Position statement – The Great Barrier Reef

Summary of Position

The Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area is a region of enormous natural beauty and scientific interest. However, the Great Barrier Reef is currently in poor condition and requires scientific and policy support.

Statement of Principle

All efforts to maintain and preserve the Great Barrier Reef should be based on the best scientific evidence, with the goal of ensuring the Reef’s survival and securing its future.

Statement of Context

Recent back to back coral bleaching events on the Great Barrier Reef represent a serious deterioration in the condition of the Reef. These bleaching events are linked directly to record-breaking warmer sea surface temperatures.

The Academy’s Position

The long-term goal of Great Barrier Reef management, expressed in the 2050 Reef Sustainability Plan,1 is to improve the Outstanding Universal Value of the Reef every decade between now and 2050. The Academy considers this vision may no longer be possible given the mortality of half of the shallow-water corals in the central and northern Great Barrier Reef. The Academy is concerned the Great Barrier Reef may no longer be able to return to its condition of 1981, when it was inscribed as a World Heritage Area.2 The goal therefore should be to sustain a functioning Reef into the future, recognising that the Great Barrier Reef in a warmer world will likely be different from the recent past. 3

Climate change, poor water quality, and their interactions are key issues for the Great Barrier Reef. During its 41st session the World Heritage Committee adopted a decision to “strongly invite all State Parties… to address Climate Change under the Paris Agreement at their earliest possible opportunity…..consistent with their obligations within the World Heritage Convention to protect the Outstanding Universal Value of all World Heritage properties”. 4 The Academy notes this is the first time the World Heritage Committee has explicitly linked stewardship of World Heritage Areas with nations’ policies for mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions.

The Academy also notes with concern the World Heritage Committee’s 2017 assessment of Australia’s progress on implementing the 2050 Plan, concluded that “progress towards achieving water quality targets has been slow, and the most immediate water quality targets set out in the 2050 Plan are not expected to be achieved within the foreseeable future”.

In order to address these concerns, responsible agencies, including the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the Federal Department of the Environment and Energy, and the Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection need to implement policies that directly mitigate threats to the Great Barrier Reef and prevent further damage from occurring. Pressures and impacts on the Reef should be monitored at all spatial and time scales, so that progress in curbing them can be assessed. The relevant authorities should work closely with the scientific community to ensure policy development, implementation and review harnesses contemporary thinking and existing knowledge regarding the effective management of the Reef.

Statement of Authorisation

This position paper was subject to expert review by the Australian Academy of Science and authorised by the Academy Council at its meeting of 11 October 2018.


  1. The Reef 2050 Plan. http://www.environment.gov.au/marine/gbr/long-term-sustainability-plan (Accessed November 2017)
  2. Reef 2050 Plan, Independent Expert Panel – Communiquè 5 May 2017. http://www.environment.gov.au/system/files/pages/abff0d5e-b94d-4495-b79b... (Accessed November 2017)
  3. See: Hughes, TP, JT Kerry, M Álvarez-Noriega, JG Álvarez-Romero, KD Anderson, AH Baird, RC Babcock, et al. 2017. "Global warming and recurrent mass bleaching of corals." Nature 543 (7645): 373-377. doi:10.1038/nature21707; Hoegh-Golberg, Ove. 2012. "The adaptation of coral reefs to climate change: Is the Red Queen being outpaced?" Scientia Marina. doi:10.3989/scimar.03660.29A.
  4. World Heritage Committee. 2017. "Decision: 41 COM 7, Climate Change." State of Conservation of the Properties Inscribed on the World Heritage List. Krakow: UN. http://whc.unesco.org/en/decisions/6940.

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