The Great Barrier Reef

Miles to go

Print edition : August 07, 2015

Divers in Australia's Great Barrier Reef. The UNESCO's decision puts pressure on Australia to prevent further destruction of the reef off the Queensland coast. Photo: Brian Cassey/AP

The Great Barrier Reef. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Australia’s management of the problems facing the Great Barrier Reef earns a pat from the UNESCO, but challenges remain, especially in the areas of climate change and water quality.

The UNESCO’s (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) World Heritage Committee (WHC) has unanimously backed Australia’s management of the internationally iconic Great Barrier Reef. Not only has it rejected the push for an in-danger listing for the Reef, its members have particularly praised Australia and our management of the Reef. The Great Barrier Reef evokes significant passion in Australia and around the world. Indeed, numerous countries have praised Australia, and Germany has even cited Australia as a model to the world.

This outcome is significant for all countries managing world heritage properties.

What the Australian and Queensland (State) governments have accomplished, together with the WHC and the UNESCO, is a new way of managing world heritage that can be a model for others to follow and adapt to their own unique circumstances.

The WHC first expressed its concern four years ago and has subsequently worked closely with Australia to address threats to the Reef, ultimately endorsing our Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan.

Australia actively responded to these concerns with openness and transparency. We consulted extensively with UNESCO and WHC member-countries to ensure that our efforts were clearly understood. We have also worked hard to share our best-practice experience managing coral reefs with other countries, to ensure that all reefs benefit from our knowledge.

The Great Barrier Reef is a complex and dynamic marine environment spread over 3,40,000 square kilometres. Its ecological complexity is mirrored by its social and economic complexity—the Reef is, and has always been, a multi-use area with an abundance of habitats and ecosystems as well as active ports, a fishing industry, a growing population and deeply connected indigenous traditional owners. It remains a tourist destination without equal. The scale of the Great Barrier Reef does not lessen our responsibility to protect it, so we are actively and effectively managing the many pressures it faces using the best science at our disposal to guide and target our actions. In 2013, we commissioned advice and discovered plans for over 60 million tonnes of dredge disposal in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Our view was that these plans were unacceptable. Now, none of that disposal will happen.

We have also banned forever the disposal of capital dredge material in the entire World Heritage Area—as promised. We started by reducing from five to zero the number of capital dredging proposals to place such material in the marine park.

We have committed to no new ports being developed along the coast adjacent to the Reef. We are also limiting all port-related capital dredging to the existing four major ports along the more than 2,000-km coastline of the Great Barrier Reef. The Australian and Queensland governments’ projected investment in reef management and research activities over the coming decade is more than $2 billion, including $200 million recently announced for water quality improvement.

Having said this, as for every reef around the world, we know there are continued and real challenges such as climate change and water quality, which is why we have developed and are implementing the new Reef 2050 Plan—a 35-year blueprint to protect and build the health and resilience of the Reef.

The plan has been developed in partnership with all levels of government, the community, indigenous traditional owners, industry, civil society and the scientific community.

We have given the Reef 2050 Plan the force of National and State laws. Australia, the WHC, and the international community have forged a new way to work together to preserve and enhance the outstanding universal value of one of the world’s most iconic natural assets.

Together, a consensus has been formed that has balanced environmental interests with an explicit recognition of economic considerations. This is sustainable development in action—a concept that is often talked about but seldom implemented.

But this has not happened by accident. Australia is building on 40 years of Reef management along with decades of scientific research and analysis.

Along with our tough environmental laws and regulatory environment, we have the legal systems in place to support and enforce these new measures. The Great Barrier Reef is one of the natural wonders of the world, and we intend to keep it that way.

Julie Bishop is Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, and Greg Hunt is Australian Minister for the Environment.