Chairman's review 2015-16

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority celebrated its 40th anniversary during 2015–16 and welcomed the World Heritage Committee’s decision not to list the Great Barrier Reef as World Heritage in Danger.

Both were important milestones, recognising and endorsing the efforts of our organisation, governments, industries and communities who work tirelessly to protect the Reef.

In delivering the world heritage decision — and in an unprecedented show of support — many countries spoke strongly of a deep desire to protect the Reef and praised Australia’s efforts and innovation in the field of coral reef management.

It was heartening to hear the international community’s support, confirming the Great Barrier Reef is both an Australian icon and a much-loved natural area throughout the world.

Forty years of management

Since the agency’s establishment under the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975, our objective has been the long-term protection of the Reef.

We assess risks to the Reef, work with partners and research providers, and educate the community about the Reef’s natural beauty and the actions needed to protect it. We take our role in protecting the Reef very seriously.

Since our inception, there has been a shift in understanding of the key pressures affecting the Reef. We now have a more comprehensive risk management approach, which assesses not only pressures from direct use, but also pressures, such as climate change, coming from outside our jurisdiction. Effective Reef management requires increased research and education, and continuous innovation in our current systems of management.

A reliable constant over 40 years of Reef management has been the strong desire by all Australians and the international community to ensure this precious marine area is protected for future generations.

The Great Barrier Reef is one of the world’s most iconic natural areas. Locally, it is known as ‘the Reef’. At 344,400 square kilometres, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is bigger than Italy, spans 2300 kilometres of coastline and contains 3000 reefs connected in a massive coral reef ecosystem. The Reef includes iconic species such as whales, turtles and dugongs, and diverse plants and habitats that sustain this unique profusion of life.

With more than two million tourists each year — and over a million Australians living along the Reef’s coastline — the Reef is part of Australia’s identity and vital for communities and industries.

Priority actions to protect the Reef

With accumulating pressures clearly affecting the Reef now, there is no room for business as usual. Better management systems are vital to lower the risks and build the resilience of the Reef ecosystem.

We are striving for tangible outcomes for the Reef over the short, medium and longer term and across the three key pillars of our work — knowledge, regulation, stewardship — all of which are essential elements of Reef protection.

The key is to ‘plan long term, but act now’ and be adaptable to changing circumstances.

Our short-term focus is sustaining day-to-day on-ground management, which is critical to maintaining Reef resilience. Our ‘here and now’ actions are delivering immediate benefits. Examples include intelligence-based ranger patrols to reduce risks from accidental damage by boating and shipping, preventing damage through lack of compliance with our protected area rules, and partnering with the tourism industry to control the highly destructive crown-of-thorns starfish — a natural predator, which has increased to unnatural levels through human-caused changes to its environment.

Spatial management tools are delivering benefits to Reef health over the medium term. For example, research indicates that our Zoning Plan is making a positive difference to biodiversity 12 years after it came into effect. There are now more and bigger fish being found in protected zones, which produces a spill-over effect of fish from no-take areas (33.4 per cent of the Marine Park) into areas of the park that are open to fishing.

Our Marine Park plans of management set special protection measures in very popular, high-use areas — notably the regions around Cairns and the Whitsundays. Measures include limits to the number of commercial vessels in some areas and installation of marker buoys to show where anchoring is permitted and where anchoring is prohibited to protect coral. These plans help to manage risks of overuse, protect vulnerable species and prevent these areas being ‘loved to death’.

We are developing policies to halt and reverse ecosystem decline by enabling environmental decisions to include assessment of the impacts of cumulative pressures affecting the Reef. We are also embedding the principle of net benefit to the ecosystem in our decision-making to foster actions that deliver an overall improvement in the Reef’s condition.

To ensure a healthy Reef in the long term, we must support programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and encourage everyone to reduce their carbon footprint. These practices will help build Reef resilience in the face of rising pressures from climate change. These efforts are detailed in our climate change action plans, which began in 2007.

Overarching framework — Reef 2050 Plan

The Reef 2050 Long-term Sustainability Plan (Reef 2050 Plan), endorsed by the Australian and Queensland governments, brings together government and non-government sectors in a framework to implement and improve protection measures for the Great Barrier Reef.

Submitted to the UNESCO World Heritage Centre in March 2015, the plan was considered at the 39th session of the World Heritage Committee in June–July 2015.

It draws on information in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s Outlook Report 2014 and the strategic assessment of the same year, and was developed collaboratively by government, industries and communities, with input from public consultation.

The Reef 2050 Plan sets out the important foundation programs that must be sustained and augmented with additional actions to achieve the outcomes and targets described for seven themes — ecosystem health, biodiversity, heritage, water quality, community benefits, economic benefits and governance.

The Marine Park Authority is implementing many of the foundation programs and more than half of the actions in the plan. This includes working with the Queensland Government to develop and implement the Reef 2050 Integrated Monitoring and Reporting Program, which received $8 million in establishment funding through the Australian Government’s Reef Trust in 2015–16.

This monitoring program is central to assessing the effectiveness of the Reef 2050 Plan. It covers all aspects of the Reef’s environment, including its biophysical attributes, heritage, social, economic and cultural values. The Marine Park Authority is leading the marine component of the program while the Queensland Government will focus on the catchment.

This is the first time Reef monitoring and reporting has been considered in an integrated, region-wide way — crucial to informing management across the Reef and its catchment. It will provide a sound basis for reporting on the health of the Reef and the progress towards achieving the goals of the Reef 2050 Plan over the long term.

Coral bleaching

The 2015–16 reporting period was one of the most challenging years for the health of the Great Barrier Reef, with the most severe mass coral bleaching on record.

Bleaching occurs when corals are stressed, in this case from high water temperatures over a prolonged period of time. If these above-average temperatures last only a few months the bleached corals can survive and regain their colour a month or two after temperatures fall to normal. If the hot conditions last more than a few months the corals may die. If coral mortality occurs, recovery of reefs is possible, but only as a result of reproduction and growth of young coral which may take decades.

According to the Bureau of Meteorology, the Reef recorded its highest average sea surface temperatures for February to June 2016 since records began in 1900.

Over summer, we worked with research partners — particularly the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, the Australian Institute of Marine Science, James Cook University, the Reef and Rainforest Research Centre and the tourism industry — to survey the extent and severity of bleaching. This included some 2600 reef health and impact surveys of 186 reefs throughout the Marine Park.

This work was our largest-ever series of surveys — our Eye on the Reef program provided the tools needed to quantify the extent of bleaching and mortality. During the bleaching event, the agency’s incident response system was put into action and worked well to bring the surveys and reporting into a single framework.

We found more than 22 per cent of coral died as a result of the bleaching event. Eighty-five per cent of this mortality occurred in the 600 kilometre stretch between the tip of Cape York and just north of Lizard Island. Overall, the area south of Cairns escaped significant coral mortality. It was clear in the reported results that bleaching impacts were highly variable from reef to reef — even in the highly affected areas. In the far north, the impacts were greater in the coastal areas and less severe in the far offshore areas.

These in-water surveys will resume in October 2016 to assess recovery rates of live bleached corals.

This mass bleaching was a strong reminder of how external pressures can impact the Great Barrier Reef and of the importance of doing all we can to support the Reef’s resilience. The agency kept communities and the tourism industry fully informed of the latest developments through public forums and through the Marine Tourism Incident Response Group.

After the bleaching event, our teams worked with local communities and more widely with industries that depend on the Reef for their livelihoods, like tourism, to support local reef recovery. This work included supporting local community initiatives that encouraged fishers and spearfishers not to take plant-eating fish. These fish play an important role in controlling algae which, if too plentiful, may compete with recovering corals.

Pro-vision Reef, the peak body for the marine aquarium collection fishery in Queensland has, under the terms of its Stewardship Action Plan, voluntarily agreed not to collect in areas north of Cairns that were affected by severe coral bleaching.

Protecting habitats

The Marine Park Authority is focused on the long-term protection of the Reef, and we work daily to reduce other incremental changes and accumulating impacts on the Reef.

Last year, the disposal of spoil from capital dredging works (such as building new shipping channels) was prohibited in the Marine Park. This year, in response to unprecedented coral bleaching, the agency’s Board approved an additional policy to protect coral reef habitats from dredging — that is, avoiding direct impacts when considering new marine infrastructure or the expansion of existing marine infrastructure. These new policies are actions under the Reef 2050 Plan to reduce the impacts of ports and dredging.

Work is also progressing on a major project to strengthen permissions compliance which will have a long-term positive effect on Marine Park values.

Field management

The agency works closely with the Queensland Government work to manage the vast Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, totalling almost 350,000 square kilometres. This cooperation, authorised by a Ministerial Agreement dating from 1979, has proven to be very effective.

Under this agreement, the agency and the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service operate a joint Field Management Program for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and Great Barrier Reef Coast Marine Park. The program reports annually to the Great Barrier Reef Ministerial Forum on its progress. It is subject to a review every five years.

This year, the collaboration under this program was recognised with a 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Excellence in Public Sector Management. The field management team also received a silver award and the collaboration award from the Institute of Public Administration Australia.

The joint Field Management Program operates in the Marine Park around the clock, and staff strive to improve in all areas across their range of responsibilities — education, monitoring and enforcement.

An exciting new development in reef management is the use of modern ‘eyes in the sky’.
As part of their work to protect turtles at the remote Raine Island, unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) were trialled for counting seabirds and green turtles and to map the island. Cooperation between field management staff and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation on this project has proven valuable.

Preliminary results found the drones were highly effective in mapping the island at a very high resolution and did not disrupt animals. Further trials will occur in the coming year to test drones under different conditions. This technology is likely to become a common tool for the program, as it allows staff to undertake activities more efficiently and to expand their capability.

Field teams responded to a 10–15 tonne fuel oil spill near Cape Upstart in July 2015. This saw around 500 hours of staff time, and a multi-agency response, to clean up oil washed ashore on Hinchinbrook Island, the Palm Island Group and the mainland.

During the reporting period, 1240 possible offences were reported within the World Heritage Area through the joint Field Management Program and its partners such as Maritime Border Command, the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, and Queensland Boating and Fisheries Patrol. Of these, 46 per cent were dealt with through compliance actions such as advisory letters, caution notices and warning notices. More serious matters were dealt with through infringement notices or court action.

There were 971 reported Commonwealth offences in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. This is the highest number of possible offences since the creation of the Marine Park, pressing the need to step-up education about zoning rules and deterrence.

For the first time, the agency issued an enforceable direction — barring a twice-convicted commercial fisher from anchoring in a green zone to prevent further illegal fishing by this person.

The reporting period was also the first full year in which on-the-spot warnings, known as Commonwealth caution notices, were issued. This system was introduced to empower inspectors so they could warn fishers about low-risk alleged non-compliant behaviour at the point of detection — thereby reducing the double-handling of information.

Permissions system

We are working to improve the permission system for commercial operators — both to streamline the administrative process for users and maintain high environmental standards.

This large undertaking is taking place between 2015 and 2020 and has involved the revision of key policies and guidelines. It will also result in new guidance material and updates to our Environmental Impact Management Policy to make the basis for decisions clearer to permit applicants and the public.

The improved permission system will also ensure better integration with processes relating to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) and address Australian National Audit Office recommendations to improve transparency and consistency in decision-making. During the first round of public consultation we received valuable feedback that was used to inform our work to improve the system. Further consultation will occur next financial year.

Day-to-day work in managing permits also continued — at the end of the reporting period, the agency was managing 5856 permissions. Most of the permissions granted this year were for tourist programs, charter vessel and aircraft, research, moorings and facilities.

Traditional Owners

We work closely with Traditional Owner groups, the traditional custodians of the Great Barrier Reef for more than 60,000 years, particularly through Traditional Use of Marine Resources Agreements.

These agreements outline how we work with Traditional Owners to manage sea country, and cover almost one quarter of the Marine Park area. This year we saw the addition of the newest agreement, with Gunggandji Traditional Owners.

In 2015–16, the agency developed seven three-year contracts with Traditional Use of Marine Resources Agreement groups to support the development and implementation of sea country priorities, such as setting sustainable limits on the take of dugong and turtle, and reducing the negative effects on the condition of these two key species.

Traditional Owners also participate in training, knowledge sharing, and compliance. This includes the successful Indigenous Ranger Compliance Enhancement program, which is increasing the number of people detecting and reporting illegal activities.

By working with Traditional Owners, we are strengthening the protection and restoration of the Reef’s biodiversity, recognising that their culture cannot be separated from the environment.

Marine debris

With support from the Australian Government’s Reef Trust, we ran a two-year $700,000 project to minimise the source and occurrence of marine debris.

We partnered with Tangaroa Blue Foundation and Eco Barge Clean Seas to undertake on-ground clean-ups that removed about 30 tonnes of marine debris (comprising more than 300,000 pieces) from coastal and island habitats, and developed education materials.

More than 4000 people have taken part in clean-ups and marine debris information activities, showing how coastal communities care about their local environment and, importantly, stopping this debris from entering the ocean.

Crown-of-thorns starfish

We continued efforts to protect coral cover at key tourism and high value conservation sites by culling the coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish. This is another activity that forms part of our day-to-day work to reduce cumulative impacts and boost Reef resilience.

With funding from the Australian Government’s Reef Trust, we worked with the Reef and Rainforest Research Centre and the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators to successfully protect coral cover at 21 high value tourism and ecologically important reefs, making up an area of more than 900 square kilometres.

Data from our agency, the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators and the Australian Institute of Marine Science’s Long-term Monitoring Program indicated the control program was effective. More than 75 per cent of the region’s reefs where crown-of-thorns control work took place had more than 25 per cent coral cover. Only one reef was at 10 per cent coral cover.

We aim to maintain minimum average coral cover well above 10 per cent, which has been identified as a critical ‘resilience’ threshold, below which coral may not recover.

Protecting heritage

Indigenous, cultural, historic and built heritage is a key part of the Great Barrier Reef’s values and protecting heritage is an important focus for our work.

The agency is developing cultural protocols to guide management of Indigenous heritage, and is partnering with Traditional Owners to determine how to store, handle and manage Indigenous knowledge appropriately.

In conjunction with the Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection, we developed conservation management plans for six key historic shipwrecks to identify and document heritage values and protect these sites.

International engagement

Marine protected area management practitioners and policy makers continue to show a strong interest in the Reef and our management.

This year, we welcomed and assisted 17 international delegations from around the world, including Norway, Jamaica, Korea, the Philippines, Japan, Germany, Indonesia and India.

Staff also participated in international conferences and events, providing invaluable opportunities to share knowledge and best practices in response to the impacts of climate change, particularly among coral reef protected area managers around the world.

Working together

Working with local communities in the Great Barrier Reef catchment is an important part of our work. We seek input on Reef-wide management and local issues through our 12 Local Marine Advisory Committees between Cooktown and Bundaberg.

Our network of Reef Guardians — schools, councils, farmers, graziers, fishers — is engaged in encouraging positive environmental work along the entire Reef catchment.

This year, the Reef Guardian Farmers and Graziers program refocused on building leadership and influencing communities. Two workshops were held with 30 participants to build their leadership skills and to help them foster stewardship in their communities or sectors.

Managing use

The agency continued its review of the Whitsundays Plan of Management 1998, which complements Marine Park zoning by addressing issues specific to an area in greater detail.

A range of stakeholder consultation occurred this year. All proposed amendments to the plan were approved by the Marine Park Authority Board on 22 June 2016. The review will continue in 2016–17, with public consultation scheduled for early 2017.

Site management arrangements for Lady Musgrave Reef in the Capricorn Cays were also finalised.

Education and communication

We continue to place a strong focus on communication and education, recognising its importance in raising awareness about the Reef and the importance of protecting it.

Our 40th anniversary provided a springboard for a range of events throughout the year to mark the occasion, culminating with a community day in Townsville.

Our national education centre — Reef HQ Great Barrier Reef Aquarium — achieved a significant milestone this year by welcoming its four millionth visitor since it opened, almost 30 years ago. In total, the aquarium received 140,268 visitors this year.

The aquarium’s Reef videoconferencing program also continues to grow, providing virtual outreach to nearly every corner of the globe. This year, it delivered 53 Reef videoconferences to more than 2300 students around Australia and the world, including the United States, Mexico, Canada, Japan, China and Korea.

Our website continues to attract a high volume of visitors — more than 855,800 visits in the past 12 months, an 11.4 per cent increase from the previous year — and is complemented by six social media channels with more than 60,000 followers.

We post a variety of content online — from near-real time images of the Reef to information about our organisation, our work, our people and our partners — and we are delighted to reach and engage with our online community who care about the Reef.

Financial performance

The agency’s 2015–16 financial report shows that, as at 30 June 2016, the agency had an operating deficit of $2.562 million, including depreciation. This result was due to the cost of litigation, relating to the 2010 grounding of the 225 metre-long bulk carrier Shen Neng 1. The agency obtained approval from the Minister for Finance for an operating loss for this reporting period.

The year ahead

In the year ahead, we will continue implementing the Reef 2050 Plan and, importantly, further establish the monitoring and reporting program that will track its progress. This reporting program is vital to openly and accurately inform the national and international community and the World Heritage Committee on the plan’s progress.

In addition, we will seek to develop and release consultation policies and guidelines that support the revised direction for Reef management — those that consider cumulative impacts and net benefits.

Following the most serious coral bleaching to occur on the Reef, there will be a continued focus on monitoring and reporting Reef health as well as on building the resilience of this natural wonder.

Thank you

In presenting this annual report, I acknowledge and thank all our staff, executive management team and the Marine Park Authority Board for their efforts over the last year.

Their knowledge, dedication and ongoing support is central to our work in protecting this great natural icon. We are fortunate to have passionate staff with strong and diverse skills.

I also extend that same thanks to our management partners, Traditional Owners, scientists, researchers, Reef industries and communities who work with us towards a common goal.

The Great Barrier Reef belongs to us all. We all have a role in ensuring future generations can continue to explore, enjoy, and engage with this wonderful natural treasure.

Dr Russell Reichelt