Questions and Answers about the Great Barrier Reef

Why is the Great Barrier Reef important?

The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef ecosystem and an Australian and international icon. The diverse range of habitat types and extraordinary biodiversity make the Great Barrier Reef one of the richest, most complex natural systems on earth.

It was for these reasons that the Great Barrier Reef was recognised in 1981 with inscription on the World Heritage List.

The maze of 3000 coral reefs and 1050 islands contains extensive areas of seagrass, mangrove, sandy and muddy seabed communities, inter-reef areas, deep oceanic waters and island communities. It provides habitat for many diverse forms of marine life—there are an estimated 1625 species of fish and more than 400 species of corals. More than 4000 mollusc species and over 1500 types of sponge have been identified.

The Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area is also culturally significant. It contains many archaeological sites of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander origin, such as fish traps, middens, rock quarries, story sites and rock art.

The reef has always been managed as a multiple-use area. It has significant environmental as well as social, economic and cultural values and plays an important role in the local, regional and national economies.

The reef region generates billions of dollars for the economy each year and supports almost 70 000 jobs. More than one million people live in the reef catchment area.

How is the Great Barrier Reef managed?

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 regulates activities in the marine park. Australia’s key national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (the EPBC Act) protects nationally significant matters including the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage and National Heritage areas.

These Acts provide an internationally recognised world-class system of environment and heritage protection. To ensure use of the Great Barrier Reef remains sustainable, activities in the World Heritage Area and Marine Park are tightly controlled under these laws, as well as other relevant state and federal laws.

The Australian and Queensland Governments have been working together for the long-term protection and conservation of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park since its inception in 1975. The cooperative approach is formalised through the Great Barrier Reef Intergovernmental Agreement, which aims to:

  • provide for the long-term protection and conservation of the environment and biodiversity of the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem and its transmission in good condition to future generations
  • allow ecologically sustainable use of the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem subject to the overarching objective of long-term protection and conservation
  • provide for meeting Australia’s international responsibilities for the World Heritage area under the World Heritage Convention.

The governments have agreed to a joint program of field management for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and Queensland marine and national parks within the World Heritage Area.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s role is protecting the region’s ecosystem and also ensuring it remains a multiple-use marine park open to sustainable uses such as tourism, commercial fishing and shipping.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s work managing the reef is guided by a range of plans, regulations and legislation. The best available science underpins management, including research and monitoring from scientists at the Australian Institute of Marine Science and James Cook University.

The Authority works with Queensland Government agencies to achieve compliance by marine park users and to ensure public use that is ecologically sustainable. It uses regulatory and management tools, such as its zoning plan, plans of management, permits, policies and Traditional Owner agreements to address emerging risks and changing circumstances.

There’s a strong focus on working with reef stakeholders, including the tourism industry and traditional owners, and community engagement through the Reef Guardian Programme.