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About the Great Barrier Reef

World heritage listed in 1981, the Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest and most complex reef system and one of Australia’s most treasured natural wonders. Larger than New Zealand (344,400 square kilometres or 70 million football fields), it is home to a breathtaking array of life including a number of rare and threatened species as well as:

  • 1625 types of fish
  • 600 types of coral
  • 100 species of jellyfish
  • 3000 varieties of molluscs
  • more than 30 species of marine mammals such as whales, dugong and dolphins
  • 133 varieties of sharks and rays
  • and much more.

The Great Barrier Reef stretches more than 2300 kilometres along Queensland’s coastline and is made up of around 3000 individual coral reefs.

The Reef is of special significance to Aboriginal and Torres Strait people, who continue to care for their sea country and benefit from use of its resources and places of cultural significance. More than 70 Traditional Owner groups have long, continuing relationships with the Reef and its catchment, stretching back over 60,000 years.

For Traditional Owners, its value is immeasurable and intertwined with identity, self and culture. This includes a connection to and caretaking responsibilities for clan group totems (natural objects, plants or animals inherited as spiritual emblems).

Historically, the Great Barrier Reef supports around 60,000 jobs and contributes approximately $6 billion to the Australian and Queensland economies.

Threats

The Great Barrier Reef is under pressure from multiple, cumulative threats. The greatest threat to the Reef is climate change. The other main threats to the Reef include:

  • poor water quality from land-based run-off
  • impacts from coastal development
  • direct human use such as illegal fishing and bycatch.

Reef health (coral, seagrass and marine life) has been declining due to poor water quality and the cumulative impacts of climate change, including warmer weather leading to coral bleaching and increased severe weather events, such as cyclones.

Over the past two decades, the Great Barrier Reef has experienced several mass coral bleaching events. Bleaching occurs when corals are stressed, in this case from overheating.

Excess nutrients, fine sediments and pesticides from agricultural run-off and other industries pose the biggest risk to reef water quality. Sediment smothers corals and reduces the amount of light reaching seagrasses and other plants, affecting their growth and survival as well as the survival of the marine animals that depend on them for food and shelter. Excess nutrients may be linked to outbreaks of the coral eating crown-of-thorns starfish.

You can read more about the science and the reef’s complexities in the 2017 Scientific Consensus Statement – Land Use Impacts on the Great Barrier Reef Water Quality and Ecosystem Condition.

UNESCO World Heritage listing

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee considers the state of conservation of world heritage properties. In July 2021, the committee met and noted with concern that the long-term outlook for the Reef had deteriorated, with climate change being the most serious threat. The committee agreed that actions to build the resilience of the Reef and address other factors (including climate change and improve water quality) were of utmost importance. The committee requested that Australia invite UNESCO and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (ICUN) to conduct a reactive monitoring mission and submit an updated State of Conservation Report in February 2022 for consideration at the 2022 meeting.

The decision recognised the significant work and funding from the Australian and Queensland governments, in partnerships with scientists, Traditional Owners, community and industry to further protect and manage the Great Barrier Reef through the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan (Reef 2050 Plan).

Managing the World Heritage Area

The Great Barrier Reef’s World Heritage Area lies within one of the best managed marine parks in the world, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service manage the park through a joint field management program and through laws and zoning plans.

The field management program includes monitoring patrols, compliance work, maintenance of camping grounds and moorings, monitoring of nesting and breeding sites and pest and fire control on the reef’s national park islands.

Tourism, fishing, recreation, traditional use, research, defence, shipping and ports are all carefully managed through zoning plans that define what activities can occur in what locations to minimise environmental impact and conserve the majestic marine environment.

Managing the Great Barrier Reef catchment

The Queensland Government has committed over $700 million towards protecting Queensland’s iconic Great Barrier Reef since 2015.

In addition to our climate change actions, we work with farmers, industry and others to improve the quality of water flowing from the catchment to the Reef through the Queensland Reef Water Quality Program and the joint Australian and Queensland government Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan.

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