Australia: Great Barrier Reef

Great Barrier Reef Marine Park

One of the earliest and best-known examples of marine zoning is Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (GBRMP), off the northeastern coast of Australia, encompassing and stretching along 2,300km of coastline, one of the world’s richest and most diverse marine ecosystems. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is approximately 344,400 square kilometers (km2), an area bigger than Italy.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act of 1975 established the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and created the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. The Authority’s mission is “…to provide for the long-term protection, ecologically sustainable use, understanding and enjoyment of the Great Barrier Reef for all Australians and the international community through the care and development of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.”

Concern about protecting the Great Barrier Reef from oil drilling and mining was a key driver for establishing the marine park in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Other threats included pollution from shipping, land-based sources of pollution, and increased fishing and tourism activity. Spatial planning and zoning, considered as the cornerstones of the management strategy for protecting the Great Barrier Reef, were established to: (a) maintain the biological diversity and ecological systems that create the Great Barrier Reef; (b) manage the impacts of increasing recreation and an expanding tourist industry; (c) manage effects of recreational and commercial fishing; and (d) manage impacts of risks of land-based pollution and shipping.

Plans of management have been prepared for intensively used, or particularly vulnerable groups of islands and reefs, and for protecting vulnerable species or ecological communities. Plans of management complement zoning by addressing issues specific to an area, species, or community in greater detail than can be accomplished by the broader reef-wide zoning plans. A permit system is used to implement the zoning plans.

Spatial management in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is based on eight zones, ranging from the least restrictive “general use zone” in which shipping and most commercial fishing are allowed, to the most restrictive “preservation zone” where virtually no use is permitted. The initial zoning plans and regulations, implemented sequentially in four sections of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park from 1981-87, evolved and changed considerably in response to the dynamic nature of both the marine environment, its uses and perceived effectiveness of the plans. About 4.5 per cent of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park was designated as “no-take areas”. When in the late 1990s monitoring results showed ecosystem protection goals were not being achieved, an extensive “re-zoning” process, the Representative Areas Program (1998-2003), increased the no-take areas, up to about a third of the entire area of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Zoning Plan and associated regulations are the foundation of management. The zones, designed to protect the Marine Park’s range of biodiversity, operate as a connected network and deliver a range of benefits, including benefits to society.

One of the recommendations of a 2006 governmental review of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act of 1975 was the preparation of an “Outlook Report” every five years to document the overall condition of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, the effectiveness of management, and the pressures on the ecosystem. The 2009 and 2014 Outlook Reports were a key information source for the overarching Reef 2050 Long-term Sustainability Plan, jointly developed by the Australian and Queensland governments. The Reef 2050 Plan was released in 2015 and charts the way forward for investment in Reef protection, and provides direction for the many organisations and individuals committed to improving the health of the Reef.

Like all coral reefs around the world, the Great Barrier Reef is under increasing pressure from a range of sources, particularly climate change, a symptom of which is the 2016–2017 mass coral bleaching event, the worst the GBR has experienced. After the peak temperatures in March 2017, 67 per cent of the corals died along a 700 kilometre northern section of the GBR—potentially the single greatest loss of corals ever recorded on the GBR.  The impacts of climate change is not just on the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem, but also on the cultural values of Traditional Owners; economic values to the tourism and fishing industries which rely on a healthy GBR; social values for communities along the coast for whom the Reef is part of their daily life; and the broader Australian and international community who consider it to be an irreplaceable icon—belonging to the global community.

It is critical for reefs worldwide, including the Great Barrier Reef, that local, regional and global actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are implemented effectively. While Australia is a partner in international action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through the Paris Climate Agreement, this needs to be supported by improving the resilience of the GBR to climate change through reducing local pressures (adapted from Managing for a Resilient Great Barrier Reef Marine Park).

Although few parallels can be drawn between the contexts and associated challenges of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and densely-used areas such as the Baltic Sea, the North Sea, and numerous other places in Europe, Asia and North America, some important lessons can be learned about the process of integrated sea use management and marine spatial planning from the experience of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

Its long-standing experience illustrates the need to conduct marine spatial management in a continuous manner, one that allows monitoring and evaluating initial plans and adapting them to changing circumstances. It also shows that stakeholder involvement and sustainable financing are critical to successful outcomes of marine spatial management over time.

Updates will be posted on this website as MSP activities in Australia develop.

Last updated: August 2018
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