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Direct use pressure on the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area

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.

Some direct use activities (tourism, defence, ports and research) tend to be localised, while other uses (fishing, recreational use and shipping) are more widespread.

Direct use activities each contribute to a number of threats, for example:

  • Fishing is the single largest extractive activity in the Great Barrier Reef. Targeted and non-targeted species are likely to be at risk if fisheries are managed poorly. Habitats may also be affected through anchor damage and damage to the seafloor. Incidental catch of species of conservation concern is an issue. Illegal fishing remains a major concern and can have long-term impacts on biodiversity.
  • Commercial marine tourism activities can pose threats to ecosystem and heritage values through incompatible uses (where tourism use may displace or affect another user group, such as Traditional Owners or recreational users), groundings of vessels, emissions, marine debris and discharge of sewage.
  • Recreational uses can affect the Reef, including through anchor damage, litter, vessel groundings, boat strikes on marine organisms, and damage to corals from snorkelling and diving fins. Indirect impacts include encroachment of structures on the Reef, such as those that provide access and facilities for recreational users (for example, boat ramps and moorings).
  • Dredging and disposal of dredge material in inshore areas contribute to sedimentation by disrupting and resuspending sediments.
  • A growing shipping fleet and increased coastal development (including from ports) continues to intensify the intrusion of artificial light into the region. The effect of artificial light on marine turtles is well known, and exposure has increased since 2014.

Increasing regional populations and economic development will likely increase direct use and therefore the potential for impacts on both the Reef’s ecosystem and its heritage values.

More information:

Relevant Sustainable Development Goals’ targets


See also: Great Barrier Reef World Heritage assessment summary.


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