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Protecting the Great Barrier Reef

Image of Cape Palmerston coastline, North Queensland

Cape Palmerston, North Queensland

We are all entrusted with the care of the Great Barrier Reef, home of the world’s most spectacular marine ecosystem. It is a piece of our heritage, something for the world to treasure, and must be passed on to future generations in good condition.

The importance of the Great Barrier Reef

Stretching more than 2300 kilometres along Queensland’s coastline and covering 35 million hectares, the Great Barrier Reef is the world's largest coral reef, and probably the richest. More than 1500 species of fish, 4000 species of molluscs, 400 species of sponge and 300 species of hard corals live here.

Extensive seagrass beds provide a home for the threatened dugong. Threatened green and loggerhead turtles nest on islands in the reef, and humpback whales migrate there to give birth. Birdlife is also plentiful, and hundreds of species nest in the reef islands.

Queensland's first world heritage area, the reef is very important to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and there are significant cultural sites on many of its islands.

The reef is very important in other ways. The World Heritage Area is worth some $5.4 billion to the Australian economy—$3.5 billion of that goes into the local towns and communities bordering the reef.

More than 67,000 people are employed in jobs like tourism, recreation and commercial fishing that depend on the health of the reef. Some 40,000 people are employed locally.

The future outlook

Recent research published by the Australian Institute of Marine Science has found two primary factors that have caused a very significant decline in coral cover over the last 30 years or so. These are extreme weather and the crown-of-thorns starfish. The same research is telling us that coral cover north of Cooktown is generally stable, but the southern area is experiencing major losses.

The reef’s complexities are well described in the 2013 Scientific Consensus Statement. This science contributed to the updated Reef Water Quality Protection Plan (Reef Plan), which is a state and federal initiative designed to halt and reverse the decline in reef water quality. The consensus statement, developed by a multidisciplinary group of scientists and overseen by the Reef Plan Independent Science Panel, confirms that the major cause of coral cover loss is extreme weather events, such as cyclones. Clearly, we are not able to influence such events.

The second Great Barrier Reef Report Card, released in July 2013 and based on 2011 Paddock to Reef Monitoring Program data, confirms that management change and water quality improvements are tracking positively, but more needs to be done. The Queensland and Australian governments, together with industry, regional bodies and conservation groups, will continue working hard to maintain progress towards Reef Plan targets. We want to be sure that the reef has the best possible opportunity to recover from cyclone damage and crown-of-thorns starfish attacks.

How water pollution affects the reef

Science indicates that most of this pollution comes from cattle grazing and sugarcane growing, as these are the most common industries in the reef catchments.

Nutrients from fertilisers and sediment (soil washed into waterways) lost from agricultural properties promote higher concentrations of microscopic algae, or phytoplankton, which is the food source for young crown of thorns starfish—most likely the cause of reef coral loss over the past 30 years.

Sediments and increased algal growth block light, critical for coral and seagrass to survive. Nutrients stimulate larger algae, like seaweed, to grow, covering coral and hindering its regrowth after cyclones and other disturbances. Sediment carries nutrients and toxic chemicals, and smothers coral, preventing coral larvae settling.

Scientists are seriously concerned about the effect on inshore reefs of some agricultural pesticides that work by blocking photosynthesis, the process by which plants and coral access the light-energy they need for survival.

Pressure on the reef

The Great Barrier Reef is already suffering pressure from fishing, urban growth, sewage and mining run-off. Climate change effects are also emerging, such as oceans becoming more acidic and warmer, and increasing storm damage. So, to survive, the reef needs to be healthy and able to resist these pressures.

Reef protection legislation

In 2009, we introduced legislation (PDF, 600KB) to help reduce the discharge of pesticides and nutrients flowing to the reef by 50% by the end of 2013 and to cut sediment flowing to the reef by 20% by 2020.

The legislation also aimed to encourage and help farmers to take all reasonable and practical steps to improve the quality of their run-off by adopting management practices that not only make good environmental sense, but also good business sense.

We expect there will be less need for regulation once there is high adoption of best management practice (BMP) systems across the reef catchments, but the regulations will remain in place until BMP has effect. Under a BMP system, industry is responsible for benchmarking the performance of its producers.

Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Australia (CC BY 3.0)
Last updated
25 March 2015

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