Category Archives: Policy & legislation

Conserving and restoring biodiversity of the Great Barrier Reef through the Representative Areas Program (RAP)

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.


Coral Trout is one of more than 1625 fish found on the Great Barrier Reef

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
Crown-of-thorns single injection (C) GBRMPA cropped

Diver injecting Crown of Thorns Starfish

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.
4. GBRMPA staff - public consultation(2)

GBRMPA staff meeting to plan and discuss Representative Areas Program (RAP) at Townsville offices

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

6. green and yellow zone examples

An example of Green Zones (marine national park) and Yellow Zones  (conservation park)

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:


All images courtesy Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority


Operational planning and logistics – introducing fire into the landscape

Robert Strauch

Eastern Suburbs Banksia Scrub (ESBS) is an Endangered Ecological Community that only exists in the eastern part of the Greater Sydney area – between North Head and La Perouse. From an original estimated area of 5300 hectares there’s only 146 hectares of this community left. From the 3% that’s actually left only 18% of that ESBS is on managed lands. A lot of it is in areas like golf courses, people’s backyards along coastal parts in the Sydney eastern suburbs and small pockets on Council reserves, most locations of it are quite sparse in area, with the North Head community being the largest portion in total area remaining.

In 2004, the key stakeholders developed a recovery plan for ESBS, with National Parks working with other land management agencies to try and protect and manage this community. One of the recommendations from the plan was high intensity burn at an 8-15 year rotation.

Fire and Rescue New South Wales (NSW) are re-introducing fire as a tool to restore ESBS at three sites: broad area burning at North Head, some windrow burning at La Perouse on the site of the NSW Golf Course and pile burning at Centennial Park in the Moore Park area. This involved three types of burns: an area burn, windrows and burn piles.

Fig 1. Broad area burning at North Head

Fig 1. Broad area burning at North Head

1. North Head

A burn was conducted at North Head, Sydney Harbour in early September 2012. This was done in collaboration with National Parks and Wildlife Service, the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust and also the North Head Sanctuary Foundation. Interestingly, the location of the fire is very close to the location Dr Geoff Lambert has identified as the site European people in Australia first recorded their observations of fire being used by Indigenous people on the 28th May 1788.

Methods and risk management. At North Head, three relatively small burns were conducted: third quarantine cemetery (0.8 ha), North Fort (1.5 ha0 and Blue Fish Drive (1.8 ha). These involved very high levels of operational logistics and operational planning, prior to waiting for the appropriate burn conditions.

(a) Public safety. Because of a history of fires getting out of control at North Head, precautions involved restricting public access to the headland, which meant confining all three burns to 1 day to minimise disruption. There was an overall incident controller, Superintendent Kel McNamara for the North Head complex, plus divisional commanders in charge of each of the burns. The divisional commanders essentially were running their individual burns managing their operations officers and resources required. From this we ended up with 10 firefighting appliances (trucks) and (including the incident management and logistical appliance) we had a total of 36 resources contributed by three agencies: Fire and Rescue NSW, National Parks and Wildlife Service and Rural Fire Service Pittwater-Warringah. With all of that we had 121 fire fighters for our very small sites. State Emergency Service assisted us with closing down walking trails and making sure people weren’t actually coming onto the headland. We had a fire truck (Flying Pumper) sitting there as if it was in a fire station, so if any spot fires occurred they could go and deal with the fire and we could still carry on with our prescribed burning that we were undertaking.

(b) On the day of the burns there were 400 kids on the headland, which was worrying. I tried to encourage them to go into Manly for the day but they wanted to stay on the headland for their planned activities at the Quarantine Station. Because of that I then had to go through steps in the local emergency management plan and arrange with Sydney Ferries to make sure there was a ferry ready and available in case we needed to evacuate the headland as we could only evacuate by water. Also we had to speak with Harbour Control in case the fire got away and we had to shut down the shipping channels coming into Sydney Harbour.

(c) Heritage protection. We obtained mitigation funding through the NDRP National Disaster Resilience Funds to do some mitigation work around North Head’s historical stone walls criss-crossing the headland. This involved some clearing along those walls to protect the historical significance of them and this clearing doubled to create a strategic fire advantage zone over the headland.

(d) Miscellaneous risks. Among the other things I had to deal with was underground ventilation. There’s historical war tunnels through North Head with ventilation intakes that I had to make sure were covered and insulated so we weren’t dragging smoke into the underground tunnels, increasing the carbon monoxide load down there. This was so if people walked in there after the burns they weren’t going to asphyxiate themselves. The bonus carry over from Defence was possible unexploded ordinance out on the headland. Furthermore, the Sydney Water treatment plant opposite the blue fish drive burn involves an above-ground storage tank of highly explosive biogas.

(e) We could only burn in certain seasons. The breeding seasons of the Endangered population of Long-nosed Bandicoot (Perameles nasuta) and also the penguins had to be considered. This also involved working in with studies of these that were being done by the University of New South Wales, researching the bandicoot’s pre and post-fire introduction. Then we had to put in a notification strategy. The weather window, given all the other constraints, was very narrow. We put out an email notification system where we were literally going to give people anything from 24 hours notice up to 48 hours notice to actually go ahead with the burn.

This high level of risk meant that I had to win the confidence of senior management of Fire and Rescue NSW to support the burn. We did get that support as well as support from all the other land managers, which was fantastic.

Burns themselves. In terms of the burns themselves, once the fire got into the burn area it developed to very good intensity. It was a very high fuel load situation and one interesting challenge was to try and stop the fire fighters from putting the fires out. The buildings were quite close and they were very small parcels of burns.

Ecological context. The burns that we did on North Head involved a range of experimental treatments that included burning, controlled thinning and untreated controls; with some sites fenced from rabbits, a study conducted by Dr Judy Lambert.

We burnt on a small scale to start with to see what type of regeneration we were going to get from broad area burning out on the headland. The regeneration that we’re getting out at North Head is outstanding. But the biggest problem that we have is the newly sprouted post fire vegetation degradation from rabbits and the bandicoots. So we suggest for any burning in ESBS, the advice is that it needs to be fenced post-burn to encourage the regeneration to thrive.

Fig 2. High biomass vegetation before burn, North Head

Fig 2. High biomass vegetation before burn, North Head

Fig 3. During burn at North Head

Fig 3. During burn at North Head

Fig 4. Water deliver from air, North Head

Fig 4. Water deliver from air, North Head

Fig 5. Mopping up after burn at North Head

Fig 5. Mopping up after burn at North Head

2. La Perouse

At the New South Wales golf course at La Perouse the dominant species, Coastal Tea Tree (Leptospermum laevigatum) was cut and dropped on the ground. They let it cure and then they come in and burn it in isolated pockets.  Burning on the golf course is a lot easier than North Head because there are far fewer risks to plan for and manage, and the eastern boundary is the Pacific Ocean. With this type of environment and preparation we can get extremely high intensity burns which are required for the ESBS. Once again the land managers fence the area to stop exposure to rabbits. At the La Perouse golf course site, we had arson this fire season so we had an additional 21 hectares of wildfire. We’ve put measures in place to monitor what introduced fire has done compared with what wildfire has done in the same vegetative area along Henry Head.

3. Centennial Park

Centennial Park, in the middle of Sydney, has an area of ESBS which is not even a hectare. The Park’s owners, the Centennial Park Trust, have been manually clearing weed from the ESBS, piling it and then conducting pile burns on the area, spreading the ash from that. Once again some really good regeneration has occurred there and the burn area is also fenced off to stop rabbits.

That’s our story of how Fire and Rescue NSW has been involved in broad area burning, windrow burning and pile burning, working with land managers for the recovery of Eastern Suburbs Banksia Scrub.

Acknowledgements: Fire and Rescue NSW acknowledge this project could not have happed without the collaboration of National Parks and Wildlife Service, the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust, North Head Sanctuary Foundation, Rural Fire Service Pittwater Warringah, Road and Maritime Services, NSW Police, Manly Council, Sydney Water, Sydney Ports, Sydney Ferries, Harbor Control, Department of Defence and many others.

Contact: Robert Strauch, Bushfire Officer – Metro East Command, Fire and Rescue NSW (Operational Capability, Specialised Operations, Bushfire Section – Level 1, 55 Dickson Avenue, Artarmon, NSW 2064. Tel: +61 2 9901 2445, +61 448 597 547; Email: E

[This project summary is a precis of a talk presented to the Nature Conservation Council of NSW’s 10th Biennial Bushfire Conference, ‘Fire and Restoration: Working with Fire for Healthy Lands’ 26-27 May 2015. For full paper see:

Fig 6. Windrows before the burn, La Perouse

Fig 6. Windrows before the burn, La Perouse

Fig 7. Burn La Perouse

Fig 7. Burn La Perouse

Fig 8. Mopping up after burn, La Perouse

Fig 8. Mopping up after burn, La Perouse