National Geographic Daily News
CXRJNA Diver with a torch looking at a coral reef with different corals, underwater scenery, block of corals, Great Barrier Reef

A diver enjoys the underwater scenery of the Great Barrier Reef.

PHOTOGRAPH BY IMAGEBROKER, ALAMY  

Brian Handwerk

for National Geographic

Published January 31, 2014

This week's decision to dump dredged sand and silt in Great Barrier Reef waters has prompted warnings that the troubled ecological treasure is one step closer to a spot on World Heritage's "list of shame."

"We're going backwards on the reef—that's the sad truth," says WWF-Australia Reef Campaign Director Richard Leck.

Last year the World Heritage Committee (WHC) of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) warned that without urgent management improvements, the Great Barrier Reef could land on its List of World Heritage in Danger by June 2014—a potential embarrassment and economic hit for Australia. The reef is important to the nation's economy in part because it is an important tourist destination.

This week WWF-Australia and the Australian Marine Conservation Society issued a government progress report and scorecard, blasting the recent decision to allow dredging and claiming that authorities have failed to complete or even make much progress on any of the WHC's detailed recommendations.

"What we get from the Australian and Queensland governments is lots of talk but very little action," Leck says. "The reality on the ground is that major destructive industrial projects that involve outdated practices like dumping dredge spoil [debris] in reef waters continue to be approved."

He notes that dredging can kick up sediment that can potentially drift and bury coral, choking them.

The environmentalists also faulted authorities for failing to tackle pollution and for shifting environmental approval authority from the federal to the Queensland state government. The conservationists allege that the latter is weakening state statutes "in ways that actively impede protection of the reef."

Port Protection

A statement from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority said the agency and federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt green-lighted the seafloor dredging plan to expand a coal port at Abbot Point. The officials also authorized the dumping of up to 100 million cubic feet (3 million cubic meters) of dredged material—known as "spoil"—in reef waters.

That dumping is required to follow what the agencies call "dozens of strict environmental conditions," such as testing sediments for contaminants, monitoring water quality, and offsetting impacts to commercial fishers.

The approval is also part of the marine park authority's plan to limit port development along the Great Barrier Reef coast to existing facilities, said authority chair Russell Reichelt in the statement.

"As a deepwater port that has been in operation for nearly 30 years, Abbot Point is better placed than other ports along the Great Barrier Reef coastline to undertake expansion as the capital and maintenance dredging required will be significantly less than what would be required in other areas," said Reichelt.

The approved disposal site doesn't hold coral or seagrass beds, the officials stressed. It has a seafloor of sand, silt, and clay about 15.5 miles (25 kilometers) offshore from the port, they said.

Reef in Peril?

The Great Barrier Reef is a collection of more than 2,800 separate reef sections, stretching for some 1,250 miles (2,000 kilometers) off northeast Australia's Queensland coast and housing a staggering diversity of marine life. But environmentalists and UN observers say the region has faced challenges in recent years. (Related: "Great Barrier Reef: World Heritage in Danger?")

A 2012 government-funded Australian Institute of Marine Science report published in the journal PNAS concluded that the reef had lost half of its coral cover over the past 27 years. That period roughly coincides with its listing as a World Heritage Site.

Localized threats to the reef include runoff pollution and a bloom of crown-of-thorns starfish that is choking out other species, WWF's Leck says. Added to those problems are ongoing pressures from dredging and increased shipping, he adds.

"The World Heritage Committee will take a dim view of this [dredging] decision, which is in direct contravention of one of its recommendations," Leck says. He suggests that the WHC may decide to list the reef as "World Heritage in Danger" at the group's June meeting in Doha, Qatar. (Related: "5 New World Heritage Sites.")

22 comments
Yasodhara Pathiratne
Yasodhara Pathiratne

Australian authorities . Please conserve your great tourist attraction, and many many plant and animal species in and around this coral reef .

Luke Doyle
Luke Doyle

Sadly this disregard of the environment is not unique in Australia; with the election of the new government there has been a swift move to sacrifice environment in favour of the industry and mining groups that were known to be in direct talks with the now Prime Minister in the lead-up to the election.


The GBR suffers because a certain mining magnate, who owns shares in a TV network, heavily promoted the now-PM, so he's returning a favour. In Tasmania, the federal government wants to delist over a third of World Heritage Listed forest. Why? For logging.


On a state level, in WA sharks are being shot and dumped just off-shore to 'protect beachgoers', regardless of the targeted species being endangered, and despite no evidence to support it will work.


In the end, governments don't care because right now they can say they're creating economic growth. When it comes time to suffer the environmental consequences, they can blame whatever government is in power then.

Michael Goldy
Michael Goldy

This was done in South Florida in the late 1980s. They killed off several living reefs to provide rich condo owners wide beaches like they were used to up north.Big mistake and those responsible should be prosecuted.

steven midgley
steven midgley

no im am not proud to be ausie after reading this.


Joe G.
Joe G.

this is stupid why kill ecosystems?

Joe G.
Joe G.

wow isn't that great. what a good idea dump sand on the largest reef in the world. really what idiot would do that.  

Nandan K
Nandan K

...AAAHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

bashiruddin hosein
bashiruddin hosein

this is ridiculous,,, the question is how long would the proper authority take to put a stop to the whole operation of dumping the dredged sand and also how fast will they re-mediate such the environmental problem

Bridget Cameron
Bridget Cameron

Very saddened, after the huge fight to Save the reef. Unfortunately Australia is now been run by a sociopathic bully, who has no interest in any thing other than himself and his wealthy cronies.When he got into power he immediately dismantled Environment Protections Agencies, and essentially gave the Queensland government ( backward and compromised) the power to decide.  Get up are currently raising funds to get legal support to fight this decision. Are you willing to help out?  https://www.getup.org.au/campaigns/great-barrier-reef--3/reef-fighting-fund/reef-legal-fight?t=dXNlcmlkPTIwMDIwNjUsZW1haWxpZD0zNjYz

Al Black
Al Black

A lot of emotive rubbish has been spouted about this issue. No-one is dumping sludge on the Great Barrier Reef. The material dredged from the harbour is 70% sand, 30% clay, both natural materials washed out to sea by all of our rivers every time it floods in Queensland. Natural silt is deposited in shallow water on seagrass habitats, where it is harmful, but completely natural. The dredge spoil is to be dumped in a deep sea area 25km out from the coast, 40km from the nearest part of the Great Barrier Reef, which does not contain coral reefs or seagrass beds. In other words there is no risk to the Great Barrier Reef at all. The lies and hysteria pushed by left-wing anti-capitalist groups posing as environmentalists is an "international embarrassment", and will no doubt lead to their socialist mates in the UN issuing a report condemning Australia for "Dumping garbage" on a World Heritage site: like every other bureaucratic bleating from the UN, this too can be safely ignored.

Swiftright Right
Swiftright Right

What idiots, how much would it cost to move the dredge a few miles further out?  Im willing to bet it be way less then the titanic hit Australia would take to its tourist economy


The total coal exports of the entire nation amount to like 10 billion USD, their tourist industry nets them 35 billion USD Doesn't take a math wiz to figure out which is more important.

John Seychel
John Seychel

Why would they do that? This action is clearly against nature. The last I heard no one can even go near that area with a motor boat, and now they're going to kill it with dredge sands??? Stupid is as stupid does.

Joe G.
Joe G.

@Al Black   I think national geographic is a little smarter than you.

Al Black
Al Black

@Swiftright Right  They are already doing exactly that - dumping "a few miles further out": 25 km further out, over a deep ocean trench, more than 40km from the Great Barrier Reef.

Lorretta Rollinson
Lorretta Rollinson

@John Seychel  

the failure to  clean up of industrial pollution in Detroit is hampering the growth of new green sustainable industries that are not reliant on oil , this area should have been regarded as in crises many years ago , plus look at all the pollution spewing engines produced there

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