Commercial shipping within the Great Barrier Reef is subject to stringent management arrangements.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, along with the Australian Maritime Safety Authority and Maritime Safety Queensland, administer special measures under international and domestic law to regulate ship activities.

The main measures used to avoid and mitigate risks are:

  • Designated shipping areas
  • Compulsory pilotage
  • Mandatory vessel monitoring and reporting
  • Navigation markers
  • Ship routing
  • Shore-based monitoring
  • Emergency response arrangements

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority and Maritime Safety Queensland have response plans in place to respond to shipping incidents.

The North-East Shipping Management Plan has also been developed to help protect Australia's north-east marine environment through enhanced ship safety in the Great Barrier Reef, Torres Strait and Coral Sea regions. The plan was developed by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority in close consultation with a range of organisations and government agencies, including GBRMPA.

Other potential risks

Ship-sourced pollution

There are many types of ship-sourced pollution that can impact on the Great Barrier Reef. The discharge of these wastes within the Marine Park is subject to strict regulations: sewage, grey water, oil, bilge, garbage and marine debris, and air emissions.

Ballast water

Ballast water is used to stabilise ships during cargo loading and unloading. The introduction of exotic marine species via ballast water is an environmental concern as it can threaten local biodiversity, fisheries and aquaculture.

All international vessels intending to discharge ballast water anywhere inside the Australian territorial sea, including the Marine Park, must manage their ballast water in accordance with national requirements.

These vessels must exchange ballast water for clean water from the deep ocean outside Marine Park boundaries, prior to arrival in Great Barrier Reef ports or waters.

The Australian Government's Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry has a range of management strategies to deal with this threat.

Marine pests

More than 250 exotic marine pests have been introduced into Australian waters via ballast water discharges and ship hull fouling, including mussels, sea-stars, and different types of crabs. Fifteen introduced species have been recorded at Queensland Ports.

Most overseas bulk carriers arriving in Queensland ports are from temperate waters. Ships originating from warmer waters present a greater risk of introducing marine pest species to the Reef.

Research

The Ship anchorage management in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area project finalised in July 2013 carried out an environmental impact assessment of ship anchorages and a cost-benefit analysis of potential ship anchorage options.

It also identified viable environmental management strategies.The project was funded by the Australian Government and carried out by Gutteridge Haskins and Davey Pty Ltd. The project findings are being incorporated into the North-east Shipping Management Plan.

Designated shipping areas

Ships travelling through the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park may only navigate within the designated shipping area and the General Use Zone. To navigate outside of these areas, ship operators must obtain a permit from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

The designated shipping area is designed to minimise the impact of the shipping industry while complying with Australia's international obligations. The total area available for ship navigation is approximately 80 per cent of the Marine Park.

Almost all ships travel safely along the designated shipping routes with little, if any, impact. The location of the General Use Zone is outlined in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Zoning Plan 2003.

Compulsory Pilotage

In 1991, the Australian Government introduced compulsory pilotage to reduce the risk of ship groundings and collisions in the Great Barrier Reef. This means all regulated ships must have a pilot on board when travelling through the Inner Route, Hydrographer's Passage and the Whitsundays compulsory pilotage area. Regulated ships are considered to be vessels that are 70 metres or longer, or ships carrying oil, chemicals or liquefied gas.

Exemptions

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, in consultation with the Australian Maritime Safety Authority may grant exemptions to compulsory pilotage where it is decided that:

  • a pilot would not provide additional environmental protection benefit. For example, an operator may have considerable experience and suitable navigational aids on their ship
  • the ship does not pose an environmental threat because it is likely to remain stationary or in a limited area.

Ship monitoring and reporting

There are a number of monitoring and reporting systems in place to increase navigational safety and minimise shipping risks in the Great Barrier Reef.

Vessel traffic service

The Queensland and Australian governments established the Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait Vessel Traffic Service (REEFVTS) in 2004.

This service helps with safe navigation by:

  • monitoring ship movements in the REEFVTS area
  • giving timely, relevant and accurate information to ships
  • keeping a listening ‘watch’ on VHF channels
  • receiving information from masters through ship reporting requirements
  • responding to information requests, such as ship traffic and maritime safety matters.

REEFVTS is operated by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority and Maritime Safety Queensland under joint federal–state arrangements.

Reef ship reporting system

The Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait Ship Reporting System is mandatory and was introduced in 1997 as a measure to boost navigational safety.

Under the system, all ships greater than 50 metres in length and all tankers transiting the inner route of the Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait must report their position and course to REEFVTS, via VHF radio, upon arrival at designated reporting points. These reporting points are located every 160 kilometres (100 miles) along the coast.

Australian ship reporting system

The Australian Ship Reporting System (AUSREP) is designed to increase safety of life at sea. Its primary purpose is to provide a search and rescue function. Certain ships are required to participate in the system while many others take part voluntarily.

The service shows which vessels are in the vicinity of a maritime emergency and are able to provide help.