
While there appeared to be scientific consensus on the causes of the
decline of the reef, there was some discussion during the committee's inquiry
about the relative contributions of the various threats to the Great Barrier
Reef. Dr Jamie Oliver of AIMS observed that, amongst scientists, 'there is
general consensus' about the threats, but perhaps not 'full consensus on the
relative priorities and contributions to the overall decline that these threats
represent'. He suggested that this 'requires further research, to be honest,
and further discussion'.
Professor Peter Mumby agreed that 'most scientists agree about what is
happening to the reef...I do not really believe that the scientific community are
in that much disagreement. They argue about the details...but, on the major
issues, the major threats, I think people are pretty much in agreement'.
Professor Hoegh-Guldberg similarly submitted that:
There is strong scientific consensus that key Great Barrier
Reef ecosystems such as reef building corals are showing declining trends in
condition due to continuing poor water quality, cumulative impacts of climate
change, and increasing intensity of extreme events.
As noted earlier, many submissions and witnesses referred to a 2012
study by AIMS which showed that, in the past 27 years, the Great Barrier Reef
has lost around 50 per cent of its coral cover. The study attributed the decline
to tropical cyclones (48 per cent), coral predation by the crown‑of‑thorns
starfish (COTS) (42 per cent), and coral bleaching (10 per cent).
This study was relied on by some submitters and witnesses to identify these as
the main reasons for the decline in the Great Barrier Reef. For example,
Shipping Australia submitted that it is aware of:
...studies that have been carried out with respect to causes of
coral death on the Great Barrier Reef and we have no reason to doubt the
findings that climate-change induced coral bleaching, damage from adverse
weather events (cyclones) and predatory activities of the crown of thorns
starfish that is native to Australian waters are the main reasons for their
However, other submitters and witnesses cautioned against over-reliance
on this study.
For example, Mr Coates of CAFNEC told the committee to:
Read the very second sentence of the very first paragraph of
that paper, which does point out that dredging and dumping is a serious threat
to the reef and really consider the broader picture. They are the causes of
damage to coral, but the underlying problem is the resilience of the reef, its
rate of recovery. That is intrinsically linked to water quality, which is of
course intrinsically linked to a range of factors, including dredging and
Professor Pandolfi of the Australian Coral Reef Society similarly
cautioned that the study 'did not consider all sources of mortality' and
suggested that 'the real issue is not what killed [the corals]; it is why
aren't they recovering?'.
Indeed, the committee heard from AIMS itself that this study was limited
in some respects, and that there are a range of other interacting factors. In
particular, Dr Oliver of AIMS told the committee that the dataset on which
the paper focused was 'biased towards mid-shelf to offshore reefs', and
'probably likely to underestimate the impacts of water quality'. He explained
...we did not explicitly include water quality or dredging or
other issues in the analysis. We really cannot comment on whether or not these
other issues are a particularly important cause of coral decline, particularly
in inshore reefs, because that was not the hypothesis we addressed in the
paper. As we even point out in the paper itself, in the discussion and
introduction, these other factors are important generally on the Great Barrier
Reef and need to be looked at in more detail.
He further explained that:
We did not have really good comprehensive information on
water quality or other threats and we did not put that into the analysis. But
we know from other studies that these are important. Particularly in local
areas, we know that dredging can kill corals. For water quality, it is well
understood that there is a major threat particularly to inshore and coastal
coral reefs. That just did not get included in the analysis, because we were
actually doing a different type of analysis.
Several submissions and witnesses identified climate change and poor
water quality as two of the key underlying issues behind the decline of the
reef, and that these are linked to crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks, coral
bleaching and the resilience of the reef to recover from storms and cyclones.
For example, Professor Hoegh-Guldberg identified the two core issues as
climate change and water quality. He submitted that climate change as
'undoubtedly the most serious threat to the [Great Barrier Reef] over the
longer term', with declining water quality as a challenge over the short term.
He told the committee that:
...the health of the Great Barrier Reef is declining rapidly as
a result of deteriorating water quality and climate change. The evidence of
this is undeniable...It is as a result of multiple disturbances. Things like
crown of the thorns outbreaks are linked to water quality...Things like recovery from
storms are linked to water quality...We are increasing the cumulative impacts
that are making it harder for it to come back from disturbances...
Professor Hoegh‑Guldberg further submitted that:
...impacts from disturbances such as cyclones, COTS and bleaching
are clearly aggravated by a background decline in the health and hence ability
of corals to grow back after disturbances...
The committee further notes that the Outlook Report 2014 stated:
In recent years, a series of major storms and floods have
affected an ecosystem already under pressure. The accumulation of all impacts
on the Reef has the potential to further weaken its resilience. This is likely
to affect its ability to recover from serious disturbances, such as major coral
bleaching events, which are predicted to become more frequent in the future.
Indeed, the Outlook Report 2014 noted that there is concern that
the resilience of the Great Barrier Reef is being seriously, and increasingly
The report acknowledged that:
The emerging loss of ecosystem resilience is particularly
critical in the context of the projected major increase in the effects of
climate change impacts and the lag time between improved land management
practices and observable ecosystem improvements...As these effects worsen, it is
very likely that interactions between climate-related threats and other threats
will have increasingly serious consequences.
As noted above, many submitters and witnesses highlighted climate change
as a major contributor to the decline of the health of the Great Barrier Reef.
For example, Dr Chris McGrath told the committee that 'the major issue for the
reef is the enormous threat that climate change and ocean acidification pose'.
Professor Hoegh-Guldberg described climate change as 'undoubtedly the most
serious threat' to the Great Barrier Reef 'over the longer term'.
Indeed, the Outlook Report 2014 similarly
states that 'climate change remains the most serious threat to the Great
Barrier Reef ':
It is already affecting the Reef and is likely to have
far-reaching consequences in the decades to come. Sea temperatures are on the
rise and this trend is expected to continue, leading to an increased risk of
mass coral bleaching; gradual ocean acidification will increasingly restrict
coral growth and survival; and there are likely to be more intense weather
The Outlook Report 2014 further notes that:
The impacts of increasing ocean temperatures and ocean
acidification will be amplified by the accumulation of other impacts such as
those caused by excess nutrient run-off.
The committee received evidence that the two key impacts of climate
change on the Great Barrier Reef relate to increased temperatures and ocean
acidification. In terms of increased temperatures, Professor Hoegh-Guldberg
explained that 'rising sea temperatures pose serious threats to reef-building
corals which undergo mass coral bleaching and mortality'. He cited research
which indicates that:
Prior to 1979, there were no scientific reports of mass coral
bleaching and mortality, however, over the past 25 years there has been
numerous bleaching events which have had significant damage to coral reefs
world‑wide...In two separate events, 1998 and 2002, over 50% of the Great
Barrier Reef was affected, with the loss of corals estimated to be around 10%.
it is expected that such events will result in the loss of close to 100% of
corals on the GBR.
Professor Terry Hughes told the committee that these bleaching events
demonstrate 'the impacts of climate change have been happening for some time'
and 'will increase in frequency and severity as global warming continues'.
In terms of ocean acidification, Professor Hoegh-Guldberg explained that
rising levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, generated
by the burning of fossil fuels, are being absorbed by the upper layers of the
On entering the ocean, CO2 reacts with water to
create a dilute acid (Carbonic acid) subsequently reducing the pH of the ocean,
while at the same time decreasing the carbonate ion concentration. The pH of
the upper layers of the ocean has decreased by 0.1 pH units since the advent of
the industrial revolution...There is now a growing body of experimental evidence
that shows that coral growth and calcification decrease substantially as the
concentration of CO2 increases.
Professor Hoegh-Guldberg summarised that 'in combination, increased
temperature and acidity both kill corals and dissolve the reef framework'. He
told the committee the consensus in the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change report is that:
...if we keep up the rate of temperature change, average global
temperature and the rate at which we are acidifying the ocean, which I should
point out is the highest in 65 million years, we will not have much of a reef
in terms of a coral dominated ecosystem by the middle of this century.
Several submissions and witnesses stressed that that factors such as
climate change and water quality impact on the reef's ability and resilience to
recover from other impacts, such as tropical cyclones and the crown-of-thorns
For example, Professor Hoegh-Guldberg described the reef as a 'prize fighter'
that is getting sicker all round.
Professor John Pandolfi told the committee that reducing 'local stressors
on the reef' means that the reef 'will have a much better chance of being
resilient to the climate change effects'.
Dr McGrath similarly considered that 'the major issue for the reef is
the enormous threat that climate change and ocean acidification pose'.
Dr McGrath was concerned that there is a danger of 'becoming lost in the detail
of relatively localised threats to the [Great Barrier Reef], such as port
expansions, and miss the bigger picture of the immense and widespread threat
that climate change and ocean acidification post to the reef system'.
To address the issue of climate change, submissions emphasised the need
to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels and deforestation.
For example, Dr McGrath submitted that:
Australia must take strong and comprehensive measures to
reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Such measures should include setting policy
targets for stabilising atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations and limiting
increases in global temperatures.
Dr McGrath described our current emissions reduction target of five per
cent by 2020 as 'woefully inadequate'. He also suggested that most of
Australia's coal reserves should be left in the ground, and that we should not
be allowing the further development of new coal mines.
Similarly, Professor Hoegh-Guldberg told the committee that 'a failure
to deal with the overriding climate issue will make all efforts meaningless'
and that it is 'quite incredible' that Australia is 'expanding activities that
will drive increasing amounts of fossil fuels into the global market at a time
when we know that we will kill the reef'.
Professor Hughes agreed:
Australia has one of the highest per capita CO2
emissions in the world, and the government policy is to triple our exports of
coal over the next 25 years, which of course is completely counter to the
stated aim of reducing Australia's CO2 emissions.
However, Mr Michael Roche of the Queensland Resources Council told the
committee that while they fully support action on climate change, 'coal will
continue to be a major source of satisfying the world's energy demand'. He
further suggested that 'the strategy of focusing on coal or gas exports out of
Australia does nothing to deal with global emissions. Where there is demand for
coal, the produce will be supplied'.
The committee notes that the Outlook Report 2014 states:
The extent and persistence of these [climate] impacts depends
to a large degree on how effectively the issue of rising levels of greenhouse
gases is addressed worldwide.
In response to questions as to the role of Australia in reducing
greenhouse gas emissions reduction, and whether Australia can achieve
sufficient greenhouse gas reductions on its own, Dr McGrath told the committee
that Australia should be at the forefront:
We are the biggest exporter of coal in the world...so we are a
major player in the fossil fuel market in the world...it is like, say, the World
Cup in football: we send a team and they play. We have to engage as well as we
can and then other teams come from other countries and they help...The reality is
a lot of other countries are taking serious action to respond to this, and
Australia should be at the forefront.
Similarly, Professor Pandolfi of the Australian Coral Reef Society told
the committee that 'we need to act responsibly on a global stage to begin to
reduce emissions so that we can reduce the effects of warming and high CO2
in our Great Barrier Reef waters'.
Mr Jeremy Tager further told the committee that:
...making the Galilee Basin [in Queensland] into the largest
coalmining area in the world and sending that overseas through the Great
Barrier Reef in order for it to be burnt to contribute to climate change that
will further kill the reef makes us as much responsible as anybody in the
Other submissions also noted the need to consider the impacts of climate
change, and the need for adaptation strategies, in the context of planning and
management in the Great Barrier Reef region.
Storms and cyclones
As noted earlier in this chapter, a large part of the decline in the
reef's coral cover has been attributed to tropical storms and cyclones. The Outlook
Report 2014 notes that there were six category 3 or above cyclones that
affected the Great Barrier Reef between 2005 and 2013, which caused significant
damage to coral reef habitats.
However, several submitters and witnesses cautioned that tropical
cyclones and storms have always been an issue for the reef, and the key problem
now is that the reef's ability to recover from these storms is impaired by
other contributing factors. As Professor Hughes observed, 'It is very
convenient to blame the weather, like cyclones, but we have always had
cyclones. Cyclones are basically background mortality'.
Professor Mumby of the Australian Coral Reef Society explained:
Tropical storms have been with us forever and they have not
been a long‑term problem because, once a reef has been impacted, it can
Professor Mumby further explained that:
There is no question that tropical storms have had a
significant impact on the reef as they always do. We have just been through a
period of very high intense activity, but the real problem is that the recovery
rate of reefs may be impaired...If you start reducing the rate of recovery, then
things like cyclones will have a longer, more persistent impact, which is one
of the reasons why they can be such a problem.
Professor Hoegh-Guldberg similarly submitted that 'there is limited
evidence that demonstrates that the frequency and intensity of cyclones has
increased dramatically within the [Great Barrier Reef] region'. As mentioned
above, he suggested that their impacts (along with other impacts) 'are clearly
aggravated by a background decline in the health and hence ability of corals to
grow back after disturbances'.
Professor Hoegh‑Guldberg further explained that the impact that storms
and cyclones are having on the Great Barrier Reef is linked to other problems,
such as water quality:
Storms have occurred over thousands of years, but corals have
bounced back very quickly. If you do not have storms coming more than every 10
years the reef still survives, but what we have done with the water quality is
that the corals are being poisoned by pesticides, nutrients and sediments and
they [are] just not going back fast enough to keep up with the big storms that
Scientific work underpinning decision-making
This section examines:
the importance of science, including monitoring and research, to
support management and decision-making in relation to the Great Barrier Reef;
areas for further research;
need for independent scientific work and evidence; and
whether decision-making in relation to the Great Barrier Reef is
consistent with the precautionary principle.
Importance of scientific research
The committee received evidence emphasising the important role of
scientific research and monitoring in supporting decision-making in relation to
the Great Barrier Reef.
The Australian and Queensland Governments submitted that there are a
range of research providers within the Great Barrier Reef region, including:
...the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS), CSIRO,
government agencies (such as GBRMPA, the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service
and the Queensland Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) and
universities, as well as by commercial companies and consultants, stakeholders,
Traditional Owners and community members.
They also referred to research investment through the National
Environmental Research Program (NERP) Tropical Ecosystems Hub, which is:
....addressing critical issues for management, conservation and
sustainable use of the GBRWHA and its catchments, tropical rainforests
including the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area...
The Australian Coral Reef Society submitted that 'science is now playing
a stronger role than ever in supporting day-to-day decision making', such as
how to intervene to mitigate crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks. The Australian
Coral Reef Society further submitted that:
...programmes like the National Environmental Research
Programme (NERP) are proving to be effective in providing the science to help
manage the reef and undertake cost-effective interventions. Management agencies
have excellent links with the research community and the NERP provides a great
example for having researchers work closely with managers and industry.
Professor Hoegh-Guldberg noted that 'it is important that State and
Federal governments heed the conclusions of the best science for responding to
any threats' to the Great Barrier Reef. He further expressed the view that
GBRMPA 'has developed a clear understanding of the major threats to the health
of the Great Barrier Reef', by engaging with national and international
scientific communities and through State of the Reef and Outlook Reports.
Professor Hoegh-Guldberg further noted that the research community is looking
forward to being involved in the future planning and management of the Great
Barrier Reef, including the Reef 2050 Plan:
The scientific community can
provide the evidence-base necessary for future decision-making regarding the
sustainability and resilience of the [Great Barrier Reef].
AIMS also expressed support for GBRMPA's use of science and its
communication with the scientific community:
GBRMPA uses science evidence from multiple sources to support
decision-making, including long-term baselines and an in-depth system-level
understanding to predict environmental risk. GBRMPA regularly communicates with
the scientific community both to seek advice on current management issues, to
stay abreast of current scientific understanding of the status, threats, and
vulnerabilities of the [Great Barrier Reef] and communicate its research
priorities to the scientists.
Other submitters and witnesses also noted the need for ongoing
monitoring of the health of the Great Barrier Reef. For example, Professor
Hoegh‑Guldberg submitted that:
The most fundamental information required for sound
environmental management to ensure the long term health of the reef is
knowledge of, and capability to measure, what is in the environment and how it
is changing over time.
AIMS similarly highlighted that the need for 'effective monitoring to
support management decisions' is 'greater than ever, and will increase as
cumulative pressures on the GBRWHA grow under global and regional environmental
change'. AIMS expressed support for an Integrated Monitoring Program (IMP) to
'comprehensively link historical trends to present-day status and to risks
under projected environmental conditions'. AIMS noted that such a program was
proposed in the Strategic Assessment Program Report, and suggested that:
...the proposed IMP should be developed as soon as possible and
that significant resources will be needed to both fill gaps in the existing
coverage of key indicators and to develop and monitor new indicators that will arise
from the decision to adopt a target-based management approach for the GBRWHA.
A representative of the Department of the Environment noted that the Strategic
Assessment for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park did look at 'creating an
integrated monitoring system', which he suggested will be 'very important for
across the reef in tracking its overall health and progress'.
The Australian and Queensland Governments referred to a number of
initiatives to monitor the health of the reef, including the GBRMPA Outlook
Reports (as outlined in the previous chapter). The Australian and Queensland
Governments submitted that the Outlook Reports play an important role in the
management of the area:
To address the challenges facing the Reef, while achieving
the greatest value for the available resources, GBRMPA's management must be
well‑targeted, knowledge-based, scientifically robust and measureable.
GBRMPA regularly reviews its management priorities and arrangements, including
through the Outlook Report, to ensure its resources are applied most
effectively to achieve the long-term protection, ecologically sustainable use,
understanding and enjoyment of the Great Barrier Reef.
In terms of monitoring, some witnesses and submitters also mentioned the
'Eye on the Reef' monitoring program, which enables reef users to collect
information and report sighting and observations to GBRMPA.
The Outlook Report 2014 acknowledges that:
Reef health monitoring information provided by tourism
operators through the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority's Eye on the
Reef program improves the information available for decision making. Monitoring
information is better integrated, and the program has a user-friendly data
portal and online training.
Australian Institute of Marine Science
As noted above, one of the key research providers is AIMS, which is a
Commonwealth statutory authority established under the Australian Institute
of Marine Science Act 1972. Its functions include carrying out research and
development in relation to marine science and marine technology. It has a staff
of 198 (average full‑time equivalent) and its total revenue (from
government and external sources in 2012‑13)
was $51.7 million.
AIMS explained its role as a 'key independent science provider and
adviser' to GBRMPA, which uses its science and advice 'across a range of issues
to develop improved monitoring programs and adaptive management solutions as
part of a long‑term sustainability plan for the Reef'.
Dr Oliver stated that one of their 'primary goals is to provide the
evidence base for sound environmental decision making' and that it had
'established strong links' to environmental regulators and industry, governments
and especially the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. He further told
the committee that:
GBRMPA has consistently identified good science as a key
foundation to effective management and has consistently supported relevant
research and sought expert scientific advice on controversial issues where
there is residual uncertainty.
However, the committee also heard that the AIMS has had to accommodate
an $8 million cut to its budget for 2014–15.
Dr Oliver explained that AIMS is trying not 'to make any structural changes to
the organisation' and to 'maintain our underlying capacity to do research' but
...we would have to cut back to some extent on some of the
fundamental research that provides the long-term building blocks for the more
applied research that we do. There are a number of areas that we may decide to
cut back on as a result of that—that is inevitable when you get a cut—but we
are confident that we will maintain our capacity to do this research.
However, some witnesses and submitters expressed concern about whether
there is sufficient funding for research for the reef. For example, The North
Queensland Conservation Council (NQCC) identified that 'GBRMPA and related
research organisations need to be funded at a level to ensure that all necessary
research is undertaken as a matter of priority'. Ms Tubman of NQCC told the
committee that they 'would like to see greater funding for science in GBRMPA
but also in AIMS and in CSIRO'.
Funding for GBRMPA is also discussed further in Chapter 8.
Gaps and areas for further research
Several key areas for further research were identified during the
committee's inquiry. Some of these are discussed elsewhere in this report, in
the relevant chapter discussing specific issues (for example, there is discussion
in Chapter 5 in relation to ports and the need for more research on the longer
term dispersal of dredge spoil). Other more general needs and approaches are
The committee notes that the Outlook Report 2014 stated that
while there have been 'significant improvements in understanding of the region's
values and impacts' since the 2009 report, 'important information gaps still
It identified, for example, in relation to biodiversity:
...the assessment of many habitats and species or groups of
species is principally based on limited evidence and anecdotal information. Key
gaps in knowledge include understanding of deeper reefs and deep-water seagrass
meadows, islands, and identification of new biodiversity hotspots. Biological
and ecological information is lacking on inshore dolphins and populations of
seabirds that breed in the Great Barrier Reef as well as some targeted 'at
risk' fishery species and populations of bycatch species. Sea snakes and some
shark and ray populations are poorly understood as are turtle populations after
migration out of the Marine Park.
Professor Hoegh-Guldberg suggested there is also a need for a better
mapping of the reef, including:
...all reef locations/boundaries, their dimensions (depth)
and their composition in terms of benthic communities and substrate types, and
in more detail the amount of coral cover. Currently there are no existing maps
and no plan to establish a baseline map or to regularly update a map that
provides details of the location, depth and composition (benthic communities
and substrate types) of the entire Great Barrier Reef.
AgForce recommended that a single searchable database be created of all
reef reports and publications, noting that 'from an industry perspective, it is
difficult to know where to look for relevant reef reports'. They suggested that
this would reduce duplication and the 'disconnect' between reef research and
development and industry research and development.
The Minerals Council of Australia agreed that 'improved communication and
access to information will be important for building public confidence' in the
management of the Great Barrier Reef.
Dr Oliver told the committee that 'there is much we do not know about
the reef ecosystems and the complex interactions that will determine their
response to changing climate, coastal development and increased use' and that:
Support for this research to address these knowledge gaps has
been provided through a variety of initiatives by the state and federal
government. Ongoing support is essential in order to reduce the uncertainty in
environmental management decisions that underpins much of the controversy
surrounding the reef today.
AIMS highlighted that there is an 'increasing number and complexity of
issues facing management agencies for the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage
Area', meaning that decision-making needs to draw on 'an exponentially
increasing volume of information'. AIMS were concerned that:
Fully dealing with this complexity and information load
requires both capability and capacity that may exceed GBRMPA's current
resources, both in terms commissioning the acquisition or collation of
empirical data and interpreting these in a policy, decision-making context.
Additional resources would allow for significant improvements in the timeliness
and quality of decisions and policies to protect the GBR.
AIMS identified that GBRMPA 'has substantial additional science
information needs relating to the development of policies and management plans
and day to day management'. As noted earlier, much of this research is 'carried
out by research institutions' such as AIMS, CSIRO, universities and NERP.
However, AIMS was concerned that:
GBRMPA is only able to influence the research agenda of these
agencies indirectly, through publication of its research priorities and other
forms of communication. In general, the information needs articulated by GBRMPA
significantly exceed the resources available from all the above sources, so it
is important that a careful prioritisation of research, taking which considers
needs, feasibility and timescales for results is carried out. 
Dr Oliver of AIMS suggested that this prioritisation of research could
be achieved through the development of a 'collaborative [Great Barrier Reef]
Strategic Research Plan' involving GBRMPA, Commonwealth and State Governments
and key research providers.
The Australian and Queensland Governments stated that the Australian
Government had invested in new research to inform the Strategic Assessment of
the GBRWHA, targeted to address 'key information gaps relating to the future
management of the Great Barrier Reef'. The Strategic Assessments are discussed
further elsewhere in this report.
The Australian and Queensland Governments also noted that:
Key information needs to improve management of the Reef are
also identified in GBRMPA's Scientific information needs for the management of
the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park 2009–2014. This document, along with
partnership agreements with key research institutions, provides the basis for
focusing research on matters relevant to the long-term protection and management
of the Reef.
Independence of scientific work
Many submitters and witnesses supported the need for science
underpinning decision-making to be independent and apolitical.
A key issue raised by some in this context was the fact that regulatory
decision-making is often underpinned by scientific work and environmental
assessments which are commissioned and provided by proponents. In particular,
several submissions and witnesses expressed concern that environmental
assessment documentation is prepared by the proponent (or consultants
commissioned by the proponent), rather than by an independent third party. It was suggested that the fact that the work is commissioned and
provided by proponents may affect the independence of that scientific work.
For example, AIMS noted that developers are often required to commission
work and provide the results of that work to decision-making authorities such
as GBRMPA. AIMS observed that:
While this mechanism allows for adequate resourcing of that
scientific work, it does not guarantee independence. There is a clear potential
for conflicts of interest since the oversight and quality control of the work
is carried out by the developer, whose interests in controlling development
costs could conflict with the [Great Barrier Reef Marine Park] Authority's
interests in minimising environmental and social impacts.
AIMS suggested that:
A more effective mechanism to ensure independence, which has
been successfully applied by GBRMPA in the past, would be for the Authority, or
some other independent agency, to commission and oversee the work, while still
requiring the developer to pay the costs.
In contrast, industry groups such as Ports Australia told the committee
that 'Queensland Ports undertake rigorous and transparent environmental
assessment for all major projects undertaken'.
At the same time, many submitters and witnesses were also concerned that
the science of the reef is becoming politicised.
For example, Ms Wishart of AMCS expressed concern that, in the case of the
Abbot Point dredging and dumping approvals (as discussed further in Chapter 6),
'we saw politics overriding science'.
Professor Pandolfi of the Australian Coral Reef Society similarly
expressed concern about 'the role of science and the uptake of that science by
government in meeting its obligations and its stated concerns over the reef'.
The Whitsunday Charter Boat Industry Association submitted that research
to fill gaps in scientific knowledge 'must be independently done and peer
reviewed. So the process becomes more about the process rather than a political
In the context of shipping (discussed further elsewhere in this report),
Mr Geoff McPherson, a marine acoustic specialist, told the committee that the
available scientific information on the impacts of underwater noise pollution
is not being utilised.
He suggested that one possible explanation for this might be 'to marginalise
any perceived threat to unfettered shipping transit through the Great Barrier
Industry groups expressed concerns that claims are being made, and
particularly about the impacts of port developments and shipping on the reef,
which are not supported by sufficient scientific evidence.
For example, Ports Australia submitted that there is a lot of 'uninformed
rhetoric about the impact of port developments in the broader [Great Barrier
Reef] which, among other things, is not based on good scientific evidence or
Mr Chris McCombe of the Minerals Council agreed that:
...many of the claims about the scale and impact of development
on the Great Barrier Reef are not science based or are founded on wildly
Consistency of decision-making with
the precautionary principle
Another issue raised during the committee's inquiry was whether government
decision processes impacting the reef are consistent with the precautionary
Section 3A of the EPBC Act sets out the principles of ecologically
sustainable development and encapsulates the precautionary principle at
If there are threats of serious or irreversible environmental
damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for
postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation.
The precautionary principle is defined in the same way in section 3 of
the GBRMP Act. Subsection 7A(3) of the GBRMP Act then provides that, in
managing the Marine Park and in performing its other functions, GBRMPA must
have regard to (amongst other matters) the principles of ecologically
sustainable use, which includes the precautionary principle.
Some submitters and witnesses suggested that government decision-making
processes are consistent with the precautionary principle. For example,
Shipping Australia submitted that the strict conditions imposed on recent
dredging projects, including the Abbot Point projects, 'support our assessment
that the government decision processes are consistent with the precautionary
Ports Australia submitted that 'all of the ports located in the [Great Barrier
Reef] region continue to apply a high precautionary approach with new
Queensland Ports Association agreed that:
Where the science indicates impacts or uncertainty then appropriate
avoidance, mitigation, monitoring and precaution are warranted.
In contrast, others expressed doubt as to whether recent government
decision‑making concerning the reef has been consistent with the
A particular example cited was the Abbot Point decision, where it was suggested
that there is considerable uncertainty about the impacts of dumping of dredge
spoil and that a more precautionary approach should have been taken (this is
discussed further in Chapters 5 and 6).
However, in response to questioning on this issue, the Department of the Environment
The precautionary principle has been taken into account in
making decisions of approval on dredging proposals under the Environment
Protection and Biodiversity Conservation 1999. This is a legal requirement
under section 391 of the Act.
Others suggested, with concern, that activities and developments are
being approved with conditions requiring further research to discover the
impacts of those activities and developments. It was suggested that this was
inappropriate and not consistent with the precautionary principle.
Professor Hoegh-Guldberg submitted that application of the precautionary
principle in decision-making in relation to the Great Barrier Reef is variable.
He suggested that the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park rezoning process 'has been
exemplary and the resulting Maine Protected Area (MPA) is consistent with the
precautionary principle'. In contrast, Professor Hoegh-Guldberg was concerned
that 'smaller scale decision-making and development approvals appear to follow
this principle to a lesser extent'. By way of example, he suggested that:
...recent port development approvals and offset strategies
build on the assumption that the impact of dredging and seagrass and reef
habitats is quantifiable when this is not consistent with the precautionary
principle – where in this case we are assuming high potential impacts when
there is high uncertainty with impact predictions...
WWF-Australia and Australian Marine Conservation Society were concerned
as to whether the precautionary principle will continue to be applied if
Commonwealth approval powers are delegated to Queensland under the one-stop
shop proposal (which is discussed further in Chapter 8).
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