Queenslanders ought to be excessively proud and protective of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). It is the world’s most extensive coral reef system, containing the world’s largest collection of coral reefs. In recognition of its outstanding universal values (OUV) – including its superlative natural beauty, aesthetic importance, and irreplaceable significance as a coral habitat for in-situ conservation of biodiversity – it was inscribed prominently as the first Australian property on the list of World Heritage in 1981 under the UNESCO Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (the Convention).
As a party to the Convention, Australia is obliged to “do all it can” to protect, conserve, present, and transmit the GBR to future generations of Australia and the world. Moreover, Australia is bound to do these things “to the utmost of its resources”. Fulfilling these obligations has been challenged by a number of ongoing threats to the GBR and its OUV, such as climate change, coastal development, land-based pollution, impacts from coastal development, shipping accidents, ports infrastructure and operations, oil spills, and fishing.
The impact of these threats has prompted the World Heritage Committee (WHC), the World Heritage Convention’s decision-making body, to annually consider since 2012 whether the GBR should be placed on the list of World Heritage property “in danger”. The WHC has annually urged Australia to do more by way of protecting the OUV of the GBR through effective regulation and management. An “in danger” listing is reserved for properties under imminent and potential threat and can be viewed as a failure of the country in which the property is located to meet its obligations under the Convention.
Australia has strongly resisted such a listing because it would be politically embarrassing, and the Queensland government and the tourism industry has fretted over the consequences such a listing might portend. In the lead up to the 2015 WHC session, it was reported that Australia engaged in an extensive and expensive lobbying campaign to keep the GBR off the “in danger” list. Australian officials visited all 21 countries on the WHC. Australia paid for junkets for journalists and scientists from these countries to visit the GBR.
This lobbying may have paid dividends because 2 July, 2015 when the WHC decided not to place the GBR on the in danger list. In the immediate aftermath, Queensland launched a major GBR tourism campaign immediately following the decision not to list. I should be recognised, however, the WHC did not give the GBR a total clean bill of health. By its decision, it essentially continued Australia’s probation for the fourth time. Australia must submit a progress report to the WHC by 1 December 2016. If “the anticipated progress is not being made”, then the status of the GBR will again be considered by the WHC in 2017.
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.
Perhaps a greater factor that swayed the WHC is the Australian commitments going forward. In particular, the WHC welcomed Australia’s promise to an 80% reduction in pollution run-off in the property by 2025 and the commitment of an initial additional investment of $200 million dollars to accelerate progress in water quality improvements. It also welcomes a promise to restrict major new port development in and adjoining the property and limit capital dredging for the development of new or expansion of existing port facilities. Australia also committed to establish a permanent ban on dumping of dredged material from all capital dredging projects within the property. Finally, the WHC welcomed a promise to carry out regular, public 5-year reviews of its performance in protecting the GRB.
Still, the WHC continues to be concerned about the GBR. The reason why is reflected in the 2014 Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report prepared by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and a 2014 independent Strategic Assessment of the GBR. These documents recount, for example, unabated declines in hard coral cover, seagrasses, seabird breeding areas, and dugong populations. In addition, a number of eminent and expert bodies, including the Australian Academy of Science, continue to believe that not enough is being done.
The conclusion of the 2014 Outlook Report, which the WHC considered at its 2015 session, sums things up this way:
– The Great Barrier Reef ecosystem is under pressure. Cumulative effects are diminishing the ecosystem’s ability to recover from disturbances.
-Some threats are increasing, driven mainly by climate change, economic growth and population growth.
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 Great Barrier Reef and to improve its capacity to recover.
In this light, it is certain that significant threats to the GRB remain. A failure to take effective action will bring back the threat of an “in danger” listing. However, merely putting the GBR on the “in danger” list cannot, alone, fix these problems. The resources that have been committed (and more) and the economic discipline to resist approving harmful development are essential to improving the health of the GBR no matter what its status happens to be. I think all would agree that in order for the condition of the reef to improve, the commitments by Australia must be genuine and there must be follow through.
As they say, watch this space.