Great Barrier Reef
Freshwater wetland ecosystems
Queensland’s freshwater ecosystems or wetlands are important habitats.
Estuarine and marine ecosystems
Queensland’s estuarine and marine ecosystems (wetlands) support much of the state’s native biodiversity, including migratory birds, dugongs, dolphins, turtles, and fish.
World Heritage sites are places that have outstanding universal value that transcends the significance they hold for a particular nation.
We need clean water to protect our freshwater, estuarine and marine plants and animals.
An Introduction to Great Barrier Reef in the Queensland State of the Environment Report
Management responses are the actions or initiatives undertaken to protect, maintain and restore environmental assets, as well as those that prevent, mitigate or adapt to changes in the environment. They are generally developed in reaction to the observed or anticipated pressures and impacts, or the state of the environment. They act in a multitude of ways, either individually or, more often, in concert with one another to bring about environmental change.
Applicable management responses related to Great Barrier Reef include:
The Environmental Protection (Great Barrier Reef Protection Measures) and Other Legislation Amendment Act 2019 was passed by Queensland Parliament on 19 September 2019 and new Reef protection regulations commenced on 1 December 2019.
The new Reef protection regulations address land-based sources of water pollution to the Great Barrier Reef, including industrial and agricultural sources of nutrient and sediment pollution from all 6 Reef regions. The new regulations will take effect progressively over the next 3 years with regions regulated at different stages, based on priorities for water quality management improvement.
The primary objective of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 is to provide for the long term protection and conservation of the environment, biodiversity and heritage values of the Great Barrier Reef Region. The Act provides for the establishment of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and a framework for the planning and management of the Marine Park through zoning plans, plans of management and a system of permissions.
Subordinate to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Zoning Plan 2003 is the primary planning instrument for the conservation and management of the Marine Park. The Zoning Plan takes account of the world heritage values of the Marine Park and aims, along with other management mechanisms, to conserve the biodiversity of the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem within a network of highly protected zones, and provide opportunities for the ecologically sustainable use of the Reef and access to the Great Barrier Reef Region by current and future generations.
The Marine Parks Act 2004 (the Act) provides for the conservation of Queensland’s marine environment by implementing a comprehensive range of management strategies including the declaration of marine parks and the establishment of zones and designated areas, including highly protected areas within marine parks. These management arrangements are formalised through the gazettal of zoning plans and in some instances the development of management plans.
The Act aims to achieve a coordinated and integrated approach with other environmental conservation legislation, and recognises the cultural, economic, environmental and social relationships between marine parks and their adjacent lands and waters.
Australia’s international responsibilities and intergovernmental agreements are important considerations in park management. Marine parks extend across areas adjacent to the Queensland coast which are under the control of both the Commonwealth and State governments. Both governments have agreed that, as far as practicable, in managing marine parks, state legislation will be consistent with the relevant Commonwealth legislation. This is critical in the Great Barrier Reef region where complementary measures support the management of this significant area.
Marine parks are multiple-use areas providing for a range of activities and visitor opportunities, for example fishing, tourism, education, research and some structures. The zoning plans prescribed under the Act spell out the types of uses and management measures.
Three marine parks have been declared under the Act with corresponding zoning plans established—Great Barrier Reef Coast Marine Park, Great Sandy Marine Park and the Moreton Bay Marine Park. Along with the Commonwealth Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, 99% of the east coast of Queensland currently sits within a marine park.
Each marine park has a zoning plan which is reviewed every 10 years to ensure that the management arrangements in place are the most appropriate to conserve the marine environment while allowing for sustainable use. The zoning plan for the Great Sandy Marine Park is currently being reviewed.
The Vegetation Management Act 1999 regulates the clearing of vegetation in Queensland in a way that:
- conserves remnant vegetation
- ensures clearing does not cause land degradation
- prevents loss of biodiversity
- maintains ecological processes
- reduces greenhouse gas emissions
- allows for sustainable land use.
The 2015–16 Statewide Land Assessment and Tree Study (SLATS) report showed an increase in annual woody vegetation clearing rates from 298,000ha in 2014–15 to about 395,000ha in 2015–16.
The Queensland Government has delivered on its election commitment, as well as commitments under the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan (Reef 2050 Plan), to reinstate its nation leading vegetation management protections to increase the resilience of the Great Barrier Reef and reduce carbon emissions.
In March 2018, the Queensland Government strengthened Queensland’s vegetation management laws to increase protection for high-value regrowth and remnant vegetation and boost protection for important Habitats, including waterways leading to the Great Barrier Reef.
In addition to the amendments to the Vegetation Management Act 1999, the government has made further changes to the vegetation management framework by:
- releasing scientific updates to vegetation management maps
- updating accepted development vegetation clearing codes based on scientific advice from the Queensland Herbarium and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation
- revoking the relevant vegetation clearing code and area management plans so that managing thickened vegetation now requires a development approval.
Policy and Programs
The Australian Government funds a crown-of-thorns starfish management program which involves manually injecting starfish to protect coral cover on priority reefs, particularly prime tourism sites.
The program is delivered by dedicated dive teams from the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators, with support from the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. In 2014, the Reef and Rainforest Research Centre also joined management efforts.
The control program is made up of 3 elements:
- intelligence and dedicated surveillance to detect crown-of-thorns starfish and assess coral health
- a highly trained control team to cull the starfish using injection methods and to assess changes in coral health
- a comprehensive reef health database to monitor effectiveness of control efforts and adaptively manage the program.
The prevalence of crown-of-thorns starfish is monitored through programs such as the Joint Field Management Program, the Australian Institute of Marine Science’s long-term monitoring program and the Eye on the Reef program.
Crown-of-thorns starfish populations data is entered into the Eye on the Reef database, enabling the effectiveness of the control program to be assessed and to help decide which sites need to be revisited and how often. A number of prime tourism reefs have also been selected for long-term monitoring to establish the change in coral cover over time.
The crown-of-thorns starfish control program continues scheduled culling on selected reefs in the Cairns–Cooktown and Townsville–Whitsundays management areas to help protect corals.
Since the control program began in 2012, it has been successful in maintaining starfish densities below ecologically sustainable thresholds for corals on 75%of the 57 priority reefs between Port Douglas and Townsville. Maintaining starfish densities below these thresholds will promote coral recovery from starfish outbreak impacts and lead to greater coral growth on these reefs.
The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority received additional funding to expand the existing crown-of-thorns starfish control program. The program was expanded from 2 to 6 vessels and the goals are to:
- protect coral cover at reefs that are critical sources of coral larvae to facilitate Reef recovery and resilience
- protect coral cover at reefs of high value for the tourism industry
- reduce the spread of the outbreak by culling at reefs that have greatest risk of spreading crown-of-thorns starfish larvae.
Priority reefs for crown-of-thorns starfish control are identified based on a range of information, including connectivity modelling predictions, tourism visitation data, the current coral cover, crown-of-thorns starfish outbreak status of reefs, and operational capacity to effectively control them.
The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority relies on the National Environmental Science Program (NESP) Integrated Pest Management Program to provide advice to continually improve crown-of-thorns starfish control. Consistent and repeated culling treatments are essential to keep starfish densities beneath thresholds. Management decisions are informed by analysis and review of the data collected by the culling vessels.
In 2018, the Australian Government invested and additional $57.8 million into crown-of-thorns starfish control through the Reef Trust Great Barrier Reef Foundation Partnership. This program focuses on efforts to control crown-of-thorns starfish with the goal to expand and improve crown-of-thorns starfish management and reduce coral mortality from secondary outbreaks at high ecological and economic value coral reefs. The longer term goal is to achieve better prevention and/or suppression and containment of primary outbreaks.
Every 5 years, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority prepares an Outlook Report that provides an independent assessment of the health, condition, use, management arrangements and long-term outlook for the Reef.
The Outlook Report 2019 identifies the Reef is facing significant pressures ranging in scale from local to global.
In particular, the Outlook Report identifies initiatives to halt and reverse the effects of climate change at a global level and effectively improving water quality at a regional scale are the most urgent to improve the Reef’s long-term outlook.
The overall outlook for the Great Barrier Reef was rated ‘very poor’. This tells us that without urgent and effective additional management intervention, the Reef’s values are likely to deteriorate rapidly. However, this assessment is based on current Reef condition and its likely trajectory built on current work to address climate change and improve water quality. It does not reflect the potential success of additional efforts and investments that are underway. Every action taken to improve Reef health and reduce threats and impacts is critical.
Protecting the Great Barrier Reef is 1 of Queensland Government’s 6 priorities under Our Future State: Advancing Queensland’s Priorities. The government’s achievements are measured by progress towards the Reef water quality targets and greenhouse gas reduction targets.
The Queensland Reef Water Quality Program is the Queensland Government’s key response to addressing water quality impacts affecting the Great Barrier Reef. The program delivers activities as part of implementing the Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan 2017–2022 (Reef 2050 WQIP) which supports the water quality theme of the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan (Reef 2050 Plan).
In May 2016, the Great Barrier Reef Water Science Taskforce delivered its final report containing a series of recommendations for investment priorities and actions to improve Reef water quality. The Taskforce reconvened on 29 July 2019 to review progress with implementing the recommendations.
The Australian and Queensland governments have invested almost $615 million from 2017–2018 to 2021–2022 to improve water quality entering the Reef.
The Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan (Reef 2050 Plan) is the overarching Australian and Queensland government action plan to work with partners to protect and manage the Great Barrier Reef.
Launched in 2015, the plan was updated in July 2018 to include new actions to help the Reef recover and adapt in the face of a variable and changing climate.
The Queensland Government has already delivered a number of significant commitments under the Reef 2050 Plan including reducing the impacts of port development through the Sustainable Ports Development Act 2015, introducing net-free fishing zones, launching the Queensland Sustainable Fisheries Strategy and reducing the impact of vegetation clearing.
While climate change is the single, biggest threat to the Reef, there are a number of other pressures that need to be addressed to reduce the cumulative impacts on the Reef.
One of the most manageable impacts is human-induced pollutant run-off. The Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan, launched in July 2018, includes a diverse set of actions to improve water quality flowing from the catchments to the Reef.
The Reef 2050 Cumulative Impact Management and Net Benefit policies, released in July 2018, also provide guidance on the range of impacts affecting the Reef, the scale at which impacts are occurring and tools to assess and manage impacts. The Queensland Government is implementing a number of commitments to deliver these policies, outlined in the Cumulative Impact Management Policy: Queensland Government Implementation Plan.
The Reef 2050 Plan is under its first 5-yearly review in 2020, informed by scientific and technical sources including the Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report and the Reef Water Quality Report Cards. The Reef 2050 Plan is being revised to be a more strategic document focused on addressing the key threats to the Reef and adapting its management focus where necessary.
The Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan 2017–2022 (Reef 2050 WQIP) guides how industry, government and the community will work together to improve the quality of water flowing to the Great Barrier Reef.
The Plan builds on 15 years of efforts by governments at all levels working in partnership with landholders, natural resource managers, industry, research and conservation groups through successive Reef Water Quality Protection Plans.
The scope of the plan was broadened to reflect its position as a nested plan under the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan. It addresses all land-based sources of water pollution including run-off from urban, industrial and public lands; while recognising the majority of pollution comes from agricultural activities. It includes social, cultural and economic values for the first time.
The plan sets targets for reducing water pollution at the catchment, regional and whole-of-Reef scale, which means actions can be prioritised by catchments. The spatial priorities or water quality improved were identified based on the 2017 Scientific Consensus Statement.
The Australian Government has committed over $700 million to the Reef Trust to provide innovative, targeted investment focused on improving water quality, restoring coastal ecosystem health and enhancing species protection in the Great Barrier Reef region.
The Reef Trust is one of the key mechanisms assisting in the delivery of the Reef 2050 Plan, focusing on known critical areas for investment—improving water quality and coastal habitat along the Great Barrier Reef, controlling the current outbreak of crown-of-thorns starfish and protecting threatened and migratory species, particularly dugong and turtles.
The Reef Trust is being delivered by the Australian Government, in collaboration with the Queensland Government, and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.
The Reef Trust – Great Barrier Reef Foundation Partnership (Partnership) is a $443.3 million 6 year grant between the Department of the Environment and Energy, which manages the Reef Trust, and the Foundation. It has been established to build on and support delivery of the joint Australian and Queensland Government Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan (Reef 2050 Plan).
The Reef Water Quality Report Card measures progress towards the Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan targets using data from the Paddock to Reef program.
The Australian and Queensland governments released the most recent report card, the Reef Water Quality Report Card 2017 and 2018, which shows progress towards improving the quality of water flowing from the land to the Reef. Targets set for reductions of sediment and particulate nutrients in Cape York were met, largely due to improved pasture management from destocking cattle and controlling feral animals on the Queensland Government owned Springvale Station, and improved pasture and gully management through the Australian Government’s Reef Trust gully erosion project. The Burdekin region recorded the largest improvement in best practice nutrient management for sugarcane, with reductions delivered through a combination of Queensland Government Burdekin projects and the Australian Government Reef Trust projects.
Regional report cards are produced annually by Regional Report Card Partnerships to monitor and report on a range of regional social, economic and environmental conditions. There are 5 regional report card partnerships within the Great Barrier Reef region: Wet Tropics Waterways, Townsville Dry Tropics Partnership for Healthy Waters, Mackay–Whitsunday–Isaac Healthy Rivers to Reef Partnership, Fitzroy River Health Partnership and Gladstone Healthy Harbour Partnership. Each Partnership is a collaboration of organisations including the Australian and Queensland governments, local government; industry; ports; conservation groups; science, tourism, Indigenous and community groups.
As part of their monitoring programs, Regional Report Card Partnerships measure and assess environmental catchment conditions and ecological function of waters within and adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef. Apart from providing an understanding of current water quality and ecosystem health conditions in these regions and trends over time, report card results help inform the development of local management actions to improve waterway health.
Regional Report Card Partnerships use fine scale data to report on ecological condition of regional freshwater, estuarine, inshore marine habitats and offshore reefs. Whilst there are many common indicators monitored across all Partnership regions, some indicators are unique to particular Partnership regions, reflecting locally important issues and the initial rationale for forming those Partnerships. For more information on the range of indicators monitored by different Regional Report Card Partnerships, please refer to the Report Card Explainer.
Regional report cards also include social, economic and cultural indicators. The Gladstone Healthy Harbour Partnership and Mackay–Whitsunday–Isaac Healthy Rivers to Reef Partnership report cards have also included voluntary performance reports on the level of management practice associated with agriculture, urban, ports, heavy industry and aquaculture industries in their region. The assessment method for these indicators is under review and a new means of assessing urban water management practice is being development by the Queensland Government.
While Regional Report Card Partnerships rarely develop and oversee their own management response programs, partner organisations often do so as part of their environmental stewardship. The Mackay–Whitsunday–Isaac Healthy Rivers to Reef Partnership has summarised stewardship case study examples linked to its partner organisations for the 2018–19 financial year.
The Scientific Consensus Statement for the Great Barrier Reef provides a review of the significant advances in scientific knowledge of water quality issues in the Great Barrier Reef to arrive at a consensus on the current understanding of the system. The 2017 consensus statement was produced by a multidisciplinary group of 48 scientists with expertise in Great Barrier Reef water quality science and management, led by TropWATER James Cook University, with oversight from the Reef Water Quality Independent Science Panel. The Statement is the foundational document that provides the scientific understanding underpinning the Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan 2017–2022.
The Scientific Consensus Statement is updated every 5 years to ensure that Reef policy remains up-to-date and based on the best available evidence.