Position statement—Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan

1 April 2015

The Australian Academy of Science is committed to working constructively with governments on the development and implementation of the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan, which is critical to ensuring a healthy and vibrant Great Barrier Reef for future generations.

During 2014, the Australian Government called for comments on the draft Reef 2050 Long-term Sustainability Plan and, in response, the Academy reviewed the Plan and identified a number of areas where further improvements were warranted. The final Plan has since been released, and the Academy sought advice from its Fellows and other experts who reviewed the draft plan on the nature of the changes that have been made and the extent to which they reflect the science.

It is pleasing to note that there have been some positive changes, particularly:

  • the move towards banning dumping of capital dredge spoil in the World Heritage Area
  • improved targets for improving water quality
  • the establishment of an independent expert panel
  • recognition of the problems associated with trans-shipping through the reef.

The Academy recommends more actions be added to the Plan to overcome or limit the trajectory of deterioration of the reef’s outstanding universal value which has been well established by numerous reports including the Australian Government’s own 2009 and 2014 Great Barrier Reef Outlook Reports. The Plan should also limit the effects of cumulative impacts on the reef from climate change, fishing pressure, coastal development and dredging.

We believe that a better outcome for the reef would be to further refine and improve the Plan.

A summary of the major issues and the Academy’s broad recommendations is included below, along with a summary of a number of specific points in the Plan that the Academy recommends should be amended or reworded to align with current science.

Climate change

At a high level, the fundamental driver of reef degradation now and increasingly in the future is climate change. The impacts of climate change on the reef are already being felt, and action cannot be postponed. Climate change is clearly a global issue, and the solutions do not lie within Australia’s direct control. However, Australia remains an influential global player, and significant action on climate change has been initiated by major powers including China and the USA. Protecting the Great Barrier Reef is clearly not either the only or the primary driver of Australia’s need to take action on climate change, but the reef does stand to be one of the major beneficiaries of swift action.

The Academy recommends that the Government continues to explore options to effectively mitigate climate change.

Port development

Beyond the broader impacts of climate change, the development of major port terminals that require significant dredging or reclamation is one of the major drivers of increasing current and future impact on the reef.

The Academy recommends that the Plan should be amended to:

  1. clarify what activities are appropriate within port exclusions both inside and outside the boundaries of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park
  2. ensure all options for port developments, including trestles for loading further offshore and avoiding dredging, are properly considered when environmental impact assessments occur
  3. clarify that certain areas (like Princess Charlotte Bay and the Fitzroy Delta) are not suitable for port developments, and designate these areas in a way that such developments cannot proceed, thus providing certainty for developers and the community
  4. Ensure all port activities in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area are undertaken (assessed, planned, operated and monitored) at a level which is commensurate with being within a World Heritage Area.

Maintenance dredge dumping

The 2050 Plan places no restriction on the volume or disposal of maintenance dredge spoil. Maintenance dredge spoil can have even greater impacts than capital dredge spoil through re-suspension of much finer sediments.

The Academy recommends that the Plan be amended to:

  1. clarify how port authorities or contractors will be monitored so they are not able to conduct and dump capital dredging at sea under the guise of maintenance dredging
  2. ensure investigations of alternatives to sea dumping of maintenance dredge spoil are conducted and the results used to inform regulation and future legislation
  3. ensure all maintenance dredging activities and any dumping that does occur in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area are undertaken (assessed, planned, operated and monitored) at a level which is commensurate with being within a World Heritage Area.

Sufficient resources to properly achieve targets

The Academy is concerned that funding for achieving targets may well be a limiting factor to effectively implementing the positive attributes of the 2050 Plan. In particular, it will be difficult to achieve the revised water quality targets with the proposed level of funding.

The Academy recommends that the Government:

  1. develop a costing of the Reef 2050 Plan and allocate sufficient resources to implement it
  2. develop an investment strategy for implementation of the Plan that does not rely on offsets and which addresses all the threats facing the Great Barrier Reef
  3. recognise that the requirements for field management in the Great Barrier Reef are increasing (e.g. increasing population using recreational boats) which in turn will require increasing funding levels. Given that the field management program is not currently able to comprehensively enforce the green zone network, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority will need additional resources to enforce the legislation
  4. recognise that while important, offsets should be a last resort for managing the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area given they inherently involve further damage to the outstanding universal values of the reef.

Sustainable fishing

Fishing is a legitimate activity within the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, and this is covered in some detail in the 2050 Plan. However, the Great Barrier Reef Outlook Reports of 2009 and 2014 demonstrate that fishing is causing some impacts beyond those covered in the Plan, and that management of fisheries can be improved.

The Academy recommends that the Plan:

  1. incorporates world’s best practice management of the Great Barrier Reef fisheries, commensurate with the reef's World Heritage Area status
  2. requires all commercial vessels, regardless of size, to carry vessel monitoring systems
  3. exercises zero tolerance for repeated non-compliance.

Strengthening the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority was originally designated as the independent statutory authority responsible for the planning and management of the Great Barrier Reef. This Plan presents an opportunity to reaffirm this responsibility and to strengthen the expertise and authority of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to ensure the reef's sustainability for the duration of the Plan.

The Academy recommends that:

  1. appointments to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority Board are based on expertise, and that an independent Chair is appointed
  2. the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is the primary advisory body to the Government for the entire Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.

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