The plan to save the Great Barrier Reef is destined to fail unless …

Flying over Green Island on the Great Barrier Reef. Kiyo/Flickr, CC BY-NC

The Great Barrier Reef is in trouble, and a draft government plan to ensure its survival does not go far enough.

A number of submissions including those from the Australian Academy of Science and Environmental Defender’s Office argue that the Australian and Queensland governments’ Reef 2050 Long-term Sustainability Plan fails to provide the necessary long-term protection of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR).

Earlier this year a report from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority found that, since 2009, the outlook for the Great Barrier Reef is poor, has worsened over the past five years, and is expected to further deteriorate in the future.

Map of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and World Heritage Area. Australian Government, Department of Environment

The main causes identified by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority are climate change, poor water quality, coastal development, and some impacts from fishing, but the real issue is the cumulative effects of many combined impacts.

As a result, the World Heritage Committee has threatened to list the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area as “In-Danger”, with a decision expected mid-next year. The draft Reef 2050 plan was designed to address the Committee’s concerns, but by not including actions and targets to restore the values of the Reef, limit dredging, ban sea dumping, and address climate change, the future of the Great Barrier Reef is still at risk.

Here’s ten ways the draft plan needs to be improved, to ensure the long-term survival of the Great Barrier Reef.

1. Protection must be the primary objective

The vision for the draft plan is not consistent with the intent of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975. This explicitly prioritises protection of the values of the Marine Park (which comprises 99% of the World Heritage Area) over other objectives.

That legislation establishes a clear hierarchy of objectives, with protection and conservation as the over-riding purpose. Other objectives, like sustainable use, are subject to the primary objective. In contrast, the draft plan implies “sustainable use” on an equal level with protection.

2. Restore the values

Throughout the draft plan, there is repeated reference to “maintain” (or “sustain” or “retain”) the “outstanding universal value” of the Great Barrier Reef.

This implies the outstanding universal value is unchanged from the time of listing in 1981. The reality is there is an urgent need to restore many of the values that have degraded since that time.

Further the plan also shows that 24 of 41 values that make up outstanding universal value have been assessed as deteriorating including corals, seagrass, dugong, marine turtles and seabirds. Of these 24, 10 values, including those listed above, are already in “poor” condition.

Hence, it is too late to “maintain” outstanding universal value. Repair and restoration are now essential to ensure the values continue for future generations.

3. Address climate change

The 2014 and 2009 outlook reports identify climate change as the major long-term challenge facing the Great Barrier Reef. Despite having a vision until 2050, the draft plan is virtually silent on climate change or ocean acidification.

4. Know what we’re aiming for

The draft plan promises “targets will be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound”.

Regrettably most of the targets in the draft plan are NOT measurable, realistic nor time-bound, for example, the vaguely-worded target “key human-related activities are managed to address cumulative impacts and achieve a net benefit for the Reef”.

Furthermore the draft plan is disappointingly short-sighted in its objectives and targets, given its aspiration to provide an overarching framework for the next 35 years.

5. Ports

The five priority ports are Abbot Point; Brisbane; Gladstone; Hay Point and Mackay; and Townsville. Queensland Government, Department of State Development, Infrastructure and Planning, CC BY

The draft plan refers to the establishment of “Priority Port Development Areas” to limit port expansion. However, none of the boundaries of the Priority Port Development Areas have been defined.

The Queensland Ports Strategy is vague “A Priority Port Development Area may … also include port environmental protection/conservation areas, port buffers and future investigation areas” (p. 15).

Further the draft plan prohibits dredging outside of (yet undefined) Priority Port Development Areas, for only 10 years, not for the life of the 2050 plan.

6. Dredging

Following public concerns raised about Abbot Point, the premier stated that Queensland would move towards land disposal. However, such comments refer only to dumping in the Marine Park. They are silent on dumping in the slightly larger World Heritage Area that includes the current ports.

The draft plan makes no mention of the volume of dredging that can occur within priority ports at Abbot Point, Hay Point, Townsville or Gladstone, or when it can occur.

There is a critical need for complementary federal and state legislation to move towards the permanent ban on dumping of dredge spoil within any Australian World Heritage Area.

7. Cumulative impacts

The fundamental issue of cumulative impacts that combine current and new pressures on the GBR is mentioned repeatedly throughout the draft plan.

However, other than recommending the development of various guidelines or policies (on cumulative impacts and “net benefits”), the plan provides no practical guidance regarding cumulative impacts which are currently poorly understood and assessed.

The plan does little to constrain more dredging, coastal development or fossil fuel extraction (effectively “business-as-usual”), all of which will be superimposed on the current pressures, continuing the implicit policy of “death by a thousand cuts”.

8. Give the Marine Park Authority real power

The draft plan says little about the change in governance or amount of resourcing required to achieve its vision. Many of the “actions” in the draft plan are existing and fully funded but insufficient to protect the Great Barrier Reef or to reach the listed targets and objectives.

Given the environmental, economic and social importance of the Great Barrier Reef, the commonwealth must retain strong powers and responsibility for the entire area. The most effective way to do that is to re-empower the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, with adequate resources, back to its intended role as an independent statutory authority.

Both commonwealth and state governments, however, will need to commit far more funding and resources to achieve the vision and to ensure the values of the Great Barrier Reef are anything like they were at the time of listing as a World Heritage Area in 1981.

9. Water quality

The draft plan provides little assurance that current management (primarily the Reef Plan 2013) will achieve the required water quality improvements in the Great Barrier Reef. The following increases are expected to place even greater pressures on the Great Barrier Reef and are not adequately addressed in the draft plan:

  • Queensland’s agricultural production is expected to double by 2040
  • Queensland’s population will almost double by 2040
  • Port expansion and the associated dredging will increase greatly in the period 2011 to 2020 compared to earlier decades
  • Shipping numbers will increase substantially.

For example, even a modest increase in the area of sugarcane cultivation may increase nitrogen and herbicide runoff to the Great Barrier Reef to such an extent as to negate reduced loads of these substances achieved under the Reef Rescue Initiative from 2008 to 2013.

10. Offsetting the damage

The draft plan states environmental offsets should be avoided wherever possible, but offers little assurance about doing so.

While in theory offsets might be applied to reduce the social and environmental impacts, the current approval process preempts the formulation of effective offsets.

There is a growing practice of offsetting environmental damage before its full extent and cost are known, rather than prevention or mitigation. The draft plan should be specific about avoiding and mitigating impacts before offsets are considered and developments are approved.

Will it work?

The next meeting of the UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee in mid-2015 will decide whether to list the Great Barrier Reef on the list of “World Heritage In-danger”. One cynical view is that the plan is likely to be little more than smoke and mirrors to appease UNESCO before its decision, after which development of the Great Barrier Reef will resume its current course. But even “In-danger” listing will not ensure the above ten issues are addressed.

The future of the Great Barrier Reef depends on the Australian and Queensland governments taking their responsibilities more seriously than has been evident with some recent decisions. It also needs the Australian public and the global community to make it clear that they want the values of the World Heritage Area restored and to ensure those values are present for future generations.