Questions and Answers about the Great Barrier Reef

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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.

What are the major threats to the reef?

The major threats to the reef are caused by extreme weather events, the potential effects of climate change, declining water quality and outbreaks of coral destroying crown-of-thorns starfish.

Climate change is considered to be the most serious long-term threat facing the reef. Potential climate change effects such as ocean acidification, rising sea levels, warming sea temperatures and more frequent and severe extreme weather are predicted to have far reaching consequences for the reef’s ecosystems.

In comparison, pollution from other sources (urban, port development and dredging) is minor but may be highly significant locally and over short time periods.

Australia’s 2014 State Party Report on the State of Conservation of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area provides more information on current conservation issues facing the reef.

What is being done to address the major threats to the reef?

The major threats to the reef, such as extreme weather events and the potential effects of climate change, cannot be managed directly but much can be done to maximise the ecosystem’s resilience to their effects.

One major focus of the Australian Government Reef Programme is on improving the quality of water entering the reef lagoon by controlling nutrient and sediment run-off. This increases the reef’s ability to withstand and recover from potential impacts caused by climate change, such as coral bleaching and damage from increased storm intensity. The Reef Water Quality Protection Plan sets out work on this task for the next five years.

A key part of the efforts is working with industry, farmers and other land holders to improve their land management practices. Support for reducing pollution loads comes in the form of grants, training and extension. Assistance is also being provided to communities located in urban and industrial areas to reduce their detrimental impacts on the reef. Funding has also been provided to improve the condition of wetlands and increase natural vegetation across the reef’s catchment as well as to develop or update plans that guide how water quality is monitored and managed.

The government is also addressing a key threat to the reef caused by destructive outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish—in close consultation with tourism operators. In late 2013, an extra $1.1 million was allocated to support culling efforts. This adds to the more than $7 million already committed to deal with the starfish. At last count (March 2014) around 225 000 had been culled.

As well as taking practical action to tackle outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish and declining water quality, the government is also addressing the long-term sustainability of the Great Barrier Reef. The Australian and Queensland governments are undertaking a strategic assessment of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. This is the largest, most comprehensive and complex strategic assessment ever undertaken in Australia and will address many of the major issues confronting the reef—particularly future development pressures.

It will result in a long-term plan (Reef 2050) for further protecting the reef and species such as dugongs and turtles, as well as continuing efforts to deal with key threats such as nutrient run-off and outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish. Reef 2050 will include the development of a Reef Trust, which will include government and private funds. It will be kicked off with a $40 million contribution from the Australian Government.

How do you balance reef protection and development?

The Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area (GBRWHA) is protected by Australia’s national environment law—the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act)—together with legislation that established the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and the government organisation responsible for managing it, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

The Australian and Queensland governments have banned exploration and recovery of minerals or petroleum within the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. Everything from coastal development through to shipping and whale watching is strictly regulated and monitored.

The EPBC Act ensures that the values of World Heritage properties are considered in environmental assessment decisions. The assessment process in place to protect the Great Barrier Reef is one of the most rigorous and modern in the world; development proposals are only approved with the most robust conditions that ensure high environmental standards are maintained.

Also, Queensland’s State Planning Policy now requires explicit consideration of matters of national environmental significance (including the outstanding universal value of World Heritage properties).

And the Queensland Ports Strategy will prohibit dredging for the development of new, or the expansion of existing port facilities, outside the key, long-established port areas at Townsville, Abbot Point, Hay Point/Mackay and Gladstone.

Is the dredging approved at Abbot Point a threat to the reef?

A comprehensive management framework including policy, guidelines, position statements and a rigorous permit application and assessment process is applied before any dredging is approved. It looks at how the activity would impact on the reef’s environmental, cultural, social and heritage values.

Each dredging proposal is assessed to determine whether land reclamation, onshore disposal or offshore disposal provide the better environmental outcome. Each assessment includes consideration of whether there are contaminants in the dredged material, and whether dumping is likely to pose a threat to the environment.

In the case of Abbot Point, the Federal Environment Minister imposed 41 conditions when he approved the port expansion in December 2013. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority subsequently imposed an additional 47 conditions relating to the disposal of the dredge material.

These environmental conditions ensure potential impacts of the dredge activity are avoided, mitigated or offset to eliminate harm to the reef.

The material to be disposed of is about 60 per cent sand and 40 per cent silt and clay, which is similar to the material at the site where the spoil is to be placed.

The approved disposal site is 24 km from Abbot Point. This is approximately 20 km away from the significant seagrass beds at Abbot Point and over 40 km away from mid-shelf coral reefs.

The reality is that disposal of dredge material of this type in the reef’s waters is not new. It has occurred offshore from nearly all major regional centres along the reef’s coastline.

What is being done about the health of Gladstone Harbour?

In November 2013, the Independent Review of the Port of Gladstone determined that:

  • the approval of three LNG projects on Curtis Island complied with Australian law
  • there was no clear, single cause identified for the fish deaths in 2011. They are likely to be the result of multiple pressures, in particular extreme weather events and associated overcrowding from fish that moved into the area after overspilling a nearby dam
  • dredging and disposal of dredge spoil are unlikely to result in either significant oxidation of this material, acid production, or release of significant quantities of heavy metals into water in the harbour.

The review also made a series of recommendations, including the need to incorporate World Heritage and environmental protection into an improved port planning exercise; considering cumulative impacts; and meaningful and ongoing stakeholder engagement.

The review contains 21 principles that the review panel have recommended be applied to the future development and operation of ports within the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. Principles were identified that relate to the various elements of environmental management and governance of ports. This includes principles for planning, environmental assessment and decision-making, monitoring and reporting and compliance and enforcement.

The review also identified overarching principles relating to objectivity, transparency and engagement that should be applied in all aspects of port management.

The review also recommended that the Australian Government support the Gladstone Healthy Harbour Partnership to address environmental issues at the Port of Gladstone. In January 2014, the government announced $1 million funding for the Gladstone Healthy Harbour Partnership.

The partnership is based on open, honest and accountable management, annual reporting of the health of Gladstone Harbour and management recommendations and is commencing actions based on rigorous science and strong stakeholder engagement.

Findings from the Independent Review of the Port of Gladstone are informing the Great Barrier Reef strategic assessment, ports planning and the Reef 2050 Plan.

And the commissioning of an independent review into the leaking bund wall at the Port of Gladstone during 2011 and 2012 will examine and report on information relevant to the design and construction and functioning of the outer bund wall of the western basin reclamation area that has become available since the Independent Review of the Port of Gladstone reported on its findings.

Why is the World Heritage Committee concerned about the reef?

World Heritage sites are places that are important to, and belong to, everyone. The Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef ecosystem on earth, and in 1981 the reef was inscribed on the World Heritage List for its unique natural attributes and enormous scientific and environmental importance.

The World Heritage Committee regularly reviews the state of conservation of all properties inscribed on the World Heritage List. The committee raised concerns about the state of conservation of the Great Barrier Reef in 2011 in relation to developments on Curtis Island, near Gladstone. Other concerns expressed by the committee relate to the effects of coastal development, ports and shipping, and reduced water quality.

The committee considered the state of conservation of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area in 2012, and sent a monitoring mission to the reef. The committee also considered the state of conservation of the reef in 2013, and will do so again at annual meetings until at least 2015. Australia has provided regular progress reports to the committee.

Should the reef be placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger?

The management system in place to protect the Great Barrier Reef is one of the most rigorous and modern in the world. As a result, the reef’s outstanding universal value and integrity—the basis for inclusion on the Word Heritage List —remains largely intact.

The Australian Government does not consider that the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area warrants inclusion on the List of World Heritage in Danger. This is because the outstanding universal value and integrity of this massive reef system remain largely intact. Australia is taking corrective action and has demonstrated substantial progress and commitment in responding to the requests of the World Heritage Committee and to mission recommendations.

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 disasters such as floods and cyclones.