The Barrier Reef is not listed as in danger, but the threats remain

It’s still too early to declare that it’s blue skies for the Great Barrier Reef. Underwater Earth/Catlin Seaview Survey/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

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).

Differing perspectives?

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.

There were fears an In-Danger listing would damage tourism, but the real damage would be done by failing to save the Reef. AAP Image/Julian Smith

Unprecedented lobbying

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.