Chairman's review 2014-15

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s key objective is the long-term protection of the Great Barrier Reef. We achieve this by managing the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and risks to the Reef, encouraging partnerships and research, and enhancing the public’s understanding of the Reef’s values and the actions needed to protect its remarkable natural beauty.

The Great Barrier Reef is one of the world’s living treasures. Bigger than Italy, or the size of Victoria and Tasmania combined, the Reef is a priceless natural asset, a massive archipelago of 3000 individual coral reefs, deep shoals, seagrasses and mangrove systems that support thousands of marine species. It inspires awe in two million tourists every year and is considered ‘our Reef’ to the 1.1 million Australians living along its coastline.

As we move into our 40th year of Marine Park management, we reflect on a year of achievements.

The agency released two key reports that have been fundamental in guiding the future management of the Great Barrier Reef — the Great Barrier Reef Region Strategic Assessment and the Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report 2014.

Significant legislation was introduced to prohibit disposal of capital dredge material in the Marine Park — a major step forward in protecting the Reef by minimising incremental, cumulative changes that cause pressure on the natural system.

The World Heritage Committee’s draft decision recommended that the Great Barrier Reef not be listed as World Heritage in Danger. Notwithstanding the well-documented pressures on the Reef, this draft decision acknowledges Australia’s commitment to protect the Reef. The agency’s four decades of innovative management and protection were featured in this decision through recognition of our Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report, which has now been adopted by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as their assessment method for all World Heritage properties listed for their natural values.

Informing the long-term protection of the Reef

In August 2014 we released the Great Barrier Reef Region Strategic Assessment and the Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report 2014, which provide the most comprehensive information about the Reef’s values, impacts on those values and current condition. These documents have identified the actions needed to improve Reef health and have been critical to informing the agency’s forward plans.

The Great Barrier Reef Region Strategic Assessment 2014, undertaken in cooperation with the Queensland government between 2012 and 2014, was the most comprehensive assessment of the Reef’s world heritage values ever conducted. The findings confirmed that while the Reef’s outstanding universal value remains largely intact, the accumulation of impacts over time over an ever-increasing area are diminishing the Reef’s resilience. It confirmed that the trends are negative and strong action is needed to reverse this decline.

The assessment showed the northern third of the Great Barrier Reef region is in good condition, but inshore areas south of Cooktown are in decline, concluding that managing the multiple impacts requires a multi-pronged approach. The offshore southern regions have experienced massive loss of coral cover from a combination of outbreaks of the coral predator, crown-of-thorns starfish, and a series of severe cyclones causing physical damage over a wide area.

The agency’s second Outlook Report (2014) found that while the outstanding universal value of the Reef remains in good condition overall, climate change, declining water quality, catchment run-off and some fishing impacts remain the biggest threats facing the Reef.

For the first time, the Outlook Report assessed the Reef’s heritage values — Indigenous heritage, historic heritage and the World Heritage values. It also identified positive results of actions taken since the first report in 2009, such as improvements in the recovery of corals and catchment water quality after the major storms and floods over the past decade. Informed by these two reports, the Reef 2050 Long-term Sustainability Plan was released by Prime Minister the Hon Tony Abbott and Minister for the Environment the Hon Greg Hunt in March 2015 at Hamilton Island in the Whitsundays. In addition to the projected $2 billion that will be invested in Reef protection over the next decade, implementation of the plan will be underpinned by an additional $140 million Reef Trust which will harness and coordinate public and private investment to maximise outcomes for the Reef.

The Australian and Queensland governments have further strengthened their commitment to the Reef, with an update to the Great Barrier Reef Intergovernmental Agreement, first established in 1979, which now includes the Reef 2050 Long-term Sustainability Plan as a schedule. This plan provides clear outcomes, objectives and targets to ensure management is coordinated and the Reef is protected into the future. The agency will lead the implementation of the Integrated Monitoring and Reporting Programme agreed at the Ministerial Forum in June 2015, ensuring the plan’s effectiveness is monitored in a scientifically sound and publicly transparent manner.

Legislative changes

In June 2015, a new regulation came into effect, ending the disposal of dredged sediments in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park from capital projects such as port developments.
This was the first significant step towards a regulatory approach to prevent the expansion of major ports in the Great Barrier Reef Region.

The Australian Government legislative amendment to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act prohibits capital dredge disposal in the Marine Park. This is a critically important addition to the long-term protection of the Reef.
An independent report, Synthesis of current knowledge of the biophysical impacts of dredging and disposal on the Great Barrier Reef found the indirect effects of dredging and disposal could be contributing to the increase of fine suspended sediments in inshore areas over time as well impacting on local biodiversity.

Another significant legislative amendment was the declaration of two new special management areas to protect two Royal Australian Air Force Second World War Catalina aircraft wrecks. The new management areas protect the important maritime cultural heritage values of the two wrecks, one located south of Cairns, the other near Bowen.

Further amendments to the Act in March 2015 provided greater protection to dugong and turtle populations by increasing penalties for taking or injuring these protected species within the Marine Park.

Joint Field Management program

Keeping the Reef healthy requires a collaborative effort across federal and state jurisdictions. Stretching across 2,300 km from north to south, the agency and Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service operate a joint Field Management program for the marine and island national parks, encompassing the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and Great Barrier Reef Coast Marine Park.
The field team deliver practical on-ground actions to protect and maintain well-functioning marine and island ecosystems that support economic, traditional and recreational uses of the Reef.

Compliance and illegal fishing continue to be key areas of focus for the agency. During the year, the first commercial fisher was banned from fishing in the Marine Park under the ‘three strikes’ legislation. This provision in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act allows the agency to ban a person entering or using the Marine Park or impose conditions where that person has been convicted of at least three offences under the Act in the past decade. Failure to comply can attract a fine of up to $85,000. In this instance, the individual was banned from entering or using the Marine Park for recreational and commercial fishing and collection for two years.

Vessel tracking technology, which is used to pinpoint the location of boats and other craft in the Marine Park, was also expanded. The technology has been installed on the field management fleet, and it is planned to extend it to field trials on commercial fishing vessels during 2015–16. While the devices are operational on field management vessels and larger fishing vessels like trawlers, the primary objective of these field trials is to demonstrate the devices are suitable for monitoring small vessels that operate in reef and inshore fisheries.

The agency is working with the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries to assess how new technologies such as vessel tracking systems can improve compliance with zoning plans.

Last year, the field team welcomed a new patrol boat, Reef Ranger, to its fleet. Funded jointly by the Australian and Queensland governments, the $5 million, 24-metre vessel is based in Cairns and patrols waters off far north Queensland. The Reef Ranger is twice as fast as its predecessor and well suited to multi-tasking, making it a valuable tool in the day-to-day activities of our field management team. It has increased productivity of our field operations by a massive 34 per cent.

Controlling the coral predator — Acanthaster planci or the crown-of-thorns starfish

The crown-of-thorns starfish is native to Indo-Pacific reefs and has been driven to population outbreaks of pest proportions through excess nutrients running off the land to the sea. Our policy is to support control programmes to reduce starfish numbers and prevent loss of coral while efforts continue on the land to reduce nutrient run-off.

Excellent results were achieved during the year through a partnership delivered by the agency and the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators, with some 92,000 crown-of-thorns starfish culled.

As part of our Great Barrier Reef Climate Change Adaptation Strategy and Action Plan, research has been done in conjunction with the CSIRO to identify specific reefs that, if controlled, would have the greatest effect on limiting further outbreaks.

The agency has also partnered with research institutions, including the Australian Institute of Marine Science, James Cook University and University of Queensland to significantly improve our understanding of the crown-of-thorns starfish and investigate other options for managing their numbers.

A new three-year control programme is supported by the Australian Government’s Reef Trust and brings together the agency, the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators, the Reef and Rainforest Research Centre and Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service. This partnership will enhance the efforts to control this destructive starfish.

Impact of cyclones

Extreme weather events have been identified as a major threat to the Reef, and earlier this year we saw the impact when category five and four tropical cyclones Marcia and Nathan struck in north Queensland.
Tropical cyclone Marcia crossed the coast near Shoalwater Bay on 20 February, followed by Nathan, which crossed near Cape Melville on 20 March.

Incident management teams coordinated field responses to both events, with surveys carried out to assess the damage to affected reefs. Modelling indicated the combined area of damage from both cyclones covered 35.4 per cent of the total reef area in the Marine Park, however a systematic damage assessment hasn’t been completed, and the full extent of the impact on the Reef’s values is not yet known.

It is clear the Reef retains strong resilience in the face of these destructive storms. Research in 2012 on coral abundance in the aftermath of category five, extreme tropical cyclone Yasi in 2011 has shown corals recovering from extensive damage caused by the cyclone. This is encouraging news, highlighting the natural resilience of the ecosystem and its ability to bounce back. Our management efforts are aimed at retaining or restoring the Reef’s resilience wherever possible.

Marine debris

After tropical cyclone Marcia in April, the agency worked with the Tangaroa Blue Foundation to coordinate a clean-up, under the Reef Trust, over four days, concentrating efforts along 17 kilometres of impacted coastline in the Yeppoon area. More than five tonnes of marine debris was cleared from local beaches. This event has been used as a pilot study for a larger community event organised for later this year as part of the Australian Government’s marine debris programme.

Over the next two years, we will be working with communities and industries to minimise the source and occurrence of marine debris in the Great Barrier Reef. The project — funded by the Australian government’s Reef Trust — will see on-ground community clean-ups, targeted education and awareness raising, and is one of four key projects to be delivered as part of the Dugong and Turtle Protection Plan.

Science strategy

Ensuring we have the best available knowledge on which to base management decisions is critical to the long-term protection of the Reef. Science information is one major source of knowledge contributed by a wide range of research institutions, government agencies, universities, industry, stakeholders and Traditional Owners.

The agency published its Science Strategy and Information Needs 2014–2019 which sets out our future scientific information needs. It aims to ensure scientific activities are relevant and targeted to address our critical management questions, and that our scientific outputs are easily accessible. As part of the development of the strategy, which draws on the Outlook Report and strategic assessment, a register of research questions relating to the strategy has been developed and is accessible through the agency’s website.


We are committed to working with the people who live and work along the coast of the Reef. In the third and final year of the current term, the 12 Local Marine Advisory Committees have had a far-reaching, positive impact in raising awareness, education and management of Reef issues in those communities that live, work and play alongside the Marine Park.

One of their most significant contributions during their term has been their valuable input to the comprehensive strategic assessment and Outlook Report 2014, and the Reef 2050 Long-term Sustainability Plan. They have also played an important role in grassroots environmental activities, from monitoring water quality, hosting Reef information evenings and field trips, donating funds to local environmental activities, supporting local Reef Guardian programmes and organising beach clean-ups.

Permissions framework

Sustainable tourism is clearly an extremely important use of the Marine Park — visitors who experience the marine environment are found to be more inclined to care about its protection. We regard Reef tourism as a powerful way to showcase the Reef’s world heritage value to millions of visitors.

Reef tourism operators rely on the agency’s permit process to secure their investment and provide confidence to the general public that their businesses are ecologically sustainable.

This year we have worked on improving the tourism permissions system. Currently, commercial tourism operators in the World Heritage Area need three separate permits to operate, however as a result of work done with Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, an opportunity has been identified to consolidate these to create a single permit.

With phase one of the project complete, a trial is now underway with holders of permits for commercial activities. Not only will a single permit help streamline administrative processes, it will also have the benefit of creating a single front-counter for commercial operators in the World Heritage Area.

Coastal ecosystems

The agency continues to build on its work in detailing the impacts of coastal land use changes on water quality, habitat and inshore biodiversity in the Marine Park. This includes refining science based tools to identify which areas in the catchment are most critical to the Reef’s long-term health and working with key stakeholders such as local governments and natural resource management agencies to ensure this information is available to inform on-ground management decisions.

Education and engagement

During the past year, international interest in marine protected areas has increased, and the Great Barrier Reef has come under a global spotlight.

In September 2014, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and its management was showcased to the world as part of the G20 Finance Ministers meeting and Central Bank Deputies and Governors meeting in Cairns. As part of the event, the agency hosted a Reef information booth and Reef trip for international delegates and journalists. This provided an opportunity to highlight to an international audience the comprehensive management programme and the strong regulatory frameworks in place to protect the Marine Park.

The agency again took centre stage in Sydney in November, 2014 when it co-hosted the Marine stream of the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) World Parks Congress. This is a global forum on protected areas held once a decade. With 4800 delegates in attendance, the Congress provided a further opportunity to shine an international spotlight on the work being done to improve the health and resilience of the Reef. Staff participated in a range of events as well as hosting workshops and presentations on some of the agency’s innovative management tools, including Eye on the Reef, Indigenous partnerships and marine park compliance. This was followed by a field trip to Heron Island and a Reef visit where international delegates, including UNESCO Director-General Ms Irina Bokova, were able to experience first-hand the scope of work being done to protect the World Heritage value of the Great Barrier Reef.
A live ‘underwater’ cross from our Townsville Reef HQ Aquarium supported the opening plenary address made by Julia Marton-Lefèvre — Director General IUCN and Ernesto Enkerlin — Head of IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas with 4,800 delegates from more than 165 countries in attendance.

Financial performance

The agency’s 2014–15 financial report shows that as at June 30, 2015, the agency had an operating deficit of $2.386 million after depreciation. This result was in large part due to the unplanned and unbudgeted cost of litigation, especially the cost of seeking funds to clean up the toxic paint left on Douglas Shoal after the 2010 grounding of the 220 metre Shen Neng I.

The agency obtained approval from the Minister for Finance for an operating loss for this reporting period.

Looking forward

When the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area was inscribed in 1981 the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park was one tenth of its current size. Ninety percent of the area was relatively unmanaged.

In the year ahead we celebrate 40 years of Reef management — a journey that has taken us from a small office space in the Townsville central business district to a national 35-year plan to protect the Reef with partnerships extending across federal, state and local governments and many community groups, Traditional Owners and industry sectors. All Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority staff, past and present, have been at the heart of this effort.

The final decision of the World Heritage Committee will be made by the time this report is published. We celebrated the news of the Committee’s draft decision recommending the Great Barrier retains its World Heritage listing and remain confident that together with the Australian and Queensland governments, we have delivered a strong and positive response to address their concerns and enhance protection of this globally significant ecosystem.

Our top priority in the years ahead will be to deliver our commitments in the Reef 2050 Long-term Sustainability Plan, including the implementation of an integrated monitoring and reporting program to enable us to track our progress in achieving the plan’s targets, outcomes and objectives. This reporting program will inform the nation and the international community about the condition of the Reef, and provide evidence that our actions to protect the Reef are on track and report honestly where they are not.

While our priorities have adapted with changing issues over the years, the agency’s fundamental role has remained the same — to continue our critical foundational work to manage and preserve the Marine Park, ensuring its use is ecologically sustainable.

Thanks to all staff, the board and the wide range of partners

During the past year, the agency farewelled our long-serving team member and general manager, Andrew Skeat. During his 17 years, Andrew led many important Reef protection program and became known for his passion and dedication to the Reef, and his practical knowledge of the wide range of actions needed to manage this massive, unique marine protected area.

In presenting this Annual Report, I thank all agency staff, the executive management team and my colleagues on the Authority’s board. The team effort from all at the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is evident in all the products and achievements reported here.
We are confident of our path forward through implementing the Reef 2050 Long-term Sustainability Plan, together with our strong management that underpins the plan.

We remain focused on implementing and enhancing a framework of innovative Reef management in partnership with key stakeholders to ensure the Great Barrier Reef continues to be protected and enjoyed by future generations.

Dr Russell Reichelt