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Great Barrier Reef needs more protection - scientists say

A letter from eminent scientists was written to the World Heritage Bureau in 1998. It outlines serious concerns with management inadequacies and development pressures on the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.


The following letter, from a number of eminent scientists was written to the World Heritage Bureau in 1998, and outlines serious concerns with management inadequacies and development pressures on the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. It is a very good overview of these issues.

15th September 1998

The World Heritage Bureau

Dear Members of the World Heritage Bureau,


Subject: The long-term viability of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area

As marine scientists with knowledge of GBR environmental issues, we feel it is important and urgent of express our concern to you over the long-term future of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area (GBR WHA). We have concerns both about inputs from the Queensland coast bordering the GBR WHA, and the way the World Heritage Area itself is currently managed. We believe its sustainability is now in doubt.


The present state of coral reefs

Coral reefs are the richest of marine ecosystems, and they are under threat. The Bureau will be aware of the developing global concern over the loss of coral reefs. Fifty-eight percent of coral reefs worldwide are threatened by human activity (1). This rises to eighty percent in Southeast Asia. Many reefs have lost their corals and become algal reefs (2).


A moral obligation of care

Australia is the only developed nation that has in its care a coral reef with World Heritage status, the GBR WHA. This places Australia in very special position. It has accepted an obligation to set a high standard of protection for the GBR WHA, and as a comparatively wealthy nation it is fiscally able to do so. We believe it is failing in this duty.


The value of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area

The value of the Great Barrier Reef to the world is beyond price. It is the greatest of all world reefs. As part of the Indo-West Pacific marine area it is within the richest world domain of such ecosystems. Its extraordinary biodiversity, importance in the protection of endangered species (such as the dugong), unusual beauty, and uplifting spiritual values cannot be reckoned in money. Its monetary worth to Australia is high, nevertheless. Its dominant use is for tourism, and the value of direct GBR tourism is over one billion dollars annually. The Great Barrier Reef, with its World Heritage status, is a vital attraction for overseas tourists to visit Australia.


Changes in protection

The Great Barrier Reef has been protected by its size, and by the relatively low population along its 2000 kilometre coastline. This is changing with developing use of the Reef and its hinterland. Careful policies and planning for sustainability of the GBR WHA are vital as there are increasing and multiple pressures from sugar cane farming, cattle grazing, industrial development, mining, harbour building, tourism, fishing, wetland and mangrove loss, and housing development. Experience has shown that there is inadequate environment planning on coastal land controlled by the State of Queensland and its local governments. Nor is there adequate control by the GBRMPA over damaging activities in the GBR WHA. This later applies particularly to trawling (see below).



The GBR has always been a multi-use area, but the retention of the conservation values of the Marine Park is enshrined as a first priority in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act. This Act set up the Great Barrier Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), which now also has the wider responsibility for the marine part of the GBR WHA. The WHA includes the original Marine Park, but is slightly larger and reaches to the low water mark on the mainland of Queensland.

The Federal Government, under new legislation now before the parliament, plans to devolve more environmental responsibility to the States.

The State of Queensland in its planning has, in a recent most serious case in the Hinchinbrook Channel, chosen development over protection of the WHA. This is likely to be a continual problem affecting the GBR WHA, as there are in excess of 120 coastal applications for development. The Hinchinbrook approval short-circuited appropriate environmental planning procedures, had "serious deficiencies in the environmental impact assessment process" and "failed to consider adequately the World Heritage status of the areas adjacent to the development" (4). Basically, the government in power was absolutely determined on development, brushing aside any environmental concerns. This is not likely to get better, but under new legislation (the Queensland Integrated Planning Act) is likely to get worse.


There are some key processes which threaten the GBR WHA's long-term sustainability.

Bottom trawling in the inter-reefal area and GBR lagoon.

Behind the outer reefs and the coast lies the huge GBR "lagoon". Between the outer fringe of protective reefs and the lagoon proper is a large set of reefs with fingers of the lagoon between them (the inter-reefal areas).

Together the lagoon and the inter-reefal areas form a huge region of relatively shallow water with dugongs, dolphins, whales and turtles and a rich bottom fauna and flora, including seagrasses, horny corals, sponges, prawns, molluscs, and fishes, etc. About 1,000 licensed vessels trawl this area (particularly the lagoon) primarily for prawns, and they land catches worth about $150 million annually (3). While the intensity of trawling is patchy with some areas getting heavy effort and some not, there is an impact. Experiments by the CSIRO Division of Marine Research and the Queensland Department of Primary Industry show that one trawl haul removes some 5-20% of the bottom biomass (weight of bottom animals and plants). Thirteen trawls removed about 70-90 of the weight of the bottom organisms. Trawling physically removes or damages much of the larger bottom fauna, and colonies that may survive a single trawl will not survive many repeated trawls (5).

Trawling has an impact, and it is clear that widespread intensive, long-term trawling is not sustainable or compatible with biodiversity retention.

  • The only way to protect these bottom communities, if trawling is to continue, is to set aside sufficient no-take areas within the GBR WHA. The no-take proportion of the whole area is an entirely inadequate 4.6%. Whole 20.6% is protect from legal trawling, this over-represents the inter-reefal areas which were largely untrawlable with the existing technology. The outer slope of the GBR is grossly under-represented with only 1.4% being protected from trawling. For the main lagoon 10.2% of the shallow and inshore region is protected from trawling, but the mid-shelf areas are under-represented. These levels of protection are insufficient to protect the biodiversity of any ecosystem, and for a WHA they are pitiful.
  • Marine protected areas need to be representative of the different bottom biota from the shore to the outer barrier, including the continental slope areas, and from north to south over the 2000 kilometre length of the GBR WHA. This distribution urgently needs study.

(The GBRMPA 25-year Strategic Plan calls for strictly protected areas)


Land clearing, agriculture and pastoral land-use

Land clearing adjacent to the GBR WHA, particularly for sugar cane, has resulted in the loss of wetlands including Melaleuca swamps, and stream and riverside vegetation. Clearing for intensive agriculture has left only remnants of this ecosystem, and from 66%-78% has been removed. This wetland and riparian vegetation previously provided extensive buffer strips protecting coastal river systems, estuaries and shorelines (reviewed in 6). These losses impact on coastal water quality and marine fauna habitat within the GBR WHA. Pastoral use for cattle has changed the surface vegetative cover and has increased the silt load to the GBR WHA many-fold since European settlement. Increased siltation has also resulted in "substantial increases in the quantity of nitrogen and phosphorus from waters discharging to reef waters." The silt comes primarily from pastoral practices, though some is from intensive agriculture (primarily sugar cane) and some from sewage (in 7).

  • There has been a clearly measurable increase in volume and distribution of sediments, heavy metals and nutrients (7), (8).
  • Photographic and anecdotal evidence suggests a degrading of many inshore reefs (The evidence for inshore reef breakdown as a result of the silt and nutrient load is indicative and not conclusive. However, the precautionary principle demands that these chances should be taken very seriously).


Development of coastal resorts, housing and harbours

As indicated above development approvals have been given with little thought to environmental impact. In the Hinchinbrook case a massive resort, a large marina port and a waterfront housing development was planned without an appropriate environmental impact assessment (4) in the prime Hinchinbrook Channel. Though an area of renowned beauty for the World Heritage Area, no aesthetic impact was considered, in spite of the fact that outstanding natural beauty was one of the reasons for requesting World Heritage status for the Great Barrier Reef. Likely impacts on the threatened dugong population were ignored. Mangroves reaching the World Heritage area (low tide mark) were removed with resultant erosion. Some 200 scientists expressed concern over the process (9) but this was also ignored. A public outcry has finally led to a Senate Inquiry, and this may make some suggestions…but this is a classic case of bolting the stable door after the horse is out. Much effort is now being made in environment protection, but the basic problems of bad siting, massive scale, and aesthetic scarring cannot be resolved post hoc. The impact on the GBR WHA of this development will continue over decades. Unfortunately, we have no confidence that such inappropriate development with impact on the WHA will be curbed. We expect it to occur repeatedly.

In each case above there is either evidence, or the considered judgment of specialists, that the actions described are likely to lead to problems within the WHA. But local authorities and the state government have followed short-term gain at the expense of environmental issues, of long-term sustainability and of international obligation. Inter-generational equity has been forgone.


Cumulative damage

Collectively, these threats and their cumulative impact are putting the GBR WHA under serious pressure. Just as has happened in many land areas, we believe the GBR WHA will steadily degrade due to the "thousand cuts;" the unplanned or badly planned individual impacts that cumulatively result in unsustainability for the WHA. Over 120 coastal development requests for marinas, coastal oil shale mining projects, urban developments, resorts, port expansions, etc. are being considered. The World Heritage Area is being given little weight in the decision-making process.


Strengthening management

The researchers in the papers listed all acknowledge actual or potential impact, though with present understanding they are unable to quantify it. Careful research and monitoring are needed to assess these impacts, which is the task of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. The Federal Government's response has been to reduce funding for the Authority by over 15%. The Authority badly needs political and financial strengthening, not weakening.

There has also been no attempt to negotiate a comprehensive GBR WHA strategy with the Queensland Government. Both Federal and State governments appear incapable of balancing development and environmental sustainability, and development, however bad, has taken precedence. The precautionary principle, which the Federal Government has espoused for the GBR WHA, has been totally ignored (10).



We believe, if this World Heritage Area is to last in good condition over the decades to come, that it is time for the Bureau to conduct an independent review of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. Any fact-finding study would wish to look at threats and management responses within and bordering the WHA. The Bureau will find available evidence to support our concerns.

Unless this is done, and the governments are made aware that their conduct is under scrutiny, the Bureau will be presiding over the slow death of the greatest exemplar of coral reefs on the globe.



Frank H Talbot
Adjunct Professor, Graduate School of the Environment, Macquarie University, Sydney (Director Emeritus, US National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington)

Alistair Gilmour
Professor and Acting Head of School, Graduate School of the Environment,
Macquarie University, Sydney
(Past Director, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority)

Alastair Birtles
Senior Lecturer in Environmental Management and Ecotourism
James Cook University

Dr Bob Morris
Consultant Oceanographer Dept. of Environment Queensland


References cited:

  1. D. Bryant, L. Burke, J. McManus, M. Spalding (and 25 contributing authors). 1998. Reefs at Risk: A Map-Based Indicator of Threats to the World's Coral Reefs. World Resources Institute, International Center for Living Aquatic Resources Management, World Conservation Monitoring Centre, and United Nations Environment Programme. Washington, DC.
  2. T.P. Hughes. 1994. Catastrophes, phase shifts, and large-scale degradation of a Caribbean coral reef. Science, Vol. 265, pp. 1547-1551.
  3. C.R. Pitcher, C. Y. Burridge, T. I. Wassenberg and I. R. Pointer. 1996. The effects of prawn trawl fisheries on GBR seabed habitats. in The Great Barrier Reef: Science, used and management. A National Conference, Proceedings. Vol. 1. pp. 107-123. James Cook University, Townsville.
  4. Professor Sir Gustav Nossal, as President of the Australian Academy of Science, in a letter to the Federal Minister of the Environment, dated 14th January, 1997.
  5. P. Hutchings. 1990 Review of the effects of trawling on macrobenthic epifaunal communities. Australian Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research Vol.41, 111-120.
  6. K. L. Johnson, S. P. Ebert, A. E. Murray. 1997. Protection of Wetlands adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef. GBRMPA Workshop Series. Proceedings of a Workshop in Babinda, Queensland, 25-26 Sept. 1997. GBRMPA, Townsville.
  7. C. Robson. 1996. Catchment management links to the Great Barrier Reef. The Great Barrier Reef: Science use and management. A National Conference Proceedings. Vol1. pp. 69-285.
  8. R. J. Morris. Letter to the Federal Minister for the Environment outlining analysis of core samples of corals. Dated 25th September, 1997.
  9. Letter to the Prime Minister and the Environment Minister from 200 scientists, concerning threats to the GBR WHA from the Hinchinbrook development, dated 10th November,1994.
  10. Sir David Attenborough, Paul Ehrlich, David Suzuki, David Bellamy and others. Open letter to the Australian Prime Minister and the Premier of Queensland in "The Australian" national daily newspaper calling for the stopping of the Hinchinbrook development. April, 1998.