Frequently asked questions


What is a strategic assessment

Strategic assessments take a whole-of-government and big picture approach to environment and heritage protection.

These assessments are conducted over broad areas and time frames, enabling cumulative impacts from many different activities to be examined in addition to direct and indirect impacts. This differs from project-by-project assessments which look at the effects of individual actions.

Importantly, this process provides the community, governments, businesses and industry with an opportunity to achieve both conservation and planning outcomes at a much larger scale than can be reached through project-by-project assessments.

Strategic assessments are conducted under Australia’s national environmental law — the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act).

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Why was the strategic assessment conducted?

Like many coral reef ecosystems around the world, the Great Barrier Reef faces a number of threats — climate change and extreme weather, declining water quality, coastal development and illegal fishing.

To secure the Reef’s future, the Australian and Queensland governments have undertaken a comprehensive strategic assessment of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area and coastal zone.

This assessment examines the effectiveness of current management arrangements in protecting the environmental and heritage values of the World Heritage Area and the adjacent coastal zone, as well as the community benefits derived from them.

It recommends improvements to how we manage Australia’s national environmental assets — or matters of national environmental significance — within the Great Barrier Reef Region.

It also proposes a long-term plan which outlines management options for the Reef over the next 25 years.

This work forms part of the Australian Government's response to the World Heritage Committee's concerns about the impacts of development on the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.

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How was the strategic assessment conducted?

The comprehensive strategic assessment consists of two key components — a marine component and a coastal component.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has led the marine component which has looked at the effectiveness of arrangements in place to manage and protect the Great Barrier Reef Region.

The Queensland Government has led the coastal component which has examined coastal development such as planning for urban, industrial and port development, and the processes and management arrangements in place to ensure development occurs sustainably. 

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How were submission lodged?

The consultation period was open from 1 November 2013 to 31 January 2014. There was an online survey, as well as the ability to provide survey responses and comments by email and post. We received more than 300 responses to the online survey and comments, as well as email and postal submissions. Where permission was given by respondents, submissions provided will be published online in a submissions report.

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What will happen to these reports once public submissions have been made?

Submissions received during the public consultation period will be used to finalise the draft comprehensive strategic assessment and draft program report. The final reports will be submitted to the Australia Environment Minister for endorsement under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

A public consultation submissions report will be created, detailing the number of responses received, issues raised and how these were addressed in the final reports.

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What was the key conclusion of the strategic assessment of the Great Barrier Reef Region? 

As the world's largest coral ecosystem, the Great Barrier Reef is an international icon and is one of the best know World Heritage Areas.

Its health is declining and without additional management intervention the Region's ecosystem is likely to continue to deteriorate.

While evidence indicates actions to date have delivered benefits for the Reef's resilience, much more is required to halt and reverse this deadline.

A legacy of past activities, combined with continuing impacts and a decade of extreme weather, is taking a heavy toll.

Strong steps are needed now to secure the long-term future of the Reef.

The condition of some of the Region’s biodiversity has improved, such as humpback whale numbers, but other elements such as coral reefs and seagrass meadows are in serious decline, while populations of some vulnerable animals are declining, including southern dugong populations and some species of marine turtle.

A business-as-usual approach to managing the impacts will not be enough. Through concerted and constructive partnerships, there is good potential to address impacts and restore a more resilient Great Barrier Reef ecosystem.

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What is the current condition of the Reef according to the strategic assessment?

The strategic assessment examined the condition and trend of a range of Reef values. It found:

  • Habitats and species north of about Cooktown are generally in good health. Habitats further offshore and in deeper water are also subject to fewer impacts. Those in inshore areas of the southern two-thirds of the Region are most affected by impacts such as declining water quality and coastal development.
  • Habitats such as coral reefs and seagrass meadows, particularly in inshore areas in the southern two-thirds, are in serious decline. Populations of some iconic and highly vulnerable species, such as dugongs and inshore dolphins, are also continuing to decline.
  • Terrestrial habitats that support the healthy functioning of the Reef have been substantially modified, especially in the southern two-thirds of the catchment.
  • Environmental processes are generally in good or very good condition in the northern third of the Region, and in good or poor condition further south.
  • Traditional Owners maintain their cultural practices and customs in the Region; however, many Indigenous heritage values have not been systematically identified and many are being affected, particularly around development areas and on islands.
  • While the natural beauty of most of the Region remains intact, especially for offshore coral reefs and aerial vistas, its underwater aesthetic value has declined in inshore areas in the southern two-thirds, mostly due to coral decline.
  • Three of the four world heritage criteria — for which the Reef was placed on the World Heritage List — are assessed as being in good to very good condition when benchmarked against their condition in 1981, and the property’s integrity remains largely intact. The remaining criterion — habitats for conservation of biodiversity — is assessed as being in poor condition overall. Of particular concern is that more than half of the attributes for all criteria show a deteriorating trend since inscription of the area.
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What are the main impacts on the Great Barrier Reef Region?

The Great Barrier Reef Region is a large and complex natural system which is being affected by a wide range of past and present impacts, including direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts.

The strategic assessment examined the impacts of activities conducted within, as well as beyond, the Region’s boundaries:

  • The most severe past and present impacts include:
    • those related to climate change (sea temperature increase)
    • catchment run-off (inflow of freshwater, nutrients, pesticides and sediments; crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks)
    • changes in terrestrial habitats that support the Reef
    • direct use (death of bycatch, dredging, dumping and resuspension of dredge material, and illegal fishing and poaching)
  • Activities undertaken in the past, including harvesting iconic species such as dugongs and turtles and catchment clearing, are still affecting the Reef. Some of these legacy impacts date back decades, even to the 1800s, and their effects are likely to continue long into the future.
  • A decade of extreme weather events (for example, cyclones and floods) has caused a decline in Reef condition and reduced the capacity of the ecosystem to recover from these and other disturbances.
  • Several of the most significant impacts (for example, those related to catchment run-off and extreme weather) operate at broad scales, affecting large areas of the Reef.
  • Impacts on the Region’s environment are compounding, particularly close to the coast. Almost all the major impacts considered have the greatest effect on inshore areas in the southern two-thirds of the Region.
  • Hydrological and ecological connectivity is being affected — for example species moving between breeding and foraging areas. These connections are fundamental to the healthy functioning and integrity of the Reef as a whole.
  • Most impacts are assessed as increasing into the future, driven mainly by climate change, economic growth and population growth. The success of recent initiatives to improve the quality of catchment run-off entering the Region means related impacts are likely to be reduced in the future.
  • These cumulative effects are diminishing the ecosystem’s ability to recover from disturbances. This loss of resilience is especially concerning given its importance in protecting the Region from future climate change impacts.
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What are the high risk impacts to the World Heritage Area?

The Great Barrier Reef Region remains one of the most resilient tropical marine ecosystems in the world, however there is increasing evidence that its resilience is being seriously eroded.

A number of impacts were assessed as presenting a high or very high risk to the future condition of the Region’s values:

  • Climate change is the most serious threat facing the Reef and is likely to have far reaching consequences for the future of the Region’s environment.
  • Impacts include ocean acidification and rising sea temperatures.
  • Agricultural practices in the Great Barrier Reef catchment are improving and leading to reduced nutrient and sediment loads entering the Reef through catchment run-off. However, there is likely to be a long lag time before water quality improves significantly in the Region.
  • Clearing and modifying coastal habitats that support the Reef are likely to continue to present a very high risk, especially to inshore biodiversity — for example, through the loss of connectivity between coastal and marine environments.
  • Outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish are likely to continue over coming decades, contributing further to coral mortality.
  • While there have been substantial improvements in the management of fishing in the Region, the death of discarded and incidentally caught species of conservation concern across all fisheries and the Queensland Shark Control Program continue to present a high risk to their populations.
  • The assessment found that, without substantial additional management intervention, the future outlook for the Reef is very poor, especially in inshore areas in the southern two-thirds of the Region.
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What targets for improving the health of the Great Barrier Reef have been set in the draft Program Report?

The draft Program Report is a plan for the future and sets practical and measurable targets to achieve the aim of protecting the Great Barrier Reef for future generations.

It will use the theme of ‘halt and reverse the decline’ — which is used by the Reef Plan initiative to improve water quality — to other areas critical to the Great Barrier Reef’s health.

A preliminary set of targets are proposed to protect key habitats, species, heritage and community values, and for reducing impacts.

Some of the preliminary targets for 2019 include:

Habitats

  • Coral mortality at sites of high ecological and tourism value is reduced, particularly predation by crown-of-thorns starfish
  • Coral cover is showing an increasing trend towards the Reef-wide and regional levels measured by the AIMS long-term monitoring program
  • Extent and condition of seagrass in each natural resources management region is improved to good condition
  • Protection of remaining high quality terrestrial habitats that support the Reef is increased
  • Connectivity of slightly to moderately disturbed terrestrial habitats that support the Reef is increased and their functioning is improved
Species
  • Foraging habitats for marine turtles (seagrass meadows and coral reefs) in the southern two-thirds of the Region are restored
  • Nesting habitats for marine turtles (islands and coastal beaches) are maintained and enhanced
  • Populations of loggerhead, southern Great Barrier Reef green, and flatback turtle stocks continue to recover
  • Population declines of hawksbill and northern Great Barrier Reef green turtle stocks are halted and reversed
  • The mortality of Great Barrier Reef Indo-Pacific humpback and snubfin dolphin from all human related causes is reduced to zero
  • Foraging habitat for dugongs (seagrass meadows) in the southern two-thirds of the Region is restored and maintained
  • Southern population: the mortality of dugongs from human-related causes other than traditional use of marine resources is reduced as close to zero as possible
 Heritage values and community benefits
  • An assessment of Indigenous heritage values is completed for 20 per cent of the Region
  • Cooperative management arrangements are in place with 40 per cent of Great Barrier Reef Traditional Owner groups
  • The number of World War II features and other historic sites with statutory protection is increased
  • Tourism and recreation users of the Region are highly satisfied with their experiences
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What are the new initiatives being proposed to improve the health and resilience of the Reef?

A number of new initiatives will drive actions to build a healthy and resilient Great Barrier Reef. These are:

  • adopting a management framework based on outcomes and targets to guide decision making and actions required to maintain and restore the condition of values
  • implementing a cumulative impact assessment policy to provide a transparent, consistent and systematic approach to the management of cumulative impacts from activities within and adjacent to the Region
  • implementing a net benefit policy to guide actions required to restore ecosystem health, improve the condition of values and manage financial contributions to that recovery delivering an overall or 'net' improvement to the condition of values
  • introducing a Reef recovery program to restore sites of high environmental value, applying the measures above and cooperative management approaches
  • establishing a Reef-wide integrated monitoring and reporting program which directly links to the outcomes-based management framework and underpins the Authority’s adaptive management approach.
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What is the Long-Term Sustainability Plan?

The Long-Term Sustainability Plan is currently being developed collaboratively between the Australian and Queensland governments to provide an overarching framework to guide the protection and management of the GBRWHA from 2015 to 2050. It will target the identified areas of action from the strategic assessments and seek to address gaps important for future management of the Area. An information sheet describing the intended scope of the Plan has been released with the strategic assessment reports.

You are invited to comment on the approach described in the information sheet either through the online survey or via a written submission form. Further consultation on the draft plan itself will occur in 2014.

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What did the strategic assessment find in relation to the effectiveness of current management arrangements? 

An independent assessment found the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s management of activities for which it has direct responsibility is effective, and its actions have delivered benefits for the Reef’s resilience.

However, the assessment found much more is required to halt and reverse observed declines in Reef health, especially in addressing impacts arising outside the Region.

Challenges were identified for complex broadscale issues including ports, shipping, climate change and extreme weather, coastal development and catchment run-off (water quality protection).

For commercial and recreational fishing, the reviewers identified challenges in monitoring and compliance.

A series of demonstration case studies highlighted that Reef-wide approaches to management need to be complemented by regional cooperative management approaches to account for local factors.

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