The Great Barrier Reef: Why It's The Best Managed Reef In The World

Stretching 2300 kilometres, the Great Barrier Reef's vast size and complexity requires a collaborative approach to management. 

The reef's biodiversity is so incredible that UNESCO noted: “If only one coral reef site in the world were to be chosen for the World Heritage List, the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is that site.” It joined the list in 1981.

The Great Barrier Reef is at the heart of a vast network of protected marine areas. Every day, Australians across all levels of government, community groups, tourism operators, stakeholders, schools, industry, volunteers and passionate citizens have a role to play in ensuring it continues to be one of the best managed, protected marine areas in the world.

  • How Do We Do It?
    Australia has one of the world's strongest legislative frameworks regarding management of our land and marine environments. This integrated approach to reef management is recognised as a prime example of world's best practice.
  • Currently, the Australian and Queensland governments share jurisdictional responsibility for the management, use, access and protection of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.
  • The Federal Government is responsible for regulating activities that have or are likely to have a significant impact on matters of national environmental significance. This is provided for under a central piece of legislation - the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act).
  • Under the EPBC Act, the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and the Great Barrier Reef National Heritage Place are considered matters of national environmental significance as are several threatened and migratory species that use these waters

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA):
Under the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) is the independent statutory authority tasked with the long-term management of this World Heritage-listed Commonwealth Marine Park.

Over the past 40 years, GBRMPA has used the best available scientific information - with input from marine managers, researchers, experts and traditional owners - to manage nature's biggest single living organism.

As the principal protection agency, GBRMPA also works with Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS) on joint field management programmes to provide a world-class management and protection regime that covers off the following areas: compliance, animal stranding, island conversation, visitor facility, heritage management and incident response measures.

In essence, GBRMPA:

  • Ensures human use (in, on and above the reef) is ecologically sustainable
  • Mitigates threats to the reef from human activity and other external factors
  • Conserves threatened species through the introduction of measures such as the dugong protection areas; guidelines for seabird nesting sites; and policies that address the direct take of protected species from the reef
  • Spearheads conservation programs and initiatives on the GBR.

Reef HQ Great Barrier Reef Aquarium: GBRMPA's state-of-the-art education centre is home to the world's largest living coral reef aquarium, which spawns like the real thing. About 40 volunteers are inducted every year, primarily to educate and engage with visitors.

Since opening the Reef HQ Aquarium Turtle Hospital in August 2009, the hospital has rehabilitated and released more than 70 sick and injured marine turtles back into the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park – this is done at a cost of around $6000 per turtle.

Reef Guardian School Program: Launched the same year as Finding Nemo, the Reef Guardian Schools program is pulling out all stops to cultivate the next generation of eco-warriors. Experts work with local schools, community groups, councils and industry to encourage them to take action to ensure the long term action to ensure the long-term health of the reef.

Land And Sea Indigenous Partnerships: Marine resources and cultural diversity is protected through continued engagement with the reef's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Eye On The Reef: This environmental monitoring and assessment program enables anyone who visits the reef to play an active part in its long-term protection. All assistance is invaluable – whether you have five minutes to spare or can commit to regular surveys – to help build a broader picture of reef-wide ecosystem health and resilience. For those with more time on their hands, online training packages have been developed for Rapid Monitoring Survey and Reef Health and Impact Surveys. Alternatively, simply download a smartphone app to send in real-time sightings of marine animals, reef health and incidents.

Crown of Thorns Starfish (CoTS): Since 2010, the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators (AMPTO) has been working with unemployed youth, training them as recreational dive supervisors in the Crown of Thorns Starfish (CoTS) control program (operated through a contractual agreement with GBRMPA). The breakthrough one-shot injection for Crown of Thorns Starfish (CoTS) received worldwide attention.

Understanding Dwarf Minke Whales: In 2003, GBRMPA joined forces with researchers and tourism operators to better understand the biology and behaviour of dwarf minke whales which visit the northern Great Barrier Reef in winter months. As part of this, tourists who join operators endorsed to conduct swim-with-whales encounters automatically moonlight as citizen scientists, with each operator required to provide data to the Minke Whale Project (James Cook University).

Reef 2050 & The Great Barrier Reef Biodiversity Conservation Strategy (2013)
Reef 2050 is a long-term sustainability document provides an overarching strategy for protecting and managing the Great Barrier Reef across the following themes: biodiversity, health, heritage, water quality, community benefits, economic benefits and governance. GBRMPA and its stakeholders have openly acknowledged that some parts of the reef are under pressure and this document maps a way forward to improve the health and resilience of the reef amongst key stakeholders - government, environment groups, community and the traditional owners on a shared pathway.

By contrast, the Great Barrier Reef Biodiversity Conservation Strategy (2013) essentially provides a roadmap for management actions in, on and above the reef. The strategy continues to foster industry and community stewardship of the Great Barrier Reef.

Tourism For Tomorrow
The tourism industry is the largest commercial industry operating on the Great Barrier Reef and Great Barrier Reef tourism businesses are leading the world in innovation, sustainability and safety. The Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report (2009) found that tourism is not considered to be a threat to the reef system. Quite to the contrary, tourism makes a positive contribution to the reef's presentation and conservation.

GBRMPA has won a myriad of awards recognising excellence in protected area management. This includes the prestigious Tourism for Tomorrow award (World Travel and Tourism Council, May 2007).

GBRMPA also works in partnership with tourism companies on a number of innovative initiatives that involve the ongoing protection of various marine sites. These programs include:

Sightings Network: Tourism operators, crew and their guests report any unusual or significant sightings of marine-life on the Great Barrier Reef to the GBRMPA. This may include sightings of whale sharks or events like coral spawning or algal blooms. GBRMPA uses this information to assist in its monitoring and management of the marine park.

Reef Check: This long-term, volunteer-based program monitors the health of 25 key dive sites throughout the Great Barrier Reef. The information gleaned is used in sustainable management practises.

High Standard Tourism Program: Through this program, GBRMPA encourages tourism companies to adopt sustainable and responsible practices when engaging in tourism activities on the Great Barrier Reef. As part of this program, the GBRMPA rewards tourism businesses that are certified through Australia's ECO Certification program – a best practice program based on the principles of economic, environmental and social sustainability.

Operators Leading The Way In Reef Conservation
Sworn to lifelong protection of the reef that is their lifeblood, these tourism operators are turning their skills to conducting valuable research in the name of conservation.

Quicksilver Cruises' Reef Biosearch: One of Cairns' most popular day cruise and dive operators, Quicksilver Cruises has the largest team of marine biologists outside of government agencies. Created in 1986, Reef Biosearch's aim is to provide education and awareness through research into both the natural and man-made impact on the reef.

Previous research has involved water nutrient level testing and monitoring, giant clam population mapping and mortality (after all they're one of the Great Eight iconic wildlife attractions on the Great Barrier Reef), as well as jellyfish research.

Eye to Eye Marine Encounters: Eye to Eye Marine Encounters (and its owners John and Linda Rumney) has been at the centre of the Dwarf Minke Whale Project, a multi-disciplinary, collaborative research program operated out of James Cook University (JCU) with the goal to research the recently discovered, then-un-named subspecies of minke whale - the dwarf minke whale.

Research on the Minke Whale Project started in 1996 when the first field studies commenced aboard John Rumney's then exploration and adventure vessel, Undersea Explorer. As well as direct university and PhD led study, the Project relies on partnerships with tourism operators, industry bodies and regulators like the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), not-for-profits and community organisations to gather data and records.

Here, visitors to the reef and the tourism operators themselves play an important role in the data collection aspect of the research; photographs and sightings by the public are added to the research catalogue.

Mike Ball Expeditions' Nautilus Study: Mike Ball Expeditions partners with research bodies to help monitor environmental conditions and data collection. As part of these programs, Mike Ball staff report on coral bleaching and Crown-of-Thorn sightings for GBRMPA, and make contributions to the Eye on the Reef and Reef Guardian efforts, among others.

In 2012, Mike Ball Expeditions partnered with Central Queensland University's nautilus capture and release program, to monitor behaviour and develop conservation practices for this ancient cephalopod, which is considered to be a 'living fossil'. Although typically they live at depths between 150 to 400 metres, Tropical North Queensland's Osprey Reef attracts nautilus, and other pelagic species like octopus and squid to much shallower depths.

Mike Ball's Spoilsport vessel assists the nautilus research program by operating expeditions to Osprey Reef, where divers set traps to capture nautilus for observation and tagging before releasing them back into the wild. Divers must be experienced to take part in the choice of four or seven day expeditions.

The Great Barrier Reef Visitor Charge
Visitors can travel to the Great Barrier Reef by choosing a High Standard (EcoCertified) operator, by actively participating in the conservation of the reef and through the Great Barrier Reef Visitor Charge. Introduced in 1993, the environmental management charge (colloquially referred to as the 'reef charge' or EMC) started out at $1 and currently sits at around $6 per day / $3 part day for visitors over the age of four who experience the reef through commercial tourism operators.

Through the EMC tourists are actively helping to protect the reef for generations to come. All revenue is channelled into management of the Marine Park, including education, research and policy development. This revenue formed up to 20 per cent of the Marine Park's total operational expenses, at $52.450 million in 2015.

Research and Projects – Decoding the secrets of the reef
The Great Barrier Reef is arguably the world's largest scientific laboratory. Projected investment in the coming decade is estimated at more than $2 billion for research and management activities on the reef and in the adjoining coastal catchments.

GBRMPA works closely with Australian Institute of Marine Science, The Great Barrier Reef Foundation, The Reef & Rainforest Research Centre and James Cook University, but the reef is also home to a network of internationally-acclaimed research stations (see list below) and countless other field study projects on the reef (by the scientific community, tourism operators, corporate and citizen scientists), making it the best studied tropical marine eco system in the world.

  • Green Island (Department of Primary Industries)
  • Heron Island (University of Queensland)
  • Lizard Island (Australian Museum)
  • Low Isles (University of Queensland)
  • One Tree Island (University of Sydney)
  • Orpheus Island (James Cook University).

The team at the Reef HQ Great Barrier Reef Aquarium have initiated a highly successful coral propagation program that is now a routine part of Reef HQ Aquarium operations. Current research studies are looking at minimising environmental impacts at Reef HQ Aquarium, Reef Recovery; Control of algal outbreaks; Hammerhead shark husbandry; Turtle DNA collection; Sponge Reproduction: looking at how we can farm sponges sustainable; investigating how damselfish offspring learn to escape predators and is this passed down from parents; as well as the development of an Underwater Coral Guidebook.

What Else Is Australia Doing To Ensure Long-Term Sustainability?

  • In 2004, the Australian government drastically increased protection of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, safeguarding a broader range of habitats, including trawling grounds for prawns. The percentage of the park closed to fishing increased from about 5 per cent to 33 per cent. At the same time, the state of Queensland designated an additional protected zone nearby. In total, 117,000 km2 were placed off-limits.
  • We have provided extra protection to turtles and dugongs through tough new laws against poaching, improved sustainability agreements with indigenous communities and local land managers and funding to help reduce marine debris.
  • We have banned disposal in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and World Heritage Area of material from capital dredging projects.
  • We have conducted three independent reviews of Gladstone Harbour and created the Gladstone Healthy Harbour Partnership bringing together 25 partners from community, government, industry.

Queensland is also taking action by…

  • Extending the ban on disposal of port-related capital dredge material to the remainder of the World Heritage Area.
  • Restricting capital dredging for the development of new or expansion of existing port facilities to within the regulated port limits of Gladstone, Hay Point–Mackay, Abbot Point and Townsville.
  • By further protecting the Fitzroy Delta including Curtis Island and Keppel Bay.
  • Organised voluntourism programs allow tourists to contribute their bit to reef conservation and range from cleaning flotsam and jetsam from the sea shore to marine turtle research and rescue operations.

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Author: Tourism and Events Queensland

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