Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area

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© Tourism and Events Queensland

40 years of World Heritage

While it may not be the largest World Heritage Area on Earth, the Great Barrier Reef is one of the better known. Its biological diversity is also unmatched by any other World Heritage Area.

Covering 348,000 square kilometres, this vast expanse is bigger than the United Kingdom, Holland and Switzerland combined and equivalent to 70 million football fields.

The World Heritage Area extends from the top of Cape York in north-east Australia to just north of Bundaberg, and from the low water mark on the Queensland coast to the outer boundary of the Marine Park, which is beyond the edge of the continental shelf.

About 99 per cent of the World Heritage Area is within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

The remaining one per cent includes:

  • some 980 islands which are under Queensland jurisdiction
  • some internal waters or Queensland (for examples, some deep bays, narrow inlets or channels between islands)
  • intertidal areas protected by Queensland legislation
  • a number of small exclusion areas (state waters) around major ports and urban centres.

Within the World Heritage Area, there are more than 3000 separate coral reefs.

There are also 1050 islands and cays - these include 600 continental islands and 300 coral cays, while the remaining 150 islands are inshore mangrove islands which are important to the functioning and health of the Great Barrier Reef.

Together, the biodiversity and interconnectedness between species and habitats represents one of the richest and most complex natural ecosystems on earth.

The Great Barrier Reef was declared a World Heritage Area in 1981 because of its 'outstanding universal value'. This recognised the Reef as being one of the most remarkable places on earth, as well as its global importance and its natural worth.

The World Heritage Committee listed the Reef for all four natural criteria:¹

Be outstanding examples representing the major stages of the earth's evolutionary history

  • Forms the world’s largest coral reef ecosystem, extending over 14 degrees of latitude
  • Globally outstanding example of an ecosystem that has evolved over millennia
  • Environmental history recorded in the reef structure; for example, climatic conditions over many hundreds of years can be seen in old massive coral cores
  • Comprises about 3000 separate coral reefs, ranging from inshore fringing reefs to mid shelf reefs and shoals, exposed outer
  • Deep water features of the adjoining continental shelf includes canyons, channels, plateaux and abyssal plains

Be outstanding examples representing significant ongoing geological processes, biological evolution and man's interaction with his natural environment

  • Globally significant diversity of reef and island morphologies reflecting on-going geomorphic, oceanographic and environmental processes
  • Complex cross-shelf, longshore and vertical connectivity influenced by dynamic oceanic currents and ongoing ecological processes such as upwellings, larval dispersal and migration
  • Over 900 islands and cays; around 600 are continental (high) islands, 300 are coral cays in various stages of geomorphic development, with the remaining islands comprising mangrove islands that provide important ecological services
  • An ecosystem that has evolved over millennia with evidence of the evolution of hard corals and other fauna
  • Globally significant marine faunal groups include over 4000 species of molluscs; over 1500 species of fish; plus a great diversity of sponges, anemones, marine worms, crustaceans, and many others
  • Man's interaction with the natural environment illustrated by strong ongoing links between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and their sea country, including numerous shell deposits (middens) and fish traps, plus the application of story places and marine totems

Contain unique, rare or superlative natural phenomena, formations or features or areas of exceptional natural beauty, such as superlative examples of the most important ecosystems to man

  • Vast mosaic patterns of reefs providing an unparallel aerial panorama of seascapes and landscapes for example, Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday islands, Hinchinbrook Island
  • One of the few living structures visible from space
  • Beneath the ocean surface, there is an abundance of shapes, sizes and colours, including spectacular coral assemblages (hard and soft corals) and >1500 species of fish
  • Globally important breeding colonies of seabirds and marine turtles, including Raine Island, the world’s largest green turtle breeding area
  • Superlative natural phenomena include the annual coral spawning, migrating whales, and significant spawning aggregations of many fish species

Be habitats where populations of rare or endangered species of plants and animals still survive

  • One of the richest and most complex natural ecosystems on earth, and one of the most significant for biodiversity conservation
  • Amazing diversity supports tens of thousands of marine and terrestrial species, many of which are of global conservation significance
  • Some 39 species of mangroves comprising 54 per cent of the world's mangrove diversity
  • ~ 43,000km2 of seagrass meadows in both shallow and deep water areas, including 23 per cent of known global species diversity
  • Habitat for one of the world's most important dugong populations and six of the world's seven species of marine turtle
  • A breeding area for humpback whales, with at least 30 other species of whales and dolphins also identified
  • 70 bioregions (broad-scale habitats) identified comprising 30 reef bioregions and 40 non-reefal bioregions; including algal and sponge gardens, sandy and muddy bottom communities, continental slopes and deep ocean troughs
  • The reef bioregions contain one third of the world's soft coral and sea pen species (80 species)
  • 2000 species of sponges equalling 30 per cent of Australia's diversity in sponges
  • 630 species of echinoderms (for example sea stars) equalling 13 per cent of the known global diversity

¹ These refer to the criteria for which the property was listed in 1981 – the wording of these has since changed.

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