Photograph by David Doubilet, National Geographic

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A diver measures carbon dioxide uptake in the Great Barrier Reef.

Photograph by David Doubilet, National Geographic

Great Barrier Reef: World Heritage in Danger?

Shrinking coral and failing government may land the reef on a "list of shame."

Australia's Great Barrier Reef is losing coral at an alarming rate—and may soon lose its prestigious status as one of the world's great natural treasures as well.

The World Heritage Committee of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has warned that without the urgent implementation of sustainable management improvements, the reef could land on its list of World Heritage in Danger as early as 2014.

"World Heritage in Danger is essentially the list of shame, and we've got real concerns that UNESCO may put the Great Barrier Reef on this list," said WWF-Australia's Richard Leck. "That's not the outcome that anybody wants," Leck added, noting that national prestige and some $6 billion in annual reef-related tourism could both take a hit.

A government-funded Australian Institute of Marine Science report published last year in the journal PNAS echoed the shockingly bad news from earlier studies, concluding that the reef has lost half of its coral cover during the past 27 years—a period that roughly coincides with its listing as a World Heritage site.

The reef, which stretches for some 1,250 miles (2,000 kilometers) off northeast Australia's Queensland coast, is the largest structure on Earth built by living organisms. It has been battered by storms and beset by an invasion of crown-of-thorns starfish that choke off the natural ecosystem. The reef faces global challenges like warming temperatures, as well as more localized problems including water-fouling runoff pollution, coastal port development, dredging, and increased shipping thanks to a booming local coal industry.

Concerned by the pace of reef deterioration, as well as government-approved port expansions and dredging operations that threaten to damage it, the World Heritage Centre and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) did a comprehensive report on the state of the reef's conservation last March. The group made a series of recommendations, and officially requested that Australia revamp plans to manage the reef.

"We asked for an independent scientific assessment of the Gladstone Harbour [the port project at the gateway to the southern part of the reef] and the impact that development is having on the reef, and asked to have no new port development in areas outside of existing and long-established major port areas," said Fanny Douvere of UNESCO's World Heritage Centre. "We also asked for a strategic assessment that will foresee longer-term sustainable development of the reef area. The reef is about the same size as Italy, so it's normal that the Queensland government wants to develop things in the area. But it has to be done in a sustainable manner, and there are quite a few projects already happening."

But thus far the response of Australian authorities (including in the State Party Report on the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area) appears to have fallen far short, especially in terms of water quality improvements and coastal development. A progress report and draft decision recently released by the World Heritage Centre and IUCN, ahead of the June 17 World Heritage Committee meeting in Cambodia, said "urgent and decisive action is needed" to address the reef's woes, including halts to threatening coastal development projects.

The World Heritage Centre and IUCN "further recommend that the Committee consider the Great Barrier Reef for inscription on the List of World Heritage in Danger at its 38th session in 2014 in the absence of a firm and demonstrable commitment on these priority issues by the State Party."

Environmentalists Give Government Failing Grades

WWF-Australia and the Australian Marine Conservation Society have already released their own scorecard grading the governments' plans, progress, and management of the Great Barrier Reef. Both the Australian and Queensland authorities earned failing grades.

"We've had a really good look at the [World Heritage Centre] recommendations and all the publicly available information we can find on what the government has done, and we found that it wasn't particularly good, so we've expressed a lot of concern that the government won't demonstrate substantial progress," said WWF-Australia's Richard Leck.

Leck said the government has failed to move forward in some key areas. "Reducing pollution from farms and not developing ports out of existing areas—none of those commitments are being made, and that has us concerned that UNESCO may have no choice."

Australian authorities, on the other hand, maintain that the reef is in good hands as "one of the best managed marine protected areas in the world," according to the Australian and Queensland governments' Great Barrier Reef Ports Strategy on future development plans.

Queensland has also pledged $35 million annually for projects to improve reef water quality. And Tony Burke, Australia's Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population, and Communities, has commissioned an independent review of the Port of Gladstone due by June 30 that the agency calls "a key component of the Australian Government's response to the 2012 decision of the World Heritage Committee regarding the ongoing protection and management of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Property."

"We have made substantial progress in addressing the recommendations made by the World Heritage Committee including agreement to conduct one of the most comprehensive strategic assessments ever undertaken in Australia," Burke said in February. "The strategic assessment will assist in future planning for the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area by determining where sustainable development can occur, the type of development that will be allowed, and the conditions under which development may proceed."

Reef Suffering "Death by a Thousand Cuts"

The Great Barrier Reef, actually a group of more than 2,800 separate entities along Australia's eastern coast, is home to a staggering diversity of marine life, from mollusks and fish to sea turtles and aquatic plants.



But Terry Hughes, who heads the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies headquartered at James Cook University, describes it as currently "suffering death by a thousand cuts."

"We have affected their survival, growth, and reproduction, which is the real reason why coral cover has been declining for many decades," he said. "Coastal reefs have been obliterated by runoff of sediment, dredging, and pollution. Once-thriving corals have been replaced by mud and seaweed."

Queensland farmers use seven times more nitrogen-based fertilizers than they did 50 years ago, Hughes said, and have far more land under cultivation. Coal mining has doubled each decade during the same time frame. "The expansion of mining has been accompanied by major rail and port development, near-shore dredging, and unprecedented growth in shipping," he explained.

Hughes says the crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks that have decimated parts off the reef are merely a symptom of its problems, not the cause. Some scientists believe that dredging and nutrient runoff fuel phytoplankton blooms, which in turn feed starfish larvae so well that they explode in numbers. Others believe that systemic changes to the reef food chain mean that fewer young starfish are being eaten by predators.

"The well-documented decline in coral cover highlights UNESCO's concerns about the dwindling universal heritage values [a set of standards that qualifies a site for inclusion on the World Heritage List] of the Barrier Reef. The key question now is, what are we going to do about these losses?" Hughes said.

"To increase coral cover, we need to improve the conditions that help them reproduce, survive, and grow. The capacity for coral recovery is impaired on a reef that is muddy, polluted, or overfished. The ongoing decline of corals demonstrates that the Great Barrier Reef is very poorly positioned to recover from future bouts of coral bleaching or to cope with accelerating coast development and new coal mines."

Hughes hopes to see both Queensland and Commonwealth governments control pollution, curb dredging, and ban new coal ports while reducing the use of carbon-emitting coal.

"We need a bold plan for transforming how the Great Barrier Reef catchment is used," he added. "The Commonwealth's Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has almost no capacity to influence two major drivers of change that are increasingly affecting the reef—activities on land and in Queensland coastal waters that degrade water quality within the GBR World Heritage Area, and global climate change."

Australia's recent Energy White Paper, under then Minister of Resources and Energy Martin Ferguson, would instead grow both coal and gas exports, and produce more than double the number of 2001 ship dockings by 2020.

WWF-Australia's Richard Leck says that environmentalists understand the concerns of those who favor economic development, but that time is running short to act on behalf of the reef. "WWF doesn't want to see industries shut down in Queensland, or farming and fishing. But we really do believe this year is a crucial period of time for the Great Barrier Reef. With the UNESCO meeting in June and a national election here in September, it's a rare opportunity to focus people's minds on the future of the reef. With the level of decline in coral cover, we've already seen that there isn't that big of a window to make commitments to turn this around."