The Great Barrier Reef Marine Monitoring Program (MMP) was established in 2005 to monitor the inshore health of the Great Barrier Reef.
The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority leads management of this program with monitoring and reporting undertaken in partnership with a variety of research and management partners.
Each year we report the condition and trend of coral, seagrass and water quality in the inshore Reef and explore linkages to catchment run-off and environmental pressures.
The Marine Monitoring Program contributes to the Authority’s ability to understand pressures on the inshore Reef, to communicate scientific results, and to engage with government, non-government agencies and a diverse range of individuals about Reef health.
We monitor to provide an assessment of the inshore ecosystem health, which is a foundation for management of the Reef. Our understanding of how and where the Reef is affected by pressures, enables management actions to be identified and to be targeted to enhance protection or recovery.
Long-term monitoring enables us to analyse, interpret and communicate:
- water quality, coral reef and seagrass meadow condition
- trends in water quality (turbidity/water clarity, nutrients), coral and seagrass condition
- where flood waters go, and what pollutants are carried in them
- the ecological risk of sediment, nutrients and mixtures of pesticides to inshore Reef ecosystems
- cause and effect linkages between the pressures and the state of the Reef
The MMP is a collaborative partnership. Monitoring is conducted by the by the Australian Institute of Marine Science, James Cook University, Howley Environmental Consulting and the Cape York Water Monitoring Partnership, 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.
The program monitors the condition and trend of inshore water quality and the health and resilience of inshore coral reefs and seagrass meadows.
Water - Open coastal water bodies are monitored for:
- sediment and water clarity
- chlorophyll a
- a comprehensive range of nutrients and pesticides
Seagrass - Four seagrass habitats are monitored: estuarine, coastal intertidal, subtidal and reef intertidal.
We monitor three indicators of condition:
- seagrass abundance (per cent cover) is an assessment of the average per cent cover of seagrass per monitoring site in relation to the Seagrass Abundance Guidelines
- reproductive effort is the ratio of the average number of reproductive structures (spathes, fruits, female and male flowers) of plants on an area basis relative to the long-term average, and provides an indication of the capacity for meadow recovery following disturbances
- tissue nutrient composition is an indicator of nutrient enrichment relative to light available for growth
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.
Inshore coral reefs - five indicators of coral condition are monitored at two reef 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.
Water quality teams take discrete water profile samples year-round. In the wet season three dimensional extent and duration of flood plumes is interpreted from satellite imagery and validated by in situ sampling. Sampling follows transects extending from rivers chosen according to flow characteristics in a particular year.
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 meadow intertidal sites are examined using 33 quadrats (50 cm × 50 cm), placed every five metres along 50 metre transects, placed 25 metres apart.
The sampling for subtidal sites is conducted along 50-metre transects two–three metres apart (aligned along the depth contour). Drop-cameras are deployed within a 50 metre radius of permanent waypoints, using vertical drops and the footage recorded for post-field analysis. A van Veen grab is used to confirm seagrass taxonomy and sediment type.
Within the meadow canopy, light and temperature are also collected using autonomous instruments.
Monitoring occurs at sites in the late dry season (September-November) and late wet season (March/April) each year.
Inshore coral sites are monitored using three separate sampling methods, conducted along fixed transects.
- photo point intercepts - digital photographs are taken at 50-centrementre intervals along 20-metre transects. Cover of benthic community components is estimated from the images.
- juvenile coral surveys - coral colonies less than 10 centimetres in diameter are counted
- scuba search transects - a search is made of a two-metre wide belt (one metre either side of the transect midline) for any recent scars, bleaching, disease or damage to coral colonies.
Most monitoring occurs between May-July. This allows the bulk of influences from summer disturbances, such as cyclones and bleaching events, to be realised.
Locations (for 2018-19) of monitoring sites are distributed throughout the inshore marine environment.
Water quality: 28 marine sites are routinely monitored adjacent to key catchments:
- Cape York region: (Pascoe, Normanby-Kennedy, Annan-Endeavour and Stewart Rivers)
- Wet Tropics: (Tully and Mulgrave-Russell basins)
- Mackay - Whitsunday: (O’Connell basin).
Long-term transect data off the Barron-Daintree sub-region of the Wet Tropics is integrated into reporting. Sampling started for this transect in 1989 under a separate AIMS program.
In the event of a flood plume sampling also occurs transects seaward from river mouths.
Pesticides: Passive samplers are deployed in both wet and dry seasons at 11 inshore locations in four 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
- Burdeken: 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 meadows are monitored at 30 locations. Data from Seagrass Watch and the Reef Joint Field Management Program are integrated in reporting (sites indicated in italics).
- Cape York region: Shelburne Bay, Piper Reef/Farmer Island, Lloyd Bay/Lockhart 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, Clairview
- 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
Inshore coral reefs are monitored at 32 reefs in four regions, either annually or biennially:
- Wet Tropics: (9 of 13 in 2019) 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: (4 of 6 in 2019) Orpheus Island East, Pelorus and Orpheus Island West, Lady Elliot Reef, Pandora Reef, Havannah Island, Middle Reef, Geoffrey Bay.
- Mackay-Whitsunday: (4 of 7 in 2019) Border Island, Hayman Island, Langford Island, Double Cone Island, Daydream Island, Shute & Tancred Island, Pine Island, Hook Island, Dent Island, Seaforth Island
- Fitzroy: (4 of 6 in 2019) Peak Island, Barren Island, Pelican Island, Humpy & Halfway Island, Middle Island, North Keppel Island
We also integrate up to nine additional inshore reefs into reporting from the AIMS – Long Term Monitoring Program. This program also looks at coral reef health at mid and offshore coral reef sites.
Key environmental pressures in 2018-19
- Four Natural Resource Management regions in the northern and central areas of the Reef had above-average wet season rainfall associated with three tropical cyclones (Penny, Owen, and Trevor), and an intense tropical low that caused severe flooding in and around Townsville
- Sea surface temperatures were above-average over the summer months but not warm enough to cause severe bleaching and mortality at monitored coral sites.
Inshore water quality, including pesticides
- The long-term in situ water quality index has fluctuated between good and moderate for the Wet Tropics and Burdekin regions, but has declined in the Mackay-Whitsunday region from good to poor since 2006. Cape York has not been monitored long enough to determine trends.
- While variability exists throughout the Reef, several parameters (chlorophyll a, Secchi depth and some nutrients) did not meet guideline values at a number of sites, and regions in 2018-19. The most notable general trends in water quality from the Wet Tropics, Burdekin, and Mackay-Whitsunday regions were:
- average concentrations of chlorophyll a, total suspended solids, particulate nitrogen and phosphorus stable but near guideline values
- declining Secchi depth (i.e. water clarity is worsening) across the inshore Reef, which is not meeting water quality guideline values
- average concentrations of nitrate/nitrite exceeding guideline values
- increasing concentrations of dissolved and particulate organic carbon.
- Pesticides were detected frequently at all 11 monitored sites, although mostly at very low concentrations. There were no individual exceedances of marine guidelines. When considering the combined effects of 19 pesticides, only the Mackay- Whitsunday region was exposed to a risk level greater than ‘low’, and that was for one month, in the wet.
- Inshore seagrass was poor overall
- This is the seventh consecutive year seagrass condition has been poor
- Seagrass was in poor condition in every region
- Some seagrass meadows showed signs of recovery at locations that were relatively free from disturbances in recent years, and had a stable or improving trend in all regions except the Burdekin, which has declined steadily from good condition in 2013-14
- The three seagrass indicators varied within and between the six regions, described further in reports listed below.
- Inshore coral condition was poor overall
- Scores declined slightly from moderate in 2017-18, incorporating the full impact of earlier years of bleaching, and cyclone Debbie, not previously captured due to biennial sampling
- Coral scores were moderate in the Wet Tropics and Burdekin, and poor in the Mackay- Whitsunday and Fitzroy regions
- Coral condition declined from moderate to poor in the Mackay-Whitsunday region but there was no change in the grade of the other three regions
- The five coral indicators varied within and between the four regions, described further in reports listed below.
- Recent survey results for individual reefs are available online.
- 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 are discoverable through e-Atlas.
- Coral data is available at reef monitoring aims. This link has MMP and LTMP results.
- Annual Marine Results provide a synthesis summarising the MMP findings for managers.
- MMP results are published in the online Reef water quality report card.
The Marine Monitoring Program is one of the components of the Paddock to Reef Integrated Monitoring, Modelling and Reporting Program (Paddock to Reef Program). The Paddock to Reef Program monitors indicators of agricultural management practices, catchment indicators, catchment nutrient, sediment and pesticide loads and the health of the Great Barrier Reef. The program covers non-agricultural sources of pollutants too.
It is used to evaluate progress towards Reef Plan's 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan (Reef Plan) targets, objectives and outcomes. Reef Plan 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. Reef 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.
Over summer weekly public reports about conditions on the Reef are made available online. These updates are based on forecasts, water temperature heat mapping, in-water surveys (including the Marine Monitoring Program), citizen science and aerial surveys.