The Marine Monitoring Program (the program) was established in 2005 to monitor the inshore health of the Great Barrier Reef. The program will inform the development of the Reef 2050 Integrated Monitoring and Reporting Program.
The program monitors the condition and trend of inshore water quality and the health and resilience of inshore seagrass meadows and coral reefs.
How we monitor?
We collect water samples and analyse them for sediment, chlorophyll a and a comprehensive range of 11 nutrients and 30 pesticides. Water quality monitoring uses two sampling techniques – passive and grab sampling. Grab samples are also taken during periods of high freshwater river discharge to provide single ‘point in time’ concentrations of pesticides in water and capture potential peaks. Sampling follows transects extending from rivers chosen according to flow characteristics in a particular year.
We also use data-logging sensors to continuously measure temperature, salinity, chlorophyll a, and water clarity on selected reefs and at the river mouths of the Russell-Mulgrave, Tully and Burdekin River. Environmental parameters like light, temperature, salinity and turbidity are also collected at many of the monitoring sites, and are combined with climate data from other sources including remote sensing information.
Seagrass teams monitor three indicators of condition: seagrass abundance (per cent cover), reproductive effort and leaf tissue nutrients. Additional indicators of seagrass condition and resilience include seagrass species composition, relative meadow extent and density of seeds in the seed bank.
Environmental pressures on seagrasses are recorded too, including within-canopy water temperature, within-canopy benthic light, sediment composition, macroalgae and epiphyte abundance.
Seagrass meadows are surveyed late in the dry season and again late in the wet season.
Coral teams monitor five indicators of condition at two depths – 2m and 5m – to capture the three dimensional influence of pressures on coral communities. Each indicator represents different processes that contribute to coral community resilience:
- coral cover as an indicator of corals ability to resist the cumulative environmental pressures to which they have been exposed
- proportion of macroalgae in algal cover as an indicator of competition with corals
- juvenile coral density as an indicator of the success of early life history stages in the replenishment of coral populations
- rate at which coral cover changes as an indicator of the recovery potential of coral communities due to growth
- community composition as an indicator of selective pressures imposed by the environmental conditions at a reef.
Coral data is collected from surveys mostly undertaken from May–July. This allows the bulk of influences from summer disturbances, such as cyclones and bleaching events, to be realised.
Divers go underwater, lay transect tapes, take video and samples and come back to spend hours analysing photos, training the computers to recognise species and build understanding.
Understanding how the resilience of the Reef is affected by pressures is vital for management. Monitoring the inshore health of the Reef has been routinely carried out since 2005 under this program. Annual monitoring enables us to analyse:
- trends in water quality parameters (turbidity/water clarity, nutrients) relative to the Water Quality Guidelines for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (2010)
- the ecological risk of mixtures of pesticides to Reef ecosystems
- wet-season river-derived pollutant exposure
- coral cover, seagrass abundance and ecosystem health
We use the information for tactical, operational and strategic planning, quantifying management effectiveness and reporting.
The Marine Monitoring Program is a collaborative partnership. Monitoring is conducted by the Australian Institute of Marine Science, James Cook University, Howley Environmental Consulting, the University of Queensland, Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, Reef Catchments, and community volunteers.
It is funded and managed by the Authority, with co-funding from research partners.
Monitoring sites are located throughout the inshore marine environment.
The chosen locations reflect the primary purpose of linking to the effects of river discharge and catchment run-off.
Water quality: 28 marine sites are monitored multiple times each year in both wet and dry seasons adjacent to key catchments:
- Cape York region (Pascoe, Normanby-Kennedy, Annan-Endeavour and Stewart Rivers)
- Wet Tropics (Tully basin)
- Wet Tropics (Mulgrave-Russell basin)
- Mackay Whitsunday (O’Connell basin).
Long-term transect data off the Barron-Daintree sub-region of the Wet Tropics is also included in reporting. Sampling started for this transect in 1989 under a separate program.
Flood plume sampling also occurs throughout the wet season.
Pesticides: Passive samplers are deployed in both wet and dry seasons at 11 inshore locations in four of the regions:
- Wet Tropics: Low Isles influenced by the Mossman River, High Island and Normanby Island influenced by the Russell Mulgrave River, Dunk Island influenced by the Tully River, and Lucinda influenced by the Herbert River
- Burdekin: Barratta Creek
- Mackay-Whitsunday: Repulse Bay influenced by the Proserpine and O’Connell Rivers, Round Top Island influenced by the Pioneer River/Sandy Creek, Sandy Creek, and Sarina Inlet influenced by Plane Creek
- Fitzroy: North Keppel Island influenced by the Fitzroy River
Six of the sites are co-located with seagrass, coral reef and catchment monitoring activities.
Seagrass: Seagrass meadows are monitored at 29 locations, including the major seagrass habitat types where possible (estuarine, coastal, reef, subtidal). Some sites monitored by Seagrass Watch and QPWS at some locations (indicated in italics).
- Cape York region: Shelburne Bay, Piper Reef/Farmer Island, Lloyd Bay/Lockart River, Stanley Island, Bathurst Bay, Archer Point
- Wet Tropics: Low Isles, Yule point, Green Island, Lugger Bay, Dunk Island, Goold Island in Rockingham Bay, Missionary Bay/Hinchinbrook Island
- Burdekin: Picnic-Cockle Bay on Magnetic Island, Shelley-Bushland Beach in Townsville, Jerona in Bowling Green Bay
- Mackay Whitsunday: Hydeaway Bay/Shoal Bay, Tongue Bay, Pigeon Island/Pioneer Bay, Hamilton Island in the Whitsundays, Midge Point in Repulse Bay, Newry Bay/Newry Islands, Sarina Inlet in Mackay
- Fitzroy: Ross Creek-Wheelans Hut in Shoalwater Bay, Monkey Point/Great Keppel Island, Pelican Banks/Gladstone Harbour
- Burnett Mary: Rodds Bay, Burrum Heads and Urangan in Hervey Bay
Coral reefs: 32 inshore reefs are monitored in four regions:
- Wet Tropics: Snapper Island north and south and Low Isles influenced by the Barron Daintree, Green Island, Fitzroy Island East and West, High Island East and West, and Frankland Group East and West influenced the Johnstone and Russell-Mulgrave Rivers, north Barnard Group, Dunk Island north and south, and Bedarra influenced by the Herbert and Tully Rivers.
- Burdekin: Orpheus Island East, Pelorus and Orpheus Island West, Lady Elliot Reef, Pandora Reef, Havannah Island, Middle Reef, Geoffrey Bay.
- Mackay Whitsunday: Border Island, Hayman Island, Langford Island, Double Cone Island, Daydream Island, Shute & Tancred Island, Pine Island, Hook Island, Dent Island, Seaforth Island
- Fitzroy: Peak Island, Barren Island, Pelican Island, Humpy & Halfway Island, Middle Island, North Keppel Island
Nine additional inshore reefs from the AIMS – Long Term Monitoring Program are included in reporting.
Reef Water Quality Report Marine Results 2017–18
Overall the Great Barrier Reef’s inshore marine condition was poor in 2017–18, based on scores for coral, seagrass and water quality. The Cape York, Wet Tropics and Burdekin regions were in moderate condition overall and the Mackay–Whitsunday, Fitzroy and Burnett–Mary regions were in poor condition.
Inshore coral condition remained moderate overall in 2017–18, and was moderate in the Wet Tropics, Burdekin and Mackay–Whitsunday regions. Coral condition remained poor in the Fitzroy, but has continued to improve there from the very poor condition observed in 2013–14.
Individual inshore seagrass meadows varied throughout the Reef, but were in poor condition overall in 2017–18. Seagrass condition was poor in every region except the Burdekin, which was moderate, and the Burnett Mary, which was very poor.
Water samples taken in the Wet Tropics and the Burdekin regions show the annual condition of water quality remained poor. However, water quality sampled in the Mackay–Whitsunday region improved from very poor in 2016–17 to moderate in 2017–18. Monitoring in Cape York commenced recently, and we will be able to describe results for Cape York next year.
Pesticides were detected year-round at all 11 sites monitored across the inshore Reef. Marine water quality guideline values were met for individual pesticides. Multi-chemical mixtures of 19 pesticides met the target of very low risk of harmful effects in the Wet Tropics and at North Keppel Island. Barratta Creek (Haughton catchment in the Burdekin) met the target for pesticides for some periods in the year, and at other times was at low risk of harmful effects of pesticides. Three of the four monitored sites in the Mackay–Whitsunday region met the target for pesticides for some periods in the year, and at other times were at low risk of harmful effects. The fourth site, at Round Top Island (5 km seaward off the mouth of the Pioneer River) ranged from very low risk to a very high risk of harmful effects of pesticides at different times of the year.
What has influenced ecosystem health recently?
Pollutants in catchment run-off (especially sediment, nutrient and pesticides) influence coral reef and seagrass condition. In addition to catchment run-off, a range of other pressures affects the health and resilience of the Reef at local and regional scales. These pressures include:
- physical damage and sediment resuspension caused by cyclones
- high sea temperatures
- crown-of-thorns starfish (for corals)
- reduced daily light.
Marine heatwaves, severe storms and cyclones (including tropical cyclone Debbie in March 2017, and extreme sea temperatures in 2016 and 2017) have affected coral and seagrass. Cyclone Iris tracked off the coast between Cairns and Rockhampton from mid-March to early April 2018, but didn’t cross the coast.
Over the whole 2017–18 water year, river flow into the Reef was close to the long-term median in most regions. The Burnett–Mary region recorded a higher-than-average river flow discharge (due to heavy rainfall events in October 2017), and Mackay–Whitsunday region recorded below-median discharge. Generally, river plumes of poor quality water did not extend very far seaward and were not prominent for most of the wet season this year.
Weather is a major driver of pressures from water quality, and can vary substantially between years. Climate change, however, is the primary threat to the Reef overall. Improving the quality of water flowing to the Great Barrier Reef is important to support resilience and recovery from cumulative pressures including climate change and extreme events.
Detailed methods and results are available in the annual technical reports for water quality, pesticides, coral and seagrass, in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s Publications e-Library. These reports also contain a number of case studies.
Metadata and summaries of annual findings up to 2013 are discoverable through e-Atlas, and AIMS logger data can be directly downloaded from an online portal.
The Authority’s annual Marine Results provides information to marine park managers between the five-yearly Outlook Reports. The Marine Results are part of the Report Card published on the Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan website
It is one of many components of the Paddock to Reef Integrated Monitoring, Modelling and Reporting Program (Paddock to Reef Program). The Paddock to Reef Program has monitored indicators of agricultural management practices, catchment indicators, catchment nutrient, sediment and pesticide loads and the health of the Great Barrier Reef since 2005. Recently, the scope of the Paddock to Reef Program has been expanded to cover non-agricultural sources too.
Information on coral, seagrass and water quality from the Marine Monitoring Program will also inform the program design of the Reef 2050 Integrated Monitoring and Reporting Program.
The Marine Monitoring Program and other components within the Paddock to Reef Program are used to evaluate progress towards the Reef Plan 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan (Reef 2050 WQIP) targets, objectives and outcomes. The Reef 2050 WQIP is a joint Australian and Queensland government initiative that aims to improve the quality of water entering the Great Barrier Reef from broad scale land use and urban sources. The plan underpins the delivery of multiple targets, objectives and outcomes in the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan, which is the overarching framework for Reef management.
For example, an understanding of the condition and trend of water quality and ecosystem health, enables the evaluation of progress towards the Reef 2050 WQIP long-term outcome that ‘good water quality sustains the outstanding universal value of the GBR, builds resilience, improves ecosystem health, and benefits communities’, as well as the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan water quality outcome that ‘Reef water quality sustains the Outstanding Universal Value, builds resilience and improves ecosystem health over each successive decade’.
A reef report card presents a synthesis of all the findings from the Paddock to Reef Program to track progress towards Reef 2050 WQIP. A combined report card for 2017 and 2018 was released in August 2019 and assesses the results of all Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan actions reported up to June 2018.
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