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Author: B. Pressey, A. Grech, Jon C. Day, M. Sheaves
Date: 29th May 2015

This article is part of a series examining in depth the various threats to the Great Barrier Reef.

The Great Barrier Reef, in one of the world’s best-managed marine parks, might seem safe enough from human activities on land. But its future depends to a large degree on what people do alongside it.

The Reef’s coastline spans about 2,300 km, and its catchment is home to 1,165,000 people, most of whom live along the coast. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park attracts some 1.6 million tourists each year, while the coastal zone produces or exports large volumes of farming and mining products.

While most development has been in the southern two-thirds of the Reef’s coast, south of Cooktown, much of the Reef’s coastal zone has been converted to various land uses, such as housing and other urban infrastructure like roads, drainage, commercial and light-industry areas, and tourism facilities. Land has been developed for sugar cane and other crops, aquaculture, stock grazing, highways, railways, refineries and other industrial developments, and ports.

People have changed the Reef’s coastal zone dramatically, and the direct result is the decline of the Reef’s ecosystems. Further declines are likely, but not inevitable – with enough commitment, we can improve the Reef’s condition.

Effects of coastal development

The beauty, biological richness, and cultural values that have made the Great Barrier Reef a World Heritage Area, not to mention a global and national icon, are at stake, as UNESCO weighs up whether to add the Reef to the List of World Heritage in Danger.

The water that flows into the Reef’s lagoon is polluted with sediments, nutrients and pesticides. Urban development is a big contributor, while some tourism developments, such as Port Hinchinbrook, have been ecologically damaging because of poor planning or inappropriate fast-tracking.

Many coastal waterways have been blocked by roads and dams; recreational and commercial fishing have damaged habitats and populations of dolphins and dugongs (see page 127 here); and shipping traffic is set to increase markedly, with the associated port development posing a threat from dredging.

Add climate change to the mix, and the upshot is a long list of threats (see page 256 here) to the Reef, some of which are set to intensify rapidly.

The danger is death by a thousand cuts. No single development has tipped the balance, but a litany of poor choices has resulted in a tyranny of small decisions, with a large cumulative impact.

The problem is simple, even if the solutions are not: a long succession of piecemeal developments and government approvals has ignored or failed to understand the environmental problems, and put short-term gain before the long-term survival of the Reef.

What are we doing about it?

To the casual observer, checks and balances seem to be in place for safeguarding the Reef. Large developments are subject to environmental impact assessments (EIAs), while there are systems aimed at monitoring cumulative damage and offsetting any environmental losses.

The reality is different. The EIA process is broken, with a focus on bureaucratic procedure instead of good environmental outcomes, and permit conditions are not being monitored. Offsets are poorly implemented, preventing real compensation for environmental losses, and the assessment of cumulative impacts is primitive.

Last year, when the Federal and Queensland governments released their draft 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan, they acknowledged that the greatest risks to the Reef are “climate change, poor water quality from land-based run off, impacts from coastal development and some fishing activities”. In a critical response, the Australian Academy of Science pointed out that the draft plan would promote further coastal development and fail to assess and mitigate the resulting impacts on the Reef.

The revised Reef 2050 Plan, released in March, is still short on specific commitments to tackle the impacts of coastal development. The Academy remains concerned.

Some statements of achievement don’t stand up to close scrutiny. For example, the ban on marine dumping of dredge spoil from new port developments leaves the Queensland government with the problem of deciding where else it will go, with the environmental impacts still unknown. And the plan is vague about the management of around a million cubic metres a year of spoil from maintenance dredging at existing ports.

The Reef Trust, bolstered by an extra $100 million in the recent Federal Budget, provides welcome additional funding, although not enough to address all the threats to the Reef. And some of the Reef Trust money amounts to a levy on developers who damage the Great Barrier Reef, with the funds set to be used in ways that are obscure and – if past performance is any guide – possibly ineffective.

The Reef 2050 Plan sets targets for ecosystem health and biodiversity that are general and qualitative, making achievement subject to argument. Enhancements to management of coastal land-use change are described using terms such as “add to”, “require”, “strengthen”, and “ensure” – vaguely encouraging, but essentially lacking in specific commitment.

Time to get serious

If the Federal and Queensland governments are serious about reducing the impacts of present and future coastal development on the Great Barrier Reef, there are several ways forward.

First, the burden of proof should rest with developers. We have pushed the Great Barrier Reef to the point where there can be no more tolerance of uncertainty about the impacts of developments. Where there is any uncertainty, proponents of new developments must demonstrate that no harm will ensue.

Second, the environmental impact assessment process needs to be made effective, by appointing contractors capable of independent assessment, introducing peer-review of assessments, ensuring financial guarantees against unexpected impacts, and regular auditing of approval conditions.

Third, governments need to use the best available methods to assess cumulative impacts on the Reef as a result of changes in land and water use, coastal planning decisions, and the future demands for coal, sugar cane, tourism or other products. We have the ability to model the effects of all these factors on the Reef, using the best available data and expert opinion.

Fourth, there is an urgent need to tighten the process of environmental offsets, which are meant to deliver environmental benefits elsewhere to make up for damage caused by development. Above and beyond the need to first avoid or mitigate environmental damage from developments, offsets should be designed according to world’s best practice, an appropriate standard for the Great Barrier Reef.

Fifth, targets for recovery of the Reef need actual numbers, not vague statements. And those numbers should, at any time, be the best available estimates of what is needed for the recovery of key ecosystems and species, coupled with ongoing monitoring.

Committed action on these five fronts would be a strong start toward reversing the decline of the Great Barrier Reef. There is no time to lose.

Read the article at The Conversation