Chairman's Review

The Great Barrier Reef has outstanding universal value — its natural beauty, heritage, social and economic values are immense. That’s why Australians and the international community care deeply about the Reef and want to ensure it is protected for future generations.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has been at the forefront of managing this great natural wonder for 40 years and we take our role in protecting the Reef seriously. Our work is recognised as world leading — moving from the early days of mapping the myriad of reefs and shoals to identifying and addressing critical threats to the Reef’s long- term future.


A partnership approach

 

It is important for current policy makers to understand the history of management of the Reef — which includes a pattern of identifying risks and solutions, then forming the working partnerships to reduce those risks.

Foreseeing a risk that the Reef could be ‘loved to death’ through overuse, the agency established a zoning plan system in the 1970s — similar to town planning but over a Region the size of Victoria and Tasmania combined — in order to protect biodiversity and manage sustainable use. This year marks the tenth anniversary of the current zoning plan that increased areas of high protection from five to 33 per cent of the Marine Park. It remains an international benchmark for marine conservation and protected area management.

In the 1980s there were concerns that the rising number of tourists visiting the Reef might have an adverse influence on its health. We addressed this through permits and site plans, as well as a partnership approach with the tourism industry leading to the high standard eco-certified tourism we have today.

In the 1990s the agency identified sediment and nutrient-laden catchment run-off as a critical issue for Reef water quality. This resulted in collaboration between the agency, the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Australian and Queensland governments in 2003 which created an agreement that led to what is now called the Reef Water Quality Protection Plan, or Reef Plan. In the past year, we continued our strong support of Reef Plan.

Thousands of farmers are now improving their land use practices and in 2011, for the first time, demonstrated that improvements in farm management and repairs to damaged floodplains could reduce pollutant loads in catchment run-off. It’s a sign that what seemed an insurmountable problem can be solved.

Partnerships with Reef industries and communities are vital for the Reef’s future, and key to the agency’s ongoing work.


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Future management

 

Over the past year, our primary focus has been to set a new course for the future management of the Great Barrier Reef. We completed the draft strategic assessment of the Great Barrier Reef Region which, when combined with the Queensland Government’s draft strategic assessment of the adjoining coastal zone, forms the largest and most comprehensive strategic assessment conducted in Australia.

This work addresses concerns raised by the World Heritage Committee about the extent of development along the Queensland coastline.

The draft Great Barrier Reef Region Strategic Assessment Report found the northern third of the region has good water quality and its ecosystems are in good condition. However, areas in the central and southern inshore areas have continued to deteriorate from the cumulative effects of impacts such as climate change, catchment run-off, coastal development and fishing. Our draft program report — which outlines our 25-year management plan for the Reef — proposes actions to strengthen existing management and introduces a raft of new initiatives, such as cumulative impact guidelines and regional standards for ecosystem health.

In November 2013, we released the draft strategic assessment report and program report, for three months of community consultation. This included targeted stakeholder meetings, community forums and an online survey whereby anyone with an interest in the Reef and its future could have a say on what was being proposed. We received more than 6600 submissions, highlighting the considerable interest in Reef protection. This feedback was considered in finalising the reports, which were due to be provided to the Environment Minister in the latter half of 2014. Once endorsed by the Minister, these reports will be publicly released and guide our management for the next 25 years.


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Outlook Report

This year we prepared the second Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report. Published every five years, it provides a summary of the Reef’s health, management and likely future. This report will compare and contrast progress since the first Outlook Report, which was released in 2009.

For the first time, the Outlook Report considers heritage values in detail. This is in response to amended Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Regulations which, at the request of the World Heritage Committee, now include heritage values as a matter that needs to be assessed by the Outlook Report.

As part of this process, a scientific consensus workshop was convened to secure independent expert advice about the condition, trends and risks to the Reef’s health. There was also an independent review of management effectiveness. Both were used to inform preparation of the Outlook Report which was presented to the Minister on 30 June 2014.


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Field work

Out on the water, the agency has a key role in incident response, maintaining recreation and tourism facilities, and Indigenous engagement. The Field Management Program, established in 1979, is run jointly by the agency and the Queensland Government. This year there were 1289 dedicated compliance vessel patrol days and 34 land-based patrol days. During the reporting period, there were 1057 possible offences from 614 incident reports across the Commonwealth and Queensland jurisdictions of the World Heritage Area. This represents the highest annual number of offences reported since 2004, and is testament to a higher number of patrols targeting fishing in high-risk areas.

We undertook vessel and land-based patrols with Traditional Owners for 143 person days, helping deliver field activities such as the Raine Island recovery project which involves on-ground works such as fencing cliff edges to help protect the world’s largest green turtle nesting rookery. Fifty-eight Indigenous community rangers and 57 Indigenous community members were supported in compliance training, helping expand the network of people looking out for the Reef.

To assist with field management and expand our capabilities, the Field Management Program commissioned the new patrol boat Reef Ranger. This $5 million, 24-metre aluminium catamaran will improve our ability to protect the Reef and its biodiversity. It has a range of up to 2000 nautical miles, a speed of up to 25 knots and can carry 28 people, enabling it to reach remote areas of the Marine Park.

In-water surveys and monitoring are an important aspect of keeping abreast of changes in the marine environment. In 2013– 14, we recorded 4337 reef health and impact surveys in the Eye on the Reef database, including 2259 surveys by field management officers. Many of these surveys were part of our summer response program and post- cyclone impact checks.


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Crown-of-thorns starfish

During the past year, there has been a continued focus on an outbreak of coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish in the northern section of the Marine Park. Native to the Reef, this starfish can boom and bust like plague locusts on land and consume vast areas of living coral. Outbreaks recurring every 15 or so years appear to start north of Cairns. Scientific understanding of the outbreaks is still developing. In the meantime, improving water quality, protecting predators and tactically culling the starfish remain ‘no regrets’ actions to reduce the impact of these outbreaks and protect coral cover.

The agency managed a dedicated control program targeting protection efforts to key tourism sites. The tactical control efforts were delivered by teams of trained divers managed by the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators, with funding from the Australian and Queensland governments. The program successfully protected coral cover on more than 59 reefs by culling almost 183,000 crown-of-thorns starfish. A new single-shot injection method was fully implemented, replacing the need to inject.

The new single-shot injection method was fully implemented during the reporting period each starfish multiple times and resulting in an average two-and-a-half fold efficiency gain.


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Protecting world heritage values

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is responsible for safeguarding the heritage values for which the Reef was placed on the World Heritage List more than 30 years ago. This inscription recognises the Reef’s great diversity of species and habitats, as well as its rich and diverse cultural heritage.

We have important heritage obligations under the World Heritage Convention and Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. This year we established best practice standards for collecting, managing and sharing Indigenous cultural knowledge acquired through the agency’s work. An integral part of this was customising an information sharing and protection toolkit that staff can use to guide their decisions when collecting, acknowledging and using cultural information.

We also began the process of increasing protection of two World War Two Catalina aircraft wrecks and documented six shipwrecks in the northern part of the park. Heritage conservation works were carried out at the Lady Elliot Island Lightstation, and we registered the Dent Island Lightstation Heritage Management Plan as a legislative instrument — the first plan to be jointly produced by the agency and the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.

There continues to be a strong focus on protecting biodiversity and implementing the Great Barrier Reef Biodiversity Conservation Strategy 2013, which provides a framework to protect at-risk plants, animals and habitats. This year we completed vulnerability assessments for dugongs, marine turtles, snapper and whales. These assessments are key to understanding the status and pressures on these species and are used to inform management decisions.

Recognising the impact of land practices on water quality, we implemented systems to better integrate the Paddock to Reef program’s catchment and marine monitoring components. We also began developing maps to identify priority catchment areas for maintenance, restoration or enhancement.


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Permits and ports

This year we managed a total of 1373 permits for a range of uses in the Marine Park, from lower-risk commercial tourism operations to complex activities such as the construction and operation of marine facilities. There is a rigorous process in place when considering applications and this involves looking at potential impacts on the Reef’s environmental, social, cultural and heritage values. When permits for complex or large- scale projects are approved, they are subject to strict conditions and approved only if they can be shown to avoid long-term harm to the Reef.

In January 2014 we gave conditional approval to North Queensland Bulk Ports to dispose of dredge material, associated with the Abbot Point coal terminal expansion, within the Marine Park. The permits were subject to 47 strict conditions, including our approval of a dredge and spoil disposal management plan, which was to comprise a tourism, fishing and social impact program. The Authority had not received this plan from the proponent as at 30 June 2014.

The basis for our decision was outlined in a statement of reasons published on our website. The decision is in line with our long- held strategic view that port development along the Great Barrier Reef coastline should be limited to existing major ports, and that ports should achieve high environmental standards.

While we have always advocated strongly for land-based disposal of dredge material where it can be done safely, the permit application from North Queensland Bulk Ports was for ocean disposal — and we were legally required to assess the permit before us.

I recognise our decision generated considerable community debate; however, I firmly believe the application of strict conditions will allow the Abbot Point project to be managed in a way that protects the Great Barrier Reef.

Port operations have been part of the Great Barrier Reef for more than 100 years and will be ongoing. I expect that, in the near future, new technologies for land-based options will lead to reductions in the disposal of dredge material at sea. The design and adoption of shallower draught vessels will further reduce the need for dredging deeper channels.

To put the issue of port operations into perspective, the 2013 Scientific Consensus Statement showed broadscale agricultural run-off — including sediments, nutrients and pesticides — is the major cause of poor water quality in the marine environment. While the effects of port activities are significant, they are relatively more localised than the broadscale impacts from land- based run-off. The expansion of towns along the coast is another source of disturbance. Nevertheless, disturbances of water quality from all risks should be managed downwards and ports will be no exception.

Scientific knowledge of the Reef is continually improving and work commenced this year to help inform future port development permit decisions — an issue of high public concern. We issued new standards for oceanographic modelling of the distribution of sediments in port operations and finalised the improved dredge material management project and ship anchorage management project, all of which contributed to the strategic assessment of the Great Barrier Reef Region and our 25-year management plan.

We also began work with the Australian Institute of Marine Science and an expert panel to compile existing scientific knowledge of how dredging activities affect the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem and to identify what further research is needed to assess those impacts. This dredge synthesis statement will be finalised later this year.


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Stewardship

Our highly successful Reef Guardians program, which sees a range of sectors involved in local environmental activities to protect the Reef, expanded to now include 308 schools, 15 councils, 25 farmers and graziers, and 12 fishers across a range of fisheries. Through Reef Guardian Schools alone, we engage with more than 126,000 students across the Great Barrier Reef catchment — making it a powerful tool for encouraging young people to adopt positive practices that benefit the Reef.

This year we boosted membership of our High Standard Tourism program from 59 to 62 operators — with 64 per cent of visitors to the Reef now travelling with these eco- certified operators.

We also strengthened participation in our Eye on the Reef program, with about 135 tourism staff monitoring reef sites and submitting sightings of marine species.

Positive work continued with Great Barrier Reef Traditional Owners, with the accreditation of the Yirrganydji Traditional Use of Marine Resources Agreement — the first agreement for sea country management in the Cairns to Port Douglas area. Another milestone in sea country management was the accreditation of the Woppaburra people’s third Traditional Use of Marine Resources Agreement — it will run for 10 years,
making it the longest such agreement to be accredited by the Australian and Queensland governments. Although recognised in last year’s report, the Yuku-Baja-Muliku and Lama Lama agreements formally came into effect during the reporting period.

There are now seven Traditional Use of Marine Resources Agreements and one Indigenous Land Use Agreement in operation along the Great Barrier Reef coast, covering a total of 45,207 square kilometres of sea country and involving 16 Traditional Owner groups. This positive outcome is testament to the valuable work of our Indigenous Partnerships group and the ongoing commitment of Great Barrier Reef Traditional Owners to the management of their sea country. I value the work of our partners and am delighted to see these successful working relationships manifest into effective management of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.


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Education and engagement

Reef HQ Aquarium — our national education centre for the Great Barrier Reef — is the cornerstone of our broad public education programs. Reef HQ attracted more than 137,000 visitors during the reporting year. Of those, more than 70 per cent were involved in educational talks and tours. More than 27,000 people toured our turtle hospital, helping improve understanding of the issues surrounding threatened turtle species. Cutting-edge videoconferencing technology helped us reach more than 4500 people around the world, raising awareness about the Reef and our work.
 

Technology was also central to our communications effort this year. Our website received almost 500,000 visits over the past 12 months, almost double the previous year. Our Facebook page, which was created in 2011 to reach an online community of people who care about the Reef, reached a milestone of 20,000 followers.

We are internationally recognised for our work and are committed to mentoring the next generation of Reef custodians. We provided financial support to 19 postgraduate students through the 2014 Science for Management Awards and implemented a program of small grants to community groups engaged in coral reef and related ecosystem conservation and management.

This year we continued to collaborate with Reef-based scientists, particularly those funded through the National Environmental Research Program. We wrapped up our role in co-hosting the International Coral Reef Initiative for 2012–14, in partnership with
the government of Belize, however our staff continue to be sought after internationally as a source of information on reef management.


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Our organization

This year saw some significant changes within the agency’s staffing and structure. We implemented the Australian Government’s interim public service recruitment arrangements. We also commenced a voluntary redundancy program which was taken up by 17 staff members. I acknowledge the valuable contributions of these employees, some of whom have spent decades working towards the long-term protection of the Great Barrier Reef.

We also implemented an agency restructure, to better align our people resources with our work program for the years ahead. At the end of the financial year, we had 214 employees, which is a slight decrease from 222 employees the previous year.

The agency’s 2013–14 financial report shows that, at 30 June 2014, the agency had a small operating deficit after depreciation.


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Looking ahead

This report provides a timely opportunity to take stock of the past year, the key projects, achievements and challenges. In doing so,
I recognise and thank everyone who has contributed to Reef management — the Authority’s board members, the agency’s professional and dedicated staff, and all of the partners, stakeholders and government colleagues who care about the Great Barrier Reef and its future.

The coming year represents an exciting time for this agency as we begin implementing our 25-year plan for managing the Great Barrier Reef. Our program report — which is aligned to the most comprehensive strategic assessment ever undertaken of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area — clearly outlines how the Reef will be managed for the years ahead.

We will be focused on clear outcomes and driven by specific measurable targets, cumulative impact guidelines, a Reef recovery program to restore areas of high environmental value, and a Reef-wide integrated monitoring and reporting program. We’ll also adopt a net benefit policy to guide decision-making on the actions required to deliver an overall improvement to ecosystem health and the condition of the Reef’s values.

Importantly, this work will feed into the Australian Government’s Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan — an overarching framework for Reef management to improve the Reef’s resilience.

For the past 40 years, our agency has been steadfast in its commitment to the long-term protection of the Great Barrier Reef. We will continue to do everything within our power to improve the health of this precious place for current and future generations.

Dr Russell Reichelt
Chairman


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