Great Barrier Reef’s Health “On Probation”

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  • Article by Amy Bradney-George
  • June 02, 2015 at 4:00 PM

While UNESCO’s decision not to put the Great Barrier Reef on its endangered list in May has been welcomed by government officials, environmental groups say Australia should consider itself “on probation”.

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee (WHC) has said that proposed conservation projects for the area ­– including a 35-year plan for preservation and restoration of the reef outlined by Prime Minister Tony Abbott earlier this year ­– is a “major technical and policy achievement” that should lead to positive outcomes for the Great Barrier Reef.

But the Committee also warns that there are a number of issues that need to be dealt with for the proposed plans to work, including new legislation and financing.

“The proposed investment framework should be established as a matter of priority and should provide a convincing demonstration that the necessary investment to achieve the plan is being made and will be sustained,” the UNESCO WHC report says.

It has recommended progress updates from the Australian government over the next few years, with a full review to be made in 2020.

The Great Barrier Reef has long been an iconic destination in Australia, for both locals and international travelers alike. But climate change, coastal developments and man-made waste leaking into the area have seriously affected it in recent years.

In 2012 UNESCO began monitoring the area, and earlier this year indicated that the amount of damage to the Reef could entitle it to “endangered” status. Despite growing concern for the area, in January 2014 a controversial permit was issued to allow 3 million cubic metres of dredge spoil to be dumped offshore, as part of the coal port expansion at nearby Abbot Point.

After huge protests and petitions, as well as warnings from UNESCO’s WHC, this permit was abolished under new legislation announced in November 2014 and brought into effect in May 2015.

Environmental organisations such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) have welcomed the Queensland and federal government’s responses to the latest threats and assessments of the area, but say there is still a long way to go.

“We congratulate the Australian Government for acting on an issue that is of deep concern to the vast majority of Australians,” WWF Australia CEO Dermot O’Gorman says in a media statement.

He has welcomed Federal regulations that came into effect on 2nd June 2015, to ban sea-dumping of dredge spoil in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, saying they are an important step for the future of the Reef. But he also says ‘”significant further action will be need to be delivered in next 18 months before Australia reports back to the World Heritage Committee on progress.”

“The next step is for the Queensland Government to extend the ban to cover the entire Reef World Heritage Area, when it introduces new Port Development laws later this week,” he says.

“About 80% of dumping since 2010 has occurred outside the Marine Park but within the World Heritage Area where it can easily drift onto coral and seagrass – that’s why a ban in the full World Heritage Area is essential.”

The Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef in the world, stretching over 2300 kilometres and composed of almost 3000 individual reefs. It’s also the world’s biggest single structure made of living organisms and was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Area in 1981.

Images: Coral outcrop at Flynn Reef, credit: Toby Hudson; a satellite image of the Great Barrier Reef, source: Wikimedia Commons.

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