What Australia is doing to protect the Great Barrier Reef


The Great Barrier Reef is one of the natural wonders of the world, and is part of Australians’ national identity. This massive reef system, one of the most precious ecosystems on earth, is loved and visited by people from across the globe, and is the backyard for more than one million people living in the catchment area.

And we all have a common goal—protecting the reef for future generations.

This is no small task. The maze of 3000 coral reefs and 1050 islands is spread over 348 000 km2—an area the size of Italy or Japan—and stretches for more than 2000 km along Australia’s north-east coast.

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. These affected areas are the focus of our significant efforts.

It is crucial to ensure that the Great Barrier Reef’s ecosystems are protected and it is also important to do that in the context of the range of activities that have been occurring in the area for over 150 years—activities such as tourism, fishing, shipping, research, agriculture and defence.

Australia is a world leader in marine park management, and has a long history in this area. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority was created almost 40 years ago to protect the reef. The first agreement between the Australian and Queensland governments to jointly manage the reef was signed in 1979, and just two years later we were privileged to receive a World Heritage listing.

Our environment laws provide strict rules and regulations about what activities can take place in the Great Barrier Reef. For example, activities such as mining, oil drilling and gas extraction are banned by law in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and this ban is strictly enforced.

When the World Heritage Committee raised concerns about the state of conservation of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area in 2011, Australia was already part-way through a reform programme to ensure the long-term protection and management of the reef.

We take the concerns of the committee seriously, which is why we were pleased to share our progress in the 2014 State Party Report on the State of Conservation of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. This report shows our management system, one of the most rigorous and modern in the world, has ensured the property’s outstanding universal value and integrity remain largely intact.

We are doing all we can to ensure that this remains the case.

The science tells us that the main contributors to the Great Barrier Reef’s coral loss are storms and cyclones (48%), outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish (42%) and bleaching from ocean warming (10%).

Together with the Queensland Government we are completing the most complex and comprehensive strategic assessment of environmental management arrangements ever undertaken in Australia. Once this work is done, it will inform a long-term plan for protecting the reef and coastal zone.

The Reef 2050 Plan 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.

A new Reef Trust, kicking off with a $40 million contribution from the Australian Government, will focus on improving coastal habitats and the quality of water entering the Great Barrier Reef.

This will be in addition to the Australian Government’s current five-year programme of actions to protect the reef which has already seen more than $140 million committed to improving the quality of water flowing into the Great Barrier Reef lagoon and enhancing the reef’s resilience.

And our efforts are starting to show results. The most recent Reef Water Quality Report Card shows that the quality of water entering the reef is continuing to improve.

We are also addressing a key threat to the reef caused by destructive outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish. In late 2013, the Government allocated an extra $1.1 million to support culling efforts. This adds to the more than $7 million already committed to deal with the key threats.

We are continuing to work to ensure coastal development meets strict environmental standards and follows best practice, delivering a net benefit to the reef.

Any development proposal will only be approved with the most robust conditions that ensure high environmental standards are maintained. Only developments with an acceptable impact on the outstanding universal value of the property have been approved—where these are port related they have only been inside existing port areas.

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.

Commercial shipping has been occurring in the reef area for around 100 years, and all but the smallest vessels are confined to a few well-defined routes. The shipping is highly regulated by international, Commonwealth, state and local regulations and reef-specific policies. Despite a substantial increase in ship movements since 1996, groundings have reduced in the same time period.

There will always be challenges in managing the reef, but the Australian Government is determined to continue to manage and protect the World Heritage site for future generations.

The Australian Government does not consider that the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area warrants inclusion on the List of World Heritage in Danger.

There is more to do and we are confident that we have the processes, resources, environmental protection mechanisms, and the appropriate level of investment in place to ensure that the Great Barrier Reef continues to be among the best managed and protected World Heritage areas in the world.

For further information

Australia’s progress in responding to the 2013 World Heritage Committee decision

2013 WHC decision Progress since June 2013 Status
Strategic assessments and Reef 2050 Plan The strategic assessment of the Great Barrier Reef is the largest and most comprehensive ever undertaken in Australia. 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 dealing with key threats such as nutrient run-off and outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish, including through a new $40 million Reef Trust.
Significant progress
Managing development in Gladstone Harbour and on Curtis Island Improving port operation and managing concerns identified by the Independent Review of the Port of Gladstone will help inform the work of the new Gladstone Healthy Harbour Partnership and other efforts to protect the reef.
Significant progress
Water quality The latest report card shows the quality of water entering the reef is improving. The Australian Government has already committed more than $140 million over the next five years to continue this improvement as well as enhance the reef’s resilience. Water quality will also be a focus for the new Reef Trust.
Significant progress
No development to impact individually or cumulatively on the reef’s OUV The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 ensures that the protection of the values of World Heritage properties are taken into consideration in environmental assessment decisions. Developments with an unacceptable impact on the Great Barrier Reef will not be approved.
In place
No port development outside existing and long-established port areas The Queensland Ports Strategy will prohibit dredging for the development of new or expansion of existing port facilities outside the key long established port areas of Townsville, Abbot Point, Hay Point/Mackay and Gladstone for the next ten years.
Significant progress
Ensure legislation remains strong and adequate to maintain and enhance OUV Australia will deliver a single streamlined process for environmental assessments that maintains existing high environmental standards including explicit consideration of the outstanding universal value and integrity of the reef.
Significant progress
Overall protection and management of the property Australia is fully committed to maintaining the outstanding universal value and integrity of the reef. Strong protection and management foundations are already in place and these are set to be improved. Significant progress
Submit 2014 State Party Report The 2014 State Party Report demonstrates clear progress on reef protection.