Key words: Coral reef, no take zones,
The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef ecosystem (344,400 square km) and a World Heritage Area on the north-east coast of Australia. It contains a high diversity of endemic plants, animals and habitats. It is a multiple-use area with different zones in which a wide range of activities and uses are allowed, including tourism, fishing, recreation, traditional use, research, defence, shipping and ports. Components of the ecosystem have been progressively showing symptoms of decline.
Existing ecosystems. Coral reefs are like the building blocks of the Great Barrier Reef, and comprise about seven per cent of the ecosystem. The balance is an extraordinary variety of other marine habitats and communities ranging from shallow inshore areas to deep oceanic areas over 250 kilometres offshore and deeper than 1000 metres, along with their associated ecological processes. The abundant biodiversity in the Great Barrier Reef includes:
- Some 3000 coral reefs built from more than 400 species of hard coral
- Over one-third of all the world’s soft coral and sea pen species (150 species)
- Six of the world’s seven species of marine turtle
- The largest aggregation of nesting green turtles in the world
- A globally significant population of dugongs
- An estimated 35,000 square kilometres of seagrass meadows
- A breeding area for humpback whales and other whale species
- More than 130 species of sharks and rays
- More than 2500 species of sponges
- 3000 species of molluscs
- 630 species of echinoderms
- More than 1625 species of fish
- Spectacular seascapes and landscapes such as Hinchinbrook Island and the Whitsundays
- 215 species of bird
Impacts on the ecosystem. The main threats to the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem are:
- Climate change leading to ocean acidification, sea temperature rise and sea level rise
- Catchment run-off of nutrients, pesticides and excessive sediments
- Coastal development and associated activities such as clearing or modifying wetlands, mangroves and other coastal habitats
- Overfishing of some predators, incidental catch of species of conservation concern, effects on other discarded species, fishing of unprotected spawning aggregations, and illegal fishing.
Restoration goals and planning. A primary aim of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) is to increase biodiversity protection, with the added intent of enabling the recovery of areas where impacts had occurred. A strong foundation for this has been achieved through the Representative Areas Program, by developing a representative and comprehensive network of highly protected no-take areas, ensuring they included representative examples of all different habitat types.
The rezoning also provided an opportunity to revise all the zone types to more effectively protect the range of biodiversity.
A further aim was to maximise the benefits and minimise the negative impacts of rezoning on the existing Marine Park users.
These aims were achieved through a comprehensive program of scientific input, community involvement and innovation.
More information on the extensive consultation process is available at http://www.gbrmpa.gov.au.
Monitoring. An independent scientific steering committee with expertise in Great Barrier Reef ecosystems and biophysical processes was convened to define operational principles to guide the development of a comprehensive, adequate and representative network of no-take areas in the Marine Park (Fernandes et al 2005). Science (both biophysical and social science) provided the best available information as a fundamental underpinning for the Representatives Areas Program.
There are currently over 90 monitoring programs operating in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area and adjacent catchment. These programs have largely been designed to address and report on specific issues, location or management.
Reef management. GBRMPA’s 25-year management plan outlines a mix of on-ground work, policies, strategies and engagement. The actions include:
- increasing compliance focus to ensure zoning rules are followed
- controlling Crown-of-thorns Starfish (Acanthaster planci) outbreaks
- ensuring cumulative impacts are considered when assessing development proposals
- setting clear targets for action and measuring our success
- monitoring the health of the ecosystem on a Reef-wide scale
- implementing a Reef Recovery program to restore sites of high environmental value in regional areas — regional action recognises the variability of the Reef over such a large area and the variability of the issues and interests of communities and industries in each area.
Benefits of zoning to date. The benefits reef ecosystem health are already occurring including:
- More and bigger fish: Larger fish are important to population recovery as they contribute more larvae than smaller fish. James Cook University research shows the network of no-take marine reserves benefits species of coral reef fish targeted by fishers (especially Coral Trout), with not only more fish, but bigger fish in reserves — some zones have around twice as much fish biomass compared to zones open to fishing.
- Improved fish recruitment: Research in the Keppel Islands suggests increased reproduction by the more abundant, bigger fish in reserves. This not only benefits populations within those reserves, it also produces a ‘spill over’ when larvae are carried by currents to other reefs, including areas open to fishing.
- Improved resilience: The spillover effects also mean the connectivity between reserve reefs is intact. Spatial analysis shows most reserve reefs are within the dispersal range of other reserve reefs, so they are able to function as a network.
- Sharks, dugongs and turtles: These species are harder to protect because they are slow growing and slow breeding. They are also highly mobile, moving in and out of protected zones. Despite this, available evidence shows zoning is benefiting these species.
- Reduced crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks: Outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish appear to be less frequent on reserve reefs than fished reefs. This is particularly important as Crown-of-thorns Starfish have been the greatest cause of coral mortality on the Reef in recent decades.
- Zoning benefits for seabed habitats: Zoning has improved protection of seabed habitats, with at least 20 per cent of all non-reefal habitat types protected from trawling.
How the project has influenced other projects. In November 2004, the Queensland Government mirrored the new zoning in most of the adjoining waters under its control. As a result, there is complementary zoning in the Queensland and Australian Government managed waters within the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.
The approach taken in the Representative Area Program is recognised as one of the most comprehensive and innovative global advances in the systematic protection and recovery of marine biodiversity and marine conservation in recent decades and has gained widespread national international, and local acknowledgement of the process and outcome as best practice, influencing many other marine conservation efforts.
Stakeholders. As a statutory authority within the Australian Government, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is responsible for managing the Marine Park. However, as a World Heritage Area, management of the ecosystem is complex jurisdictionally.
Both the Australian and Queensland governments are involved in managing the waters and islands within the outer boundaries through a range of agencies. GBRMPA works collaboratively with the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service through the joint Field Management Program to undertake day-to-day management of the Great Barrier Reef, including its 1050 islands, many of which are national parks. The program’s activities include surveying reefs and islands, dealing with environmental risks such as ghost nets and invasive pests, responding to incidents, maintaining visitor facilities, and upholding compliance with Marine Park legislation and the Zoning Plan.
A wide range of stakeholders have an interest in the Great Barrier Reef, including the community, Traditional Owners, a range of industries and government agencies, and researchers. The public, including the one million people who live in the adjacent catchment (around 20 per cent of Queensland’s population), benefit from economic activities. In recent years, the number of tourists carried by commercial operators to the Great Barrier Reef averaged around 1.6 to 2 million visitor days each year (GBRMPA data) with an estimate of an additional 4.9 million private visitors per annum.
Resourcing. The resourcing required for rezoning of the Great Barrier Reef over the five-year period of the RAP (1999–2003) was significant. It became a major activity for the agency for several years, requiring the re-allocation of resources particularly during the most intense periods of public participation. However, the costs of achieving greater protection for the Reef are readily justified when compared to the economic benefits that a healthy Great Barrier Reef generates every year (about AUD$5.6 billion per annum).
Further information: www.gbrmpa.gov.au
All images courtesy Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority