Great Barrier Reef Strategic Assessment released for public comment

Josh Coates, Marine Programs Officer

black and white turtleConcerned about poor health of the reef and deteriorating water quality, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee hasover recent years raised concerns about the future of this World Heritage listed site, even considering listing the Great Barrier Reef as World Heritage ‘in danger’. Such a listing would be a massive blow to national pride and the $6 billion plus tourism industry that relies on the reef. In June 2011 the Committee recommended the Australian Government undertake a comprehensive strategic assessment of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. In June 2013 the Committee deferred the decision of whether or not to place the Great Barrier Reef on its “World Heritage in Danger” list, allowing more time for our Governments to prove their commitment to reef health. In November 2013 the Queensland and Federal Governments released the Draft Great Barrier Reef Strategic Assessment, which responds to the Committees recommendation.

This Strategic Assessment, consisting of a marine component and a coastal zone component, is now open for public comment until January 31st 2014.

The coastal zone component, led by the Queensland Government, examines the state’s coastal management, planning and development framework and how it provides environmental protection along the coastal zone, adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef.The marine component, led by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, examines the arrangements in place to manage and protect the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and World Heritage Area.

The assessment contains the results of a number of scientific studies and concludes that the northern third of the reef (north of Cooktown where relatively fewer human impacts occur)  is in good condition, while the southern two thirds is in poor condition, especially inshore reefs near larger towns where up to 80% of coral cover has been lost. The report highlights the need to “restore the condition of values and processes in poor or very poor condition in the southern two-thirds of the Region, including that of critical habitats such as coral reefs and seagrass meadows and ecological processes such as connectivity and recruitment” and notes that “Populations of some iconic and highly vulnerable species such as dugongs and inshore dolphins are also continuing to decline.”

The key threats that need to be addressed include climate change, continued declining water quality from catchment run-off, loss of coastal habitats from coastal development, remaining impacts from fishing and illegal fishing and poaching as the key issues reducing the Reef’s resilience or ability to withstand threats.

The assessment notes that high concentrations of nutrients in Reef waters are likely to promote continued, more-frequent outbreaks of the coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish and that “Recognising that the inshore waters of the Region are already under significant stress from the decline in water quality driven by increased land-based run-off of suspended solids, nutrients and pesticides, the uncertainty regarding the additional affects of sea dumping of dredge material is a key concern, particularly given the potential for large volumes to be dumped.”

In its ‘State of Conservation’ report The World Heritage Centre and IUCN welcome progress achieved with the Strategic Assessment, but state that “They consider that the consultation process of the GBRMPA-led strategic assessment appears strong, but that the one undertaken by the Queensland Government has only limited stakeholder involvement to date.”

One of the main issues to consider when looking at the Strategic Assessment’s recommendations are the issue of proposed port expansions and associated dredging along the Queensland coast including Trinity Inlet in Cairns (see ‘Cairns Port Expansion threatens to undermine our bay’ and ‘The common threat of port expansion’ this issue). Another local issue to take note of is the relative health of dugong and other marine life in areas to the North and the need to protect reef health in these areas that remain relatively healthy – prevention is better than cure.

The strategic assessment documents can be viewed at we urge all community members to engage in the process. Keep a close eye on the CAFNEC website for more information and assistance in having your say at this important time for the future of our reef.