3. An Australian wonderland

Posted: 4 April 2001

Author: Graeme Kelleher

Extending for more than 2,200 kilometres along the north east coast of Australia, the Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef complex in the world. Here Graeme Kelleher, former Head of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, considers the past and future of this wonderful natural treasure.

With more than 2,900 individual reefs varying in size from less than a hectare to more than 100 square kilometres, the Great Barrier Reef like other coral reefs, is a wonderfully diverse ecosystem. The Reef is inhabited by more than 400 species of coral, 1,500 species of fish, 4,000 species of molluscs and 260 species of birds.

Protecting the reef

Australians have always been proud of the Reef a feeling which resulted in widespread public indignation in the early 1970's when the Queensland Government proposed to mine the Reef for lime for cement and to allow oil drilling. Led by a few highly committed people - scientists, conservationists, writers and poets - Australians came together to ensure that the Reef would be protected.

© Norbert Wu/Still PicturesThe first formal step in this long process was the passage in 1975 of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act by the Federal Parliament of Australia, with the support of all political parties.

The Act gave the government the power to create a marine park within that Region. Most people at the time foresaw a marine park that would occupy only a minor proportion of that immense Region. Through the efforts of many people, 98.4 per cent of the entire area is now a marine park - the world's largest marine protected area.

The essence of the marine park is zoning, defining what people can do in each zone. There are three basic kinds of zones:

  • General use zones (nearly 76 per cent of the park area) - which allow most non-destructive activities to continue. In one of these zones, bottom trawling is prohibited.

  • Marine national park zones (23.1 per cent) - which allow activities similar to those permitted in national parks on land. Commercial fishing is not permitted in any of these zones.

  • Preservation and scientific research zones (1.1 per cent) - in which only approved scientific research can occur.

The basis for the relative success of the marine park has been participation. While the Act provides for such participation, the Authority has deliberately gone far beyond the requirements of the Act to ensure that everybody's interests and opinions are taken into consideration in zoning, management and research. This process led to the production in 1994 of a Strategic Plan for the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, which encompasses all of the Great Barrier Reef Region including its nearly 1000 islands.

The plan brought together 60 organizations to express a 25-year Vision for the Reef and to agree on five-year objectives necessary to obtain that vision. All of the 60 participants, which included government departments, industry groups, research institutions and voluntary conservation organisations, committed themselves to these objectives.

Biggest danger

As in the rest of the world's seas, the major threats to this wonderful creation come from human activities. These are pollution, over-fishing, destruction of habitat and introduction of exotic species. Climate change is not mentioned because increased global temperatures which may cause sea levels to rise are likely to increase the extent of the Reef and convert the vast algal flats to living coral, although there is likely to be an increase in coral bleaching and consequent coral mortality in some parts of the Reef.

I believe that pollution is the biggest danger. There is scientific evidence that the run off from the mainland of nutrients and suspended sediments has increased fourfold since Europeans first came to Australia. Nutrients allow algae to out-compete corals and may increase the frequency and severity of outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish. These starfish, when mature, eat living coral. In the last major infestation, six per cent of the individual reefs that make up the Great Barrier Reef were severely affected.

Suspended sediments inhibit the sun's energy from being used for reef building.

Bottom trawling removes all living things from the seabed and grossly changes habitat, with ecological consequences that are not yet really known.

The Authority's approach to all of these threats has been the same. Scientific research is carried out to determine the extent of the threats and to identify methods of combating them. The community group or industry whose activities are believed to create the threat are deliberately involved in the research programme and in developing solutions.

One example is the work with farmers. Most of the nutrients and suspended sediments come from farms on the mainland, and farmers are no more in favour of losing their topsoil and of having their expensive fertiliser end up in the sea than are people who are concerned about the welfare of the Reef. This realisation and its communication throughout the community has led to co-operation between farming organizations and those responsible for managing the Reef. Integrated research programmes have investigated the problems and suggested answers. Loss of nutrients from sugar cane farms on the adjacent mainland have been reduced ten-fold by ploughing the stubble after harvesting into the soil, rather than burning it.

The fishing community is just as interested in ensuring that there will be fish to catch in the future as are the conservationists. Strongly collaborative research and management programmes have been established as a result. A major experiment is measuring the ecological effects of fishing. If that research indicates that fishing practices should be changed to protect the Reef, the Authority has the power to ensure that those changes occur, for example, by increasing the areas in which fishing is prohibited. diver and coralDiver and Coral, Australia© Yves Lefevre/Still PicturesUncontrolled tourism is the focus of many people's concern. Personally, I believe that tourism is the easiest of human activities to control and consequently not the dominant threat. Every tourist operator on the Reef is required to have a permit from the Authority, which defines where he or she may operate and details the controls which apply. If those rules are not followed, the permit may be revoked or civil or criminal charges may be laid, with large potential penalties.

Typical of the Authority's approach, every operator is required to carry out a public education programme and is held responsible for the conduct of the customer. Unlike on land, a visitor to the Reef does not need to leave even a footprint.

Ten-year test

This great treasure of the sea is not immune to the threats which pervade all of the world's seas. However, the approach to management exemplifies all of the methods now seen as vital to achieving sustainability, including integrated ecosystem management, scientific research, public participation and education.

There have been many successes - for instance, all of the tourism developments on the Reef are required to treat their sewage to tertiary standards (removing the nutrients). However, the conflict between the desire to maximize profit from the Reef and the need to protect it will continue. The next ten years will see whether there is sufficient commitment in the hearts and minds of Australians to preserve this unique environment from insidious degradation.

Graeme Kelleher was for 16 years Chair and Chief Executive of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. From 1986 to 1998 he was Vice-Chair (Marine) of the IUCN's World Commission on Protected Areas, co-ordinating efforts to establish a global, representation system of marine protected areas. He now serves as Senior Adviser to that Commission.

For further information, visit the website of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.