Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Great Barrier Reef

New report notes modest improvements in the Great Barrier Reef's vitality and resilience.


Some relief for Great Barrier Reef

The Australian government yesterday announced that substantial progress has been made toward protecting the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). Conservationists applaud improvements in the reef’s health and resilience, but caution that current government policies do far too little to counter global warming, which officials and scientists both agree is the greatest threat to the reef’s long-term survival.

“[There is] still a long way to go,” says Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, a coral reef expert at University of Queensland, St. Lucia, in Brisbane, Australia.

As part of a March 2015 “Reef 2050 Plan” put forward to avoid the GBR losing its coveted World Heritage Site status, the federal government and the government of Queensland state, which borders much of the GBR, promised annual updates on the status of efforts to manage and protect the reef. Officials feared failure to protect the reef would seriously affect tourism and give the nation a black eye.

The 2015 plan laid out 151 concrete actions for implementation toward “2020 targets” and “2050 outcomes.” Yesterday’s annual report claims that 29 of the 151 actions “are completed or in place” as of mid-2016. These include such steps as reducing the impact of dredging and improving water quality. Another 102 actions are underway. “I think we are on track” to meet key targets, environment minister Josh Frydenberg said in an interview on an Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio program yesterday. He added that the plan is “clearly a work in progress.”   

But conservation groups took aim at one action in particular: restricting land clearing to curtail runoff in Queensland, which is listed as “on track or underway.” Last month, Queensland’s parliament voted down the relevant proposed law. A footnote in the report says that this action will be listed as “significantly delayed” in the future unless parliament resolves the issue.

Problems such as the sediment flow onto the reef have been building for 100 years, notes Hoegh-Guldberg, who serves on two expert panels advising the governments on reef plans. “A serious issue for Australian politicians is to recognize that current investments in fixing the problem will require substantially greater investments,” he says. He pegs the cost at as much as $7.6 billion over the next decade.

A major shortcoming of the new report is that it barely mentions coral bleaching or climate change, says Terry Hughes, a coral reef ecologist at James Cook University, Townsville, in Australia. He says that during campaigns for the federal election held in July—after the massive bleaching event of earlier this year—both major political parties promised measures to protect the reef, but neither offered anything to address the “root cause of the problem, which is global warming.” “There is still a disconnect between what Australia does to protect the reef and granting permits for coal mining and turning away from renewable energy,” Hughes adds.

Even if drastic measures are taken to reduce carbon emissions, climate change will have a dramatic impact on the GBR, predicts Hoegh-Guldberg. Improving water quality and limiting overexploitation of reefs, he says, “will increase their ability to bounce back.”

Australia is due to present a formal progress report on the reef plan to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s World Heritage Center in December.