The Plan to Save the Great Barrier Reef


Brisbane and The Whitsunday Islands – In Australian political parlance “robust discussions” often borders on gang war typified by self-interest and an armada of lawyers, politicians, and lobby groups whose inability to find common ground is too often undermined by a win-at-all-costs mentality.

In recent years, attitudes to asylum seekers arriving unannounced along the coastline, drastic spending cuts by the ruling conservatives, and even drugs in sport have bought out the worst in a nation that thrives on immigration, government subsidies, and Olympic success.

There are, however, exceptions. The Great Barrier Reef is one. The World Heritage Committee has managed to bring stakeholders together in a rare display of unity, with the result that an A$2 billion ($1.5 billion), 10-year plan has been announced to ensure the future of the reef, widely seen as increasingly under threat.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

In producing the plan, the debate among indigenous groups, the Queensland Farmers Federation (QFF), state and federal politicians – regardless of political persuasion – scientists, miners, shipping, environmentalists, and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GRMPA) was intense.

The point was how best to respond to the devastation caused by an almost unprecedented cluster of cyclones that tore through the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef during the 2000s.

“But once settled, the agreement sticks,” said GRMPA Chairman Russell Reichelt. “They asked for strategy assessments and we sat down for two years and we did it. It’s standing on the shoulders of really solid work.”

The Plan

The Reef 2050 Long Term Sustainability Plan is a prescription for reviving the long-term viability of the Great Barrier Reef, which covers 3,480 square kilometers, encompassing some 900 islands and about 2,900 individual reefs, part of the biggest single structure made by living organisms.

At stake is a tourism industry that generates A$5.2 billion a year and employs 70,000 people, access to ports handling A$40 billion in exports, and most importantly the reef itself.

The Great Barrier Reef is also home to more than 1,500 species of fish, 500 species of mollusks, 400 species of hard and soft coral, and 250 species of birds.

Underpinning the plan is a drastic improvement in water quality with the abolition of capital dredging, a ban on the disposal of waste materials, and the prohibition of major new developments at existing port facilities in Gladstone, at Hay-Point Mackay, Abbot Point, and Townsville.

The plan also calls for a 50 percent reduction in nitrogen release by 2018, rising to 80 percent by 2025, primarily through better farming practices and improved technology that has whittled back the amount of fertilizers needed for the nation’s crops.

John Gunn, Chief Executive of the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS), said the reef had the ability to fully recuperate from storm damage but this had been thwarted at the southern end of the park where a century of by man-made practices had taken a toll.

“The Great Barrier Reef has still the capacity to recover,” he said, “if science-based management action is to be considered and I think the Australian government is addressing that through its long-term sustainability plan.”

At the northern end of the reef, where cattle grazing and farming is minimal, coral and marine life remain in pristine condition and damage is limited towards the middle of the marine park which is similar in size to Italy, with a 2,300 kilometer coastline.

The southern end is different story. A cluster of high intensity storms including four category four or five cyclones have swept through the region since 2004, with particularly unprecedented weather conditions over 2010-11 when Cyclone Yasi delivered 400 percent more rainfall than usual.

Here about 50 percent of coral cover was lost. Seagrass abundance – necessary for the survival of endangered dugongs and six of the world’s seven sea turtles native to the park – was sharply reduced.

Massive water run-off, containing excess nutrients from pesticides and fertilizers used by farmers, contaminated unusually big fresh water plumes. The Burdekin River is often a trickle but as it flooded it expanded to the equivalent in size of a quarter of the Amazon River.

“The corals will regrow so long as you keep it clean of pollution and you keep the fish that keep it functioning,” Reichelt added.

Excess nitrogen causes coral bleaching and an outbreak of the reef’s nemesis, the crown-of-thorns starfish which feeds off live coral polyps with devastating effect. AIMS estimates there are three to four million of the pest currently on the reef, although scientists there say evidence suggests the number could be much higher.

Also suffocating the ability of coral to grow at its usual a rate of two to four centimeters a year is dredging. A ban on dumping spoil in the World Heritage area was welcomed by Dermot O’Gorman, chief executive officer of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Australia.

“It’s critical that we see a ban implemented before the World Heritage Committee meets in three months’ time,” he said.

Climate change is another a key suspect, with temperatures expected to rise by two to four degrees Celsius by 2050. Government carbon emission targets have been set in line with international protocols but authorities say arguments about rising temperatures should be kept as a separate issue to the GBR.

But importantly no Category Five Cyclone had been recorded in the southern end of the reef since 1918, and Reichelt added “the burning question is are we going to have another 10 years like this or will we have another 100-year break.”

Scientists say the southern end of the marine park needs about two decades of normal, calmer weather for a complete recovery.

Politics, Traditional & Environmental

Complicating matters is the extent of coverage under the auspices of the World Heritage Listing, attained in 1981 by former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser. GRMPA covers just the reef itself but the UNESCO listing was extended to the Queensland coastline, including industry and the one million people who live along the shoreline, among them 20,000 indigenous people.

Duane Fraser, a representative of aboriginal groups who have lived off the reef for 8,000 years, likened negotiations with 72 tribes and clans to the television series Game of Thrones, adding there were more tribal elders than there were members of the Australian parliament.

“From time to time those families factionalize,” he said, adding ongoing negotiations with the state and federal government over the last 20 years were complex but agreements had been reached.

“For traditional owners and the reef it’s immensely important that our position in managing our traditional countries is identified and protected and that we continue to have a place in this landscape to not only contribute but lead the co-management of our traditional estates.”

Reservations among environmental groups were always expected, however, Diane Tarte, Director of Marine Ecosystem Policy Advisors described the report as “a very good framework for moving forward.”

“What’s going to be really important is its implementation and the investment behind that implementation,” she said.

“At the moment we’re seeing an investment strategy that reflects business as usual, the reef is telling us we need to do a lot more, a lot more substantially, and a lot faster.”

Her sentiments were echoed by O’Gorman at the WWF who gave qualified support to a commitment by state Queensland and federal governments to each spend an additional A$100 million over five years to tackle pollution in the marine park.

“But considering the Reef will generate $30 billion for the economy over the next five years, a much more substantial investment from the Federal Government is not unreasonable,” he said.

Others were less generous. Greenpeace came out against the report saying it was not enough. The environmental body’s severe anti-coal stance and perceptions that it was using the politics of the Great Barrier Reef for its own agenda has alienated potential support from more mainstream community groups.

In 2011, as part of a funding proposal for the Australian anti-coal movement, Greenpeace said its own strategy was “to ‘disrupt and delay’ key projects and infrastructure while gradually eroding public and political support for the industry.”

And in its quest for funds, Greenpeace argued back then for of the need to build an “anti-coal movement” off the back of a community backlash to fracking. Failure to act, it added, would result in the go-ahead of key infrastructure projects.

Their biggest obstacle was the previous Queensland state government under Premier Campbell Newman. His Liberal National Party (LNP) hastily advocated a dramatic increase in thermal coal and gas production while preparing for major expansion of the ports at Gladstone.

Word leaked and Greenpeace and the WWF actively backed attempts to have the GBR listed as endangered but attitudes are shifting. Victory by the Australian Labor Party (ALP) at January’s Queensland state poll genuinely shocked conservatives, who were anticipating an easy win.

Losses were partially blamed on expansion plans for Gladstone, which were soon dropped along with capital dredging and the dumping of waste within the park. A collapse in commodity prices also curtailed the more ambitious mega-projects.

Both the Queensland Environment Minister, Steven Miles – who now represents a center-left ALP government – and his federal counterpart Greg Hunt of the conservative Liberal Party told this journalist during a series of briefings that the report, it’s findings, and recommendations had found bi-partisan support.

“And I believe that with it, we will be able to convince the World Heritage Committee that not only should they not list the reef as in danger but that we will keep the reef from actually being in danger,” Miles said.

The World Heritage Committee, consisting of 21 countries and chaired by Germany, is due to make a draft decision next month before a final conference in Bonn in June.

Luke Hunt toured the Great Barrier Reef as part of the Australian government’s International Media Visits (IMV) program. He can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief