Six ways Australia is selectively reporting to the UN on the Great Barrier Reef

Turtles are among the species that could be harmed by dredging, even under the government’s new dredge dumping rules. AAP Image/University of QLD

The Australian government’s latest report on the Great Barrier Reef, submitted to the UNESCO World Heritage Centre last Friday, has been carefully crafted and word-smithed, with many of its claims supported by excerpts from earlier reports such as the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s 2014 Outlook Report and Strategic Assessment.

But in compiling it, the government has been very selective regarding which facts are presented and which facts are ignored.

With the World Heritage Committee considering whether to officially list the Reef as “in danger”, here are various ways that the true picture is more complicated than the new report implies.

1. Many of the reef’s values are not in good condition

In the report’s covering letter, federal environment minister Greg Hunt claims that “the Outstanding Universal Value and the integrity of the (World Heritage) property remain in good condition”.

The new report lists 41 elements (see page 52 onwards here) that collectively demonstrate the condition and trend of the key values for which the area is internationally recognised, such as the spectacular corals and fish species, and the presence of colourful underwater views. Yet 25 of those 41 elements (61% of the total) are showing a deteriorating trend compared with their condition when the Reef was first placed on the World Heritage List in 1981.

The list shows that the current condition of corals, seagrass, dugongs, seabirds, marine turtles, and some dolphins, have all been assessed as “poor”. Values such as coral, dugongs and seabirds were fundamental to the original World Heritage listing in 1981, and the declining condition of these species and various habitats demonstrate that the Outstanding Universal Value for the Reef does need to be restored.

2. The ‘ban’ on dumping dredge spoil comes with small print

The report refers to the government’s proposal for a “permanent ban on the disposal of material from capital dredging in the Marine Park”. This sounds like a huge step forward, yet it relates only to the disposal of “capital” dredge spoil in the Marine Park, so it does not cover “maintenance” dredging which occurs periodically at most ports.

Nor does the proposed ban extend to port areas that are not part of the Marine Park. It would only apply in the legislated Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, which is smaller than the World Heritage Area, and which includes port areas outside the park such as Townsville, Abbot Point, Mackay, Hay Point and Gladstone.

The maps below show that the defined port limits do not necessarily match up with the Marine Park boundaries.

Extent of existing port limits for Townsville under Queensland law. Queensland government, Author provided
Red outline shows the port area excluded from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Yellow areas (conservation zones) and green areas (marine national park zones) occur within the official port limits on the upper map. Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Author provided

It remains unclear which of the above boundaries may be used to define Priority Port Development Areas.

What’s more, these port boundaries have no bearing on the processes occurring in these marine waters – port areas are subject to the same currents and tides as the adjoining protected areas. Species that would be affected by dumping in the Marine Park (such as turtles, dugongs and dolphins) will also be affected by dumping in port areas.

Recent modelling has shown dredge spoil plumes are carried much farther than previously thought, so dumping anywhere in the marine environment will have consequences far beyond the dump site. Research has also revealed a higher incidence of coral disease in areas subject to dredge spoil. Dredge spoil dumping will only add to the range of factors that are already causing stress to the Great Barrier Reef.

3. Water quality is still a big problem

The new report highlights the investments the federal and Queensland governments are making “to ensure the Reef’s health” in the face of water quality problems from agricultural runoff and other pollution.

While water quality is improving in some ways, a combined group of Natural Resource Management organisations has called for much more funding to tackle the problem effectively. They maintain that it will cost A$785 million over the first five years, and more beyond.

4. The biggest threat is still not being effectively addressed

GBRMPA’s 2014 Outlook Report warns the most serious threat to the Reef is climate change, which is causing ocean acidification, rising sea temperatures, altered weather patterns (with more intense storms), and rising sea levels.

While the new report calls for “practical mitigation actions” at national and local levels, it fails to address these concerns effectively, relying primarily on the government’s national Emissions Reduction Fund.

5. Not all the recommendations have yet been met

The 2015 report claims that “Australia has responded comprehensively to all the requests of the World Heritage Committee since 2011” and has taken “unprecedented action” to address its concerns. Yet the following World Heritage Committee recommendations have yet to be adequately addressed:

6. More comprehensive monitoring is needed

The concerns about the deteriorating environment are based on the results of long term monitoring programs that are largely ad hoc. While efforts are being made to integrate monitoring, there is no commitment for the ongoing funding required for such monitoring, nor any effective feedback from monitoring into adaptive management.

Honesty and transparency are essential

Greg Hunt states the government has “acted with renewed vigour” to address the World Heritage Committee’s concerns. It will be interesting to see what changes will occur in future reports as the result of the incoming Queensland Government.

The Outlook Report released last August by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, summarizes the situation:

Even with the recent management initiatives to reduce threats and improve resilience, 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 all threats at all levels, Reef-wide, regional and local, are required to prevent the projected declines in the GBR and to improve its capacity to recover.

This is the true situation the World Heritage Committee will need to consider in June when deciding whether to officially list the Reef as “in danger”. It remains unclear whether the Australian government has done enough to persuade the Committee that things are moving in the right direction.