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What's really harming the Great Barrier Reef?

By Dorean Erhart

Much of the noise about the decline of the Reef would have us believe that ports and dredging are the culprits.  Yes, ports ship coal and coal, when burnt, releases CO2, which contributes to climate change – which is in fact the biggest threat to the survival of the Reef - but the ports themselves and the dredging associated with them are not the worst things we have to worry about.



The key drivers of threats, as ranked in the Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report 2014 are:

  1. Climate Change – sea temperature increases, increased cyclone intensity, sea level rises, ocean acidification;
  2. Coastal Development – modified coastal habitats, artificial barriers to flow, acid sulphate soils and increasing light and noise pollution; and
  3. Land based runoff – increased nutrients (stimulating Crown of Thorns Starfish outbreaks), sediments, pesticides and other pollutants and marine debris.


The big three are followed by fishing and ports and to a lesser extent, recreation, shipping and tourism. 


However, at the end of the day it’s the issue of dollars to address the ‘big three’ and our failure to resolve it that will kill the Reef.


The councils within the Reef’s catchment are collectively investing around $230m this financial year in protecting and managing the values of the Reef through coastal and waterway protection and rehabilitation, land use planning initiatives, stormwater management, sewerage treatment upgrades and community education and awareness.


This is greater than the total current investment by the Australian and Queensland governments of $205m.


However, despite this impressive figure, the Outlook Report has found that the financing, staffing and achievement of outcomes in relation to coastal development and land based runoff (the number 2 & 3 drivers of threats to the Reef) are ‘poor’ and have ‘deteriorated’. 


The reasons for the rating partly relate to the high costs and difficulties associated with the practical implementation of some policies and regulations, partly to local government capabilities, but mostly, to the financial limitations of heavily squeezed councils.  An injection of vital funds, is the only way local governments will be able to deliver the standards of outcomes that are needed to ‘save the Reef’ from the threats associated with coastal development and land based runoff.


During the development of the Reef 2050 Long Term Sustainability Plan, the LGAQ successfully argued that local governments are an important partner in the conservation of the Reef.  This resulted in a commitment in the Plan to access to funds for ecosystem health initiatives and urban water quality activities through the Reef Trust investment strategy and the State government’s water quality improvement investment.


The Plan also commits to the delivery of better information and guidance about values, cumulative impacts and regional priorities to support local government decision making.


While this is good news for reef councils and will deliver much needed support, will it be enough to save the Reef?


None of us knows for certain how much time we have to collectively get our act together and reverse the decline of the Reef.  The LGAQ commented in its submission on the draft Plan that the outlook for the Reef signals a need for a major departure from business as usual – sooner rather than later. 


Conversely, the Plan takes a softly, softly approach to future investment.  An investment baseline is being developed, identifying the full quantum of investment by all partners, followed by a review to determine the efficacy of the current investment programs and a prioritisation process to redistribute funds where necessary.  By the end of 2015 the government will identify mechanisms for and approaches to innovate and diversify avenues for harnessing investment – code for trying to attract greater external and international investment in the Reef.


Yes, there is a need to remove duplication and refocus priorities to maximise outcomes from existing funding but there is also an obvious need for an escalation of activities, which will require more money.


Queensland’s Reef councils are already punching above their weight and there is a strong case to argue for proportionality in State and particularly Federal investment.


At a recent meeting, Minister Miles’ confirmed the Queensland government’s commitment of an additional $100m for water quality improvement and the establishment of a high level Minister’s Reef Taskforce to inform the government how to maximise the value of this additional funding.  In the recent budget, the  

Australian government has also committed an additional $100m over three years to water quality improvement projects.


However, Terrain Natural Resource Management Group based in Cairns, has estimated that meeting the Plan’s targets for land based runoff and ecosystem repair alone will require $700-$800 million a year for more than 5 years.  The proposed investment is around 15% of that.


As it is, the current investment in the Great Barrier Reef is the highest of any natural area in the world, but economically, the argument for an even higher level of investment stacks up.  The Reef provides around $700 million in visitor taxes and fees to the Australian government and delivers $5.2 billion a year to the broader economy from tourism alone.   The total value of the Reef to the Australian economy has been estimated at $49 billion per annum.


Next month we will find out whether the UNESCO World Heritage Committee thinks this approach is enough or whether our failure to resolve the funding issue will put the Great Barrier Reef “in danger”.

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