The Great Barrier Reef
(photo source:

Many have written about the fate of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) past and present.  A consensus is emerging of a bleak future, a future fraught with impacts of climate change in all its manifestations, increased port and shipping activities, dumping of dredge material, outbreaks of Crown of Thorns starfish, and further nutrient and sediment inputs from catchments. Projected population growth and associated use of coastal waters linked to the need to sustain lifestyles and livelihoods invoke other concerns for reef health. Recent books by Veron and McCalman capture these issues from both scientific and historical perspectives. They deserve reading.

Recent agreement between Queensland and Commonwealth governments reminds me of the many attempts to achieve improvements to management of onshore and offshore pressures that face the GBR. Terry Hughes in his excellent piece in The Conversation last October commented that arguably the biggest risks to the GBR World Heritage Area are matters of governance and policies that involve government decisions. Various NGOs are critical of recent measures, especially those associated with climate change. However, I feel that we must continue to encourage these two governments and their agencies to take whatever steps they can at this stage in the political cycle. The new Environment Minister in Queensland is known for his passion for reef protection and he must be given time to work with the Commonwealth to move in a direction that may not have otherwise be possible.

When one looks back at past battles related to the management of the GBR, it is important to refer to the 1996 edition of Judith Wright’s book “The Coral Battleground”. McCalman discusses this work in his “A Passionate History”. Our great poet in her book captured the fight between state, federal, industry and conservation interests at a time when mining  impacts were not back in the catchments as they are today, but on the reef itself: for limestone and oil.  Fortunately federal leaders of both political persuasions were able to resist the economic arguments of the state. Eventually sense prevailed and World Heritage status was attained. Political, bureaucratic, scientific and community energy  expended in achieving this outcome was enormous including the establishment and operation of GBRMPA. Federal-state collaboration that was achieved is maintained to this day with various ups and downs; let us hope we are now seeing an up!

In August last year, Four Corners ran a program on the “Battle for the Reef”. It was at a time when consideration was being given to a plan to dump dredge spoil inside the marine park and expand the Abbot Point coal port. Since then decisions have been made to not proceed with this dumping. At the time ACS wrote to the federal Minister asking questions about modelling results of spoil dispersal under high intensity cyclone conditions; we never received an answer! But I digress. What shocked me about the program was the distress shown by Dr Charlie Veron to a decision of the GBRMPA to approve the plan. This reaction raised many questions about not just the decision making process, but about Charlie’s grave concerns on the future of the GBR. I first met him on an expedition to the northern GBR in 1973 where on several dives I had the pleasure of serving as his “bagman” in the collection of coral specimens. For decades he has studied the taxonomy, ecology and changes to the health of coral ecosystems on the GBR and elsewhere. His work and views  on the GBR can be found in the 2008 book “A Reef in Time”. Charlie has highlighted the severe stress facing the GBR and his work is supported by many other reef scientists from James Cook and Queensland universities and AIMs. Terry Hughes, in his piece last year, stated that even the latest health check by GBRMPA in its Outlook Report shows the overall outlook as “poor” and getting worse. The worst areas lie to the south and inshore.

There is little doubt that the reef faces challenges from without (warming Coral Sea, more acidic waters, more intense cyclones) that cannot be fixed by reef managers alone. These pressures are part of the global mix that progressively is harming the viability of many natural systems and requires global action, as pointedly stated by President Obama last year. Attempts to manage runoff must go on and measures such as allowing excessive land clearing of riparian and other critical vegetation must be controlled. This will require improved, and well regulated,  regional land use planning with acceptance by and support for land managers. Port and shipping developments remain a major concern, but again I see a shift in the tides: investors from overseas and in Australia are increasingly conscious of any image as destroyers of such an icon as the GBR; perhaps economics will be on the side of the reef after all!

– words by Prof. Bruce Thom