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Direct use pressure on the Great Barrier Reef

Key Finding

The observed impacts from direct commercial and non-commercial use of the Great Barrier Reef are mainly localised. However, collectively, the impacts of this use are obvious (to varying degrees) in many locations. The cumulative effects of extraction and damage to the Great Barrier Reef by direct use, coupled with smaller windows of recovery, are reducing the resilience of the ecosystem.

A range of commercial and non-commercial activities occur on the Great Barrier Reef. These uses include commercial marine tourism, defence activities, fishing, recreation, research and educational activities, ports, shipping and the traditional use of marine resources.

While the Great Barrier Reef continues to bring social and economic benefit to regional and national communities through direct use of Reef resources, the future value of many of these uses depends on a healthy, intact ecosystem.

Marine incidents involving small vessels have increased. As the population increases, use of the Great Barrier Reef and associated impacts are likely to increase.

While marine tourism extends throughout the Reef, its impacts are generally localised to a few intensively managed areas. Impacts of defence activities are also localised. Impacts of recreational use are mainly in the inshore areas around major population centres.

Fishing continues to negatively affect the Reef in a number of ways, such as through the effects of discarded catch, incidental catch of species of conservation concern, overfishing and illegal fishing.

Port operations and their impacts have remained constant since 2014. Regulatory changes for ports in 2015 have reduced some threats and increased management effort. Port maritime development has slowed since that time.

Shipping traffic within the Great Barrier Reef has also remained consistent since 2014, although the number of cruise ships transiting the region has increased. Knowledge and management gaps remain around the impact of ship anchoring, resuspension of sediments from ship propellers and light pollution from ships at anchor.

Traditional use of marine resources is a key part of the Reef’s Indigenous culture and the ongoing connection of Traditional Owners to their land and sea country. Since 2014, new Traditional Use of Marine Resource Agreements have been accredited bringing the cumulative area covered by these agreements to approximately a quarter of the Reef’s coastline.

Although some impacts from direct use have been reduced (particularly for ports), there is room for further improvement.

More information:

Relevant Sustainable Development Goals’ targets


See also: Estuarine and marine ecosystems assessment summary.


Direct use pressure on the Great Barrier Reef as reported in the Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report 2019.