Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report: cause for concern and accelerated action

A new report released today by Australia’s lead management agency for the Great Barrier Reef highlights the urgent need for our continued and accelerated action to improve the long-term outlook for this great natural icon.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s 2019 Outlook Report — the third in a series of comprehensive reports on Reef health and management over 10 years — downgraded the long-term outlook for the Reef’s ecosystem from “poor” in 2014 to “very poor” in 2019.

Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority CEO Josh Thomas said this was a critical point in the Reef’s history and actions taken now would matter to the Reef’s future.

“The Great Barrier Reef is widely recognised as one of the best managed marine protected areas in the world and its World Heritage values remain whole and intact. However, it is challenged by multiple and broad-scale pressures,” he said.

“Anyone following the state of the Great Barrier Reef over the last 10 years is well aware of the pressures and challenges facing the ecosystem. This report brings together scientific information to provide a comprehensive overview of the Reef’s health.

“While the Reef is already experiencing the impacts of climate change, its future is one we can change — and are committed to changing. Local, national and global action on the greatest threats facing the Reef is needed now.

“Given the sheer size of the Reef, its health and condition varies across its many habitats. The Reef remains an extraordinary experience for visitors in the Region, with many areas still supporting beautiful corals and abundant marine life.”

Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority Chief Scientist Dr David Wachenfeld said the scientific evidence was clear and everything possible should be done to create recovery windows for the Reef.

“Gradual sea temperature increase and extremes, such as marine heat waves, are the most immediate threats to the Reef as a whole and pose the highest risk. Global action on climate change is critical,” he said.

“Mitigating threats like climate change and poor water quality, coupled with resilience-based management, are essential to boosting Reef health so it can recover from major disturbances.”

Mr Thomas said the Australian and Queensland Governments were investing over $2 billion over the next decade under a comprehensive plan to protect the Reef.

“The Marine Park Authority is a key partner under that plan, delivering world-class management systems to improve the health of the Reef,” Mr Thomas said.

“A range of actions are underway to improve Reef resilience — from ramping up compliance in no-take areas to tackling the outbreak of coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish at high value sites to improve coral cover.

“These and other management actions are having a real, measurable and positive impact on the Great Barrier Reef now, and we need to continue to invest in these areas.”

Published every five years, the independently-reviewed Outlook Report provides a regular and reliable assessment of ecosystem condition, heritage values and management effectiveness in an accountable and transparent way.

It’s supported by a large body of peer reviewed science and data from research institutions, Australian and Queensland government agencies, and industry. Experts also took part in face-to-face workshops over two years.

The Marine Park Authority will continue working with its management partners, researchers, Traditional Owners and reef industries and local communities to share the Report’s findings and encourage participation in improving the Reef’s outlook.

The full Outlook Report is available on the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority website: www.gbrmpa.gov.au

Among the key findings of the Outlook Report:

  • The long-term outlook for the Reef’s ecosystem was assessed as “poor” in 2014 and in 2019 has been assessed as “very poor”. The long-term outlook for the Region’s heritage values has been assessed as poor.
  • Given the extensive size of the Region, its health and condition is variable. Many areas continue to support beautiful corals and abundant marine life and the Reef remains an extraordinary experience for visitors in the Region.
  • While the outstanding universal value of the World Heritage Area remains whole and intact, its integrity is challenged and deteriorating. The Reef remains a global icon and holds a deep social and cultural connection for the people who live near it.
  • Climate change is threatening the Reef and other World Heritage Areas globally. Australia is now caring for a changed and less resilient Reef. Global action on climate change is critical.
  • There has been habitat loss, degradation and alteration in a number of areas, affecting populations of some dependent species like some reef fish, marine turtles and seabirds.
  • Seagrass meadows remain in poor condition and coral reefs overall have declined to very poor condition after extensive coral mortality from multiple impacts including back-to-back years of coral bleaching, cyclones and an ongoing crown-of-thorns starfish outbreak.
  • Many of the Reef’s heritage values, particularly Indigenous heritage, are closely tied to the condition of the ecosystem, so declines in habitats and species have flow-on effects to other key values.
  • Inshore water quality is improving on a regional scale, but the change is too slow and poor water quality continues to affect the ecosystem and heritage values of many inshore areas of the Reef.
  • Factors that influence and interact with the Reef are intensifying. While some we can directly manage and control others, such as climate change, are global in nature and must be tackled at that level. We must do everything to ensure the Reef can still be enjoyed while protecting its condition and integrity.
  • The overall condition of habitats is poor. This is caused by habitat loss, degradation and changes in a number of areas across the Region.
  • There are some signs of recovery in species, for example, humpback whale populations are healthy and the southern green turtle population is thought to be increasing.
  • Several threats increased in risk level since 2014 including altered ocean currents, artificial light, and grounding of small vessels. The risk from disposal of dredge material is the only risk to have decreased since 2014.
  • About 60 per cent of the 31 ecosystem processes assessed remain in good to very good condition, however there’s declines in some ecological processes, such as coral recruitment.
  • An independent assessment of management effectiveness was done as part of the Report process and looked across the work of a range of organisations with a stake in managing major uses of, and threats to, the Region. The assessment found management was generally better for less complex or more localised activities, such as ports and tourism. Whereas, for complex, spatially extensive issues (such as climate change and biodiversity) efforts have been less effective in achieving desired outcomes.

Contact for journalists:

Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority: Media team on (07) 4750 0846 or media@gbrmpa.gov.au

Journalists can download audio files to accompany this story. Audio is from Marine Park Authority Chairperson Dr Ian Poiner, Chief Executive Officer Mr Josh Thomas and Chief Scientist Dr David Wachenfeld.