The draft decision by UNESCO and IUCN proposes not to list the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) World Heritage Area as “in danger”, but it does put Australia on notice. It requests a progress report by 1 December 2016, vowing that if “the anticipated progress is not being made”, the GBR will be considered by the Committee in 2017.
At this stage, these are only recommendations, and the draft decision will be considered at the Committee’s meeting in Germany in late June, when the actual wording of the decision will be finalised.
The Committee does not always accept the wording in draft decisions and in recent years has often made amendments. Various factors can influence the views of its 21 member countries, so the final outcome may well depend on the Committee’s deliberations at the meeting.
The real state of the Reef
Either way, the reality is that despite all the pronouncements by the Australian government that the GBR is healthy, the evidence contained in its 2014 Outlook Report and Strategic Assessment has repeatedly demonstrated that the real situation is not as rosy as UNESCO and others are being told.
The following examples, from the Strategic Assessment, reveal the deterioration in many of the world heritage values for which the GBR was recognised as being internationally significant in 1981:
Since 1985, hard coral cover has declined from 28% to 13.8%, mainly in the southern two-thirds of the Reef.
Significant, widespread losses of seagrass have occurred in areas directly affected by cyclones Yasi (2011), Marcia (2015) and Nathan (2015); seagrass abundance south of Cooktown has declined since 2009.
Catastrophic nesting failures at globally significant seabird breeding areas have been recorded in the southern GBR, and the number of breeding seabirds on Raine Island has fallen by 70% since the 1980s.
The dugong population south of Cooktown has drastically declined from 1962 levels (see chapter 7, page 13 here).
The government’s 2014 Outlook Report concluded that:
…the overall outlook for the Great Barrier Reef is poor, has worsened since 2009 and is expected to further deteriorate in the future. Greater reductions of threats at all levels, Reef-wide, regional and local, are required to prevent the projected declines in the Great Barrier Reef.
To make doubly sure the GBR was not listed as “in danger”, diplomatic lobbying seems to have become the government’s main focus in recent months, when what is really needed is a serious and continuous focus on addressing the issues highlighted in its own reports.
The government’s view about the overall health of the GBR differs from that of many concerned individuals and organisations throughout Australia. There is a widespread belief that not enough has been done to ensure the restoration of the world heritage values, especially those shown to be deteriorating. This has led many, including the Australian Academy of Science, to state that the Reef 2050 Long-term Sustainability Plan is deficient, particularly given the projected changes over the next 35 years.
Concerns for the GBR include climate change, water quality, coastal development, shipping, and unsustainable fishing. The Reef 2050 Plan will need to improve in all these areas if it is to achieve its intended aims.
A group of eminent Australians has also recently voiced their concerns about issues that will further impact on the GBR.
The international lobbying about the GBR in 2014-15 has included senior government officials visiting all the countries on the Committee and briefing diplomats in Canberra and in Paris, offering GBR junkets to overseas journalists, and providing briefings to technical experts from many countries, including paying for visits to the Reef or to resort islands.
The government’s consistent message during all of this lobbying is that the GBR is healthy, and adequate financing will be available to implement the Reef 2050 Plan.
However, several overseas experts have recently told me that the briefings may not have provided the full picture. One example is the much-touted ban on dumping dredge spoil from port developments in the Marine Park, without raising the fact that about a million tonnes of maintenance dredging spoil will continue to be dumped every year in the World Heritage Area.
The expensive, excessive and selective lobbying about the GBR sets a poor global example in attempting to influence the decision-making processes of the World Heritage Committee.
What is the view of the tourism sector?
It has been claimed that tourism would suffer if the GBR were listed as “in danger”. The reality is that most tourist operators know only too well that the outlook for the GBR is poor, and many of them agree with Tony Fontes, a Whitsundays dive operator, who wrote to me:
“In-danger” listing … might actually be the catalyst to ensure the GBR is properly protected. Clearly more effective protection is essential now if we are to ensure tourism in the GBR is able to exist well into the future. Over the 35 years that I have been operating as a tourist operator, I have seen huge changes in the GBR. It’s clear the current management approach is not working to maintain the values which are the real draw cards for visitors, so more needs to be done to better protect the Reef, or the declining values are going to have an impact on the tourism industry in the future anyway.
Why more resources are needed
The government’s pledge to spend A$2 billion over 10 years is no more than the current collective annual expenditure (A$200 million) of four federal agencies, six state agencies and several major research programs over the coming decade.
So far, most funding has been spent addressing water quality, and while it has achieved some positive results, it has not managed to stop the deteriorating trends. According to one estimate, fixing the water quality problem alone will cost A$785 million over the first five years, and more beyond.
Even with an extra A$100 million for the Reef Trust in the Federal Budget, the funding is inadequate to deliver fully on the government’s promised plans.
The GBR generates more than A$5 billion every year, mainly from tourism. In economic terms, spending between A$200 million and $250 million per year to manage an asset that generates 20-25 times as much in revenue, but is declining, puts that future income in jeopardy.
If governments insist that further funds are unable be to found, then a re-prioritization of the existing funding must be undertaken to ensure the GBR’s values are restored.
Listing “in danger” would not have fixed the problems
An “in danger” listing, in and of itself, would not save the GBR. It would undoubtedly have raised international awareness of the problems, but those problems will still have to be addressed either way. Hopefully the government will now be encouraged by what it will see as a favourable outcome.
The government has been asked to report back on its policies next year, and on the status of the GBR in 2019. But given the clear evidence of the declining values, annual reporting to UNESCO should be required until it can be shown that the deteriorating trends have been reversed and the Reef 2050 Plan has been improved. The Outlook Report, while an comprehensive report on the overall status of the GBR, is deficient in the one thing that UNESCO needs to know: a thorough assessment of the condition and trend of all the world heritage values.
Irrespective of UNESCO’s final decision next month, Australia must do more to address the wide range of the threats identified in its own reports, and to show a genuine commitment to restoring the values of the GBR for the sake of future generations.
UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee has decided not to add the Great Barrier Reef to the List of World Heritage in Danger, for now at least. In a draft decision released ahead of its annual meeting next month, it has welcomed Australia’s plan to save the Reef, but also demanded a progress report on its policies by the end of 2016, as well as a full update on the Reef’s conservation status by December 2019.
The move draws a temporary line underneath an issue that has loomed large for the past three years, bringing Australia’s stewardship of the Reef uncomfortably into the international spotlight.
During that time there has been copious input from scientists, politicians and campaigners, discussing threats such as climate change, dredging, pollution, shipping, and even the fate of the barramundi on our plates. It has got people talking all over the planet about whether or not the Australian and Queensland governments really care enough about one of the most recognisable symbols of Australia.
Not everyone has agreed with one another. As debated extensively on The Conversation and elsewhere, experts have advocated both for and against the idea of listing the Reef as endangered.
On one hand, the evidence is impossible to doubt that the Great Barrier Reef is in danger. Half of the corals on the Great Barrier Reef have disappeared since 1985, and the destruction of coastal habitat by rapid port development and other activities has been plain to see. On the other hand, the recent ramping up of remedies by both federal and state governments shows that our leaders clearly want to honour the promises made when the Great Barrier Reef was first listed as World Heritage in 1981.
Has UNESCO made the right call?
I have previously argued that a decision to list the Great Barrier Reef as endangered would be premature. So UNESCO’s decision makes a lot of sense to me, for several reasons.
The first is that the decline of the Great Barrier Reef began as much as 100 years ago, and hence is not something that the government can turn around overnight. It requires a concerted, non-political process that recognises and aggressively solves the problems of pollution, sediments, and unsustainable fishing.
Given that we have not had an effective process for some time (water quality, for instance, has been an issue for decades; it didn’t just pop up in the past couple of years), it would seem counterproductive to list the Great Barrier Reef as “in danger” at a time when federal and state governments are finally beginning to take clear actions in response to the issue. It will take time to rethink coastal agriculture, fix eroded gullies, and address issues such as coastal herbicide and pesticide use.
The second reason is that the response of ecosystems to these policy changes will necessarily be complex and slow. As coral populations hopefully rebound, seagrasses regrow, and threatened populations such as dugong being to recover, we will need to make careful long-term observations before we know if the actions taken now have been effective.
Short-term international manoeuvring won’t save the Great Barrier Reef. We need to think beyond politics and recognise that safeguarding the Reef will require a long-term commitment by Australia as a nation, not just a political process.
The third and final reason is that it would be rather perverse for UNESCO to ignore Australia’s clear intention to take this issue seriously. Given the effort that successive state and federal governments have made to avert an “in danger” listing, what incentive would remain if the listing was made anyway? It would hardly help to motivate future governments to fight the uphill battle of getting the listing removed again.
There is no doubt that federal environment minister Greg Hunt and his Queensland state counterpart Steven Miles will both be sighing with relief that the prospect of an “in danger” listing has been staved off for another five years. This is great for Australia and for the many people who believe that re-listing the reef as “in danger” would have been the wrong step to take at this time.
But the real work starts now. It’s time to vindicate UNESCO’s decision by showing that the Reef is truly being protected.
There are encouraging signs. The Queensland government has successfully introduced the Ports Bill, which restricts port development in Queensland to four so-called Priority Port Development Areas, and has restricted dredging for port facilities outside these areas for the next 10 years.
Meanwhile the federal government has banned port developers from dumping dredge spoil in the waters of the Great Barrier Reef, and both federal and state governments have committed to a long-term sustainability plan that acknowledges the major challenges from coastal development, pollution, and (in a somewhat less satisfactory way) climate change.
This is all well and good. But as pointed out before, the devil is in the detail. While still in process, much of these commitments still need to be legislated, and without legislation they are no more than hot air. We must also trust our science (and not private opinion), and ensure that we take real actions with a measurable outcome that safeguards the Reef.
It is also absolutely essential that loopholes, such as those within the Ports Bill, are removed so that we never again find ourselves engaging in activities that are ultimately at odds with the long-term future of the Great Barrier Reef. As it stands now, for example, the Ports Bill only prohibits “significant” port development. However, what is classified as “significant” is not defined by the Bill and is, at this point of time, entirely arbitrary. These problems need to be fixed if Australia’s apparent sincerity about solving the problems is to be believed.
Let’s hope that in 2020, when UNESCO assesses the progress that has been made, Australia passes with flying colours as a nation that has successfully turned around one of its most significant environmental problems.
This article is part of a series examining in depth the various threats to the Great Barrier Reef.
The Great Barrier Reef, in one of the world’s best-managed marine parks, might seem safe enough from human activities on land. But its future depends to a large degree on what people do alongside it.
The Reef’s coastline spans about 2,300 km, and its catchment is home to 1,165,000 people, most of whom live along the coast. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park attracts some 1.6 million tourists each year, while the coastal zone produces or exports large volumes of farming and mining products.
While most development has been in the southern two-thirds of the Reef’s coast, south of Cooktown, much of the Reef’s coastal zone has been converted (see pages 6-36 here) to various land uses, such as housing and other urban infrastructure like roads, drainage, commercial and light-industry areas, and tourism facilities. Land has been developed for sugar cane and other crops, aquaculture, stock grazing, highways, railways, refineries and other industrial developments, and ports.
People have changed the Reef’s coastal zone dramatically, and the direct result is the decline of the Reef’s ecosystems. Further declines are likely, but not inevitable – with enough commitment, we can improve the Reef’s condition.
Effects of coastal development
The beauty, biological richness, and cultural values that have made the Great Barrier Reef a World Heritage Area, not to mention a global and national icon, are at stake, as UNESCO weighs up whether to add the Reef to the List of World Heritage in Danger.
The water that flows into the Reef’s lagoon is polluted with sediments, nutrients and pesticides. Urban development is a big contributor, while some tourism developments, such as Port Hinchinbrook, have been ecologically damaging because of poor planning or inappropriate fast-tracking.
Many coastal waterways have been blocked by roads and dams; recreational and commercial fishing have damaged habitats and populations of dolphins and dugongs (see page 127 here); and shipping traffic is set to increase markedly, with the associated port development posing a threat from dredging.
The problem is simple, even if the solutions are not: a long succession of piecemeal developments and government approvals has ignored or failed to understand the environmental problems, and put short-term gain before the long-term survival of the Reef.
What are we doing about it?
To the casual observer, checks and balances seem to be in place for safeguarding the Reef. Large developments are subject to environmental impact assessments (EIAs), while there are systems aimed at monitoring cumulative damage and offsetting any environmental losses.
The reality is different. The EIA process is broken, with a focus on bureaucratic procedure instead of good environmental outcomes, and permit conditions are not being monitored. Offsets are poorly implemented, preventing real compensation for environmental losses, and the assessment of cumulative impacts is primitive.
Last year, when the Federal and Queensland governments released their draft 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan, they acknowledged that the greatest risks to the Reef are “climate change, poor water quality from land-based run off, impacts from coastal development and some fishing activities”. In a critical response, the Australian Academy of Science pointed out that the draft plan would promote further coastal development and fail to assess and mitigate the resulting impacts on the Reef.
Some statements of achievement don’t stand up to close scrutiny. For example, the ban on marine dumping of dredge spoil from new port developments leaves the Queensland government with the problem of deciding where else it will go, with the environmental impacts still unknown. And the plan is vague about the management of around a million cubic metres a year of spoil from maintenance dredging at existing ports.
The Reef Trust, bolstered by an extra $100 million in the recent Federal Budget, provides welcome additional funding, although not enough to address all the threats to the Reef. And some of the Reef Trust money amounts to a levy on developers who damage the Great Barrier Reef, with the funds set to be used in ways that are obscure and – if past performance is any guide – possibly ineffective.
The Reef 2050 Plan sets targets for ecosystem health and biodiversity that are general and qualitative, making achievement subject to argument. Enhancements to management of coastal land-use change are described using terms such as “add to”, “require”, “strengthen”, and “ensure” – vaguely encouraging, but essentially lacking in specific commitment.
Time to get serious
If the Federal and Queensland governments are serious about reducing the impacts of present and future coastal development on the Great Barrier Reef, there are several ways forward.
First, the burden of proof should rest with developers. We have pushed the Great Barrier Reef to the point where there can be no more tolerance of uncertainty about the impacts of developments. Where there is any uncertainty, proponents of new developments must demonstrate that no harm will ensue.
Second, the environmental impact assessment process needs to be made effective, by appointing contractors capable of independent assessment, introducing peer-review of assessments, ensuring financial guarantees against unexpected impacts, and regular auditing of approval conditions.
Third, governments need to use the best available methods to assess cumulative impacts on the Reef as a result of changes in land and water use, coastal planning decisions, and the future demands for coal, sugar cane, tourism or other products. We have the ability to model the effects of all these factors on the Reef, using the best available data and expert opinion.
Fourth, there is an urgent need to tighten the process of environmental offsets, which are meant to deliver environmental benefits elsewhere to make up for damage caused by development. Above and beyond the need to first avoid or mitigate environmental damage from developments, offsets should be designed according to world’s best practice, an appropriate standard for the Great Barrier Reef.
Fifth, targets for recovery of the Reef need actual numbers, not vague statements. And those numbers should, at any time, be the best available estimates of what is needed for the recovery of key ecosystems and species, coupled with ongoing monitoring.
Committed action on these five fronts would be a strong start toward reversing the decline of the Great Barrier Reef. There is no time to lose.
Bob Pressey is Professor and Program Leader, Conservation Planning, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University.
Alana Grech is Lecturer in Spatial Information Science at Macquarie University.
Jon C. Day is PhD candidate, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University.
Marcus Sheaves is Professor of Marine Biology at James Cook University.