Great Barrier Reef

Country
Australia
Inscribed in
1981
Criteria
(vii)
(viii)
(ix)
(x)
The conservation outlook for this site has been assessed as "critical" in the latest assessment cycle. Explore the Conservation Outlook Assessment for the site below. You have the option to access the summary, or the detailed assessment.
The Great Barrier Reef is a site of remarkable variety and beauty on the north-east coast of Australia. It contains the world’s largest collection of coral reefs, with 400 types of coral, 1,500 species of fish and 4,000 types of mollusc. It also holds great scientific interest as the habitat of species such as the dugong (‘sea cow’) and the large green turtle, which are threatened with extinction. © UNESCO
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Summary

2020 Conservation Outlook

Finalised on
02 Dec 2020
Critical
The Great Barrier Reef, one of the earliest properties to be inscribed as World Heritage, is a global icon. Regrettably, a number of values for which the Great Barrier Reef was inscribed on the World Heritage List have been declining significantly. There has been a further dramatic decline as a result of the 2016, 2017 and 2020 coral bleaching events. Some of the activities causing a threat to the values of the site can be influenced by the management authorities, such as fishing and coastal development. Other pressures cannot be addressed at the site level, such as climate change, which is recognized as the greatest threat to the Outstanding Universal Value of the site. While individual decisions and management approaches appear in themselves adequate, the cumulative impacts of many decisions, on top of the legacy impacts and impending impacts of climate change, are of concern. In addition to the decline in coral cover and other impacts caused by the bleaching events, ongoing declines have also been noted across a range of other attributes comprising the sites's OUV, as evidenced by the declining trends in loggerhead, hawksbill and northern green turtle populations and scalloped hammerhead shark, deteriorating trends in many seabird populations and possible declines in some dolphin species. Many important processes underpinning the complexity of the Great Barrier Reef have also been declining as a result of climate change, including reef building and recruitment. The Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan has been recognised as a significant step in providing an overarching framework for the management of the site and addressing the multiple threats it is facing; however, progress towards achieving some of the targets has been slow so far and it has not been possible yet to stop the decline in many of the site's values. Although overall the site's protection and management capacity are often cited as being among the best in the world, it is clear that many of the values are continuing to decline.

Current state and trend of VALUES

Critical
Trend
Deteriorating
The Great Barrier Reef is a very large World Heritage site with multiple attributes comprising its Outstanding Universal Value. Since inscription in 1981, and despite overall good management and protection, many iconic species and habitats have declined. While there have been positive trends, such as some improvements in water quality and the increase in humpback whale numbers, most of the values of the Great Barrier Reef continue to be seriously affected by a range of threats. The 2016, 2017 and 2020 coral bleaching events have been unprecedented in severity, frequency and impacts and have caused loss of corals along two thirds of the Great Barrier Reef, resulting in unprecedented levels of coral mortality. Declines in other important attributes of the Outstanding Universal Value are also of serious concern, with population declines recorded across plant, invertebrate and vertebrate species. It is expected that higher sea temperatures will have negative impacts on heat-sensitive seagrass species. Continued declines in loggerhead, hawksbill and northern green turtle populations and scalloped hammerhead shark are also of concern. The condition of many seabird species is deteriorating, due to the impacts of changes in sea surface temperature on food supplies and other factors. Populations of two inshore dolphin species, the endemic Australian snubfin dolphin and the Australian humpback dolphin may also have continued to decline due to human-related mortality. The integrity of many important processes underpinning the complexity of the Great Barrier Reef has also been declining, as a result of climate change combined with other factors, including reef building and recruitment, with coral recruitment across the entire Great Barrier Reef estimated to have declined by 89 per cent in 2018 compared to recruitment levels before 2016.

Overall THREATS

Very High Threat
Climate change poses the most significant threat to the long-term conservation of the Great Barrier Reef. Significantly the 2016, 2017 and 2020 bleaching events have seriously affected many elements underpinning the Outstanding Universal Value of the site. Poor water quality due to catchment runoff, impacts from coastal development, impacts from fishing and crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks also continue to pose major threats to the long-term conservation of the site. Despite the scale of management and significant resources in place to deal with these challenges, the level of threats to the site’s values remains very high. The cumulative impacts due to the synergistic effects of multiple threats is also of increasing concern.

Overall PROTECTION and MANAGEMENT

Mostly Effective
The enormous size of this World Heritage site and surrounding developmental pressures means that there will always be protection and management challenges. The management authority (the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, or GBRMPA) has often been cited as a leader in protected area management; however, there remain strategic issues concerning climate change and sustainable development that continue to be of significant challenge for the future of the Great Barrier Reef. Although the management authority has taken extensive and innovative measures in order to protect the site, until the status of values is shown to be maintained, concerns remain and overall the threats remain significant and the status of the values for which Great Barrier Reef was inscribed on the World Heritage list continue to deteriorate. The adoption of the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan has been recognised as a significant step in providing an overarching framework for the management of the Great Barrier Reef and addressing the multiple threats it is facing; however, progress towards achieving some of the targets has been slow so far.

Full assessment

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Finalised on
02 Dec 2020

Description of values

Exceptional geological formations and processes linking reefs, coral cays and continental islands.

Criterion
(viii)
The Great Barrier Reef represents the world’s largest coral reef ecosystem demonstrating all stages of reef development. The processes of geological and geomorphological evolution are well represented, linking 600 continental islands with more than 300 coral cays and some 3,000 reefs. The varied sea and landscapes within the World Heritage site have been moulded over the past 15,000 years by changing climates, sea levels and the erosive power of wind and water (World Heritage Committee, 2012; State Party of Australia, 1981; IUCN, 1981; Lucas et al., 1997).

Spectacular species assemblages

Criterion
(vii)
The Great Barrier Reef is home to spectacular and globally important breeding colonies of seabirds and nesting marine turtles, including the world’s largest green turtle breeding area. Other assemblages found within the World Heritage site include annual coral spawning, migrating whales and significant spawning aggregations of many fish species (World Heritage Committee, 2012; State Party of Australia, 1981; IUCN, 1981; Lucas et al., 1997).

Superlative natural beauty above and below the water

Criterion
(vii)
The Great Barrier Reef is of superlative natural beauty both above and below the water, providing some of the most spectacular scenery on Earth. From the air, the vast mosaic patterns of reefs, islands and coral cays produce an unparalleled aerial panorama of seascapes comprised of diverse shapes and sizes (World Heritage Committee, 2012). The spectacular scenery includes magnificent vistas of green vegetated islands and spectacular sandy beaches alongside azure waters, vast mangrove forests and framed by rugged vegetated mountains with lush rainforest gullies. Below water is the worlds’ largest network of living coral reefs with spectacular assemblages of hard and soft corals, and thousands of species of reef fish (World Heritage Committee, 2012; State Party of Australia, 1981; IUCN, 1981; Lucas et al., 1997).

Outstanding on-going ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of coastal and marine ecosystems and communities of plants and animals

Criterion
(ix)
The globally significant diversity of reef and island morphologies contained within the World Heritage site reflects ongoing geomorphic, oceanographic and environmental processes. Complex cross-shelf, longshore and vertical connectivity is influenced by dynamic oceanic currents and ongoing ecological processes such as upwellings, larval dispersal and migration. Biologically, the unique diversity of the Great Barrier Reef reflects the maturity of an ecosystem that has evolved over millennia; evidence exists for the evolution of hard corals and other fauna (World Heritage Committee, 2012; State Party of Australia, 1981; IUCN, 1981; Lucas et al., 1997).

Outstanding diversity of plants including mangroves and seagrass

Criterion
(x)
The continental islands within the World Heritage site support thousands of plant species, while the coral cays have their own distinct flora including threatened species. The shallower marine areas support 37 species of mangroves (54% of the world diversity) and 15 seagrass species covering over 6,000 km2 (23% of the world diversity). A further 40,000 km2 of deep-water seagrasses is also estimated (World Heritage Committee, 2012; State Party of Australia, 1981; 2013a; IUCN, 1981; Lucas et al., 1997; GBRMPA, 2009; Coles et al., 2009). One deep-water species of seagrass, Halophila tricostata, is endemic to the area (GBRMPA, 2019a). More than 880 species of benthic algae exist in the Great Barrier Reef and the total number of species of large, fleshy macroalgae is unquantified (GBRMPA, 2019a). Since 2016, three new species of mangrove been recorded within the World Heritage site, through either new species identification or range extension (GBRMPA, 2019a).

Outstanding diversity of invertebrate species, including hard and soft corals

Criterion
(x)
The Great Barrier Reef is home to more than 1200 species of hard (skeletonised) and soft corals and to 32 invertebrate phyla (major groups), consisting of over 12,000 described species (GBRMPA, 2019a). It also includes at least 300 species of tunicates, 332 species of bryozoans, 630 species of echinoderms, at least 6,000 species of molluscs, at least 2,500 species of sponges and a high diversity of flatworms, crustaceans and polychaetes (GBRMPAa, 2019a).

Outstanding diversity of fish including threatened species

Criterion
(x)
Great Barrier Reef is home to over 1,600 species of fish in more than 130 families with the number of reef-associated fish alone being 1,468 (World Heritage Committee, 2012; State Party of Australia, 1981; 2013a; IUCN, 1981; Lucas et al., 1997; GBRMPA, 2009). Approximately 136 different species of chondrichthyan fishes are known to inhabit the Great Barrier Reef, 82 of which are sharks, making it a global hotspot of shark species richness, functional diversity and endemicity (GBRMPA, 2019a).

Threatened reptiles

Criterion
(x)
With six of the world’s seven species of marine turtle, the Great Barrier provides globally important nesting and feeding grounds for the loggerhead (Caretta caretta, EN); green (Chelonia mydas, EN); hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata, CR) and flatback (Natator depressus, DD) turtles, including one of the last significant breeding populations of the hawksbill turtle in the world, the largest green turtle breeding population in the world and 70% of the South Pacific population of the loggerhead turtle. Sixteen species of true sea snakes have been recorded, of which 14 species maintain permanent breeding populations (World Heritage Committee, 2012; State Party of Australia, 1981; IUCN, 1981; Lucas et al., 1997; GBRMP, 2012; GBRMPA, 2019a).

Bird diversity

Criterion
(x)
The site supports breeding populations of 20 seabird species. Raine Island is the only known breeding site in Australia for the critically endangered herald petrel (Pterodroma heraldica) (GBRMPA, 2019a). Approximately 41 (80 per cent) of Australia’s shorebird species are known to inhabit the Great Barrier Reef region and adjacent coastline (GBRMPA, 2019a).

Threatened marine mammals

Criterion
(x)
The Great Barrier Reef is home to one of the world’s largest populations of dugong (Dugong dugon, VU). It is also a significant refuge for cetaceans with 15 species of whales and 18 species dolphins, including the Australian snubfin dolphin (Orcaella heinsohni, CR) and the Australian humpback dolphin (Sousa sahulensis, VU). Regionally important habitat for the dwarf minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata, LC) and an important breeding ground for humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae, LC). Longman’s beaked whale (Indopacetus pacificus, DD), possibly the rarest whale in the world, has been recorded here (World Heritage Committee, 2012; State Party of Australia, 1981; IUCN, 1981; Lucas et al., 1997). The first recorded sighting of a rare Omura’s whale (Balaenoptera omurai) in the Great Barrier Reef was filmed in 2016 (GBRMPA, 2019a).

Assessment information

Very High Threat
Climate change, poor water quality from catchment runoff, impacts from coastal development, impacts of fishing and crown-of-thorns starfish pose the biggest threats to the long-term conservation of the Great Barrier Reef and its Outstanding Universal Value. Collectively the various impacts of climate change pose the greatest current threat to the GBR, and both local and global efforts are urgently required to reduce those impacts. Poor water quality is an extremely important threat, particularly affecting in-shore regions of the reef. The extent of impacts from consecutive coral bleaching events in 2016, 2017 and 2020, in terms of both frequency and severity, has never been seen historically. The 2019 Great Barrier Outlook Report listed 45 threats to the reef ecosystem, many of which can act together to exacerbate the impacts. These cumulative effects are not all well understood and have not been adequately addressed to date, so this is further cause for concern.
Water Pollution, Household Sewage/ Urban Waste Water, Agricultural effluents
(Poor water quality from catchment run-off)
Very High Threat
Inside site
, Widespread(15-50%)
Outside site
Over recent years there has been some improvement in water quality from catchment run-off initially through the ambitious Reef Water Quality Protection Plan (UNESCO and IUCN, 2012; Reef Water Quality Protection Plan Secretariat, 2013) (directed particularly at improving inshore water quality), now updated to the Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan 2017-2022 (Queensland Government, 2018) as part of the Reef 2050 Long-term Sustainability Plan. Progress towards achieving the water quality targets has been slow and the most immediate water quality targets are unlikely to be achieved within the planned timeframe (UNESCO, 2017). The 2017 Scientific Consensus Statement for the Great Barrier Reef also noted that “current initiatives will not meet the water quality targets” (Australian Government and Queensland Government, 2017). According to the Reef Water Quality Report Card 2017 and 2018, some progress has been achieved with meeting some of the 2025 targets, however, for many the results have been assessed as "poor" or "very poor", including adoption of best management practices for the majority of agricultural practice across the catchment (Queensland Government, 2019a). Thus, water quality remains a significant threat to the Outstanding Universal Value of the Great Barrier Reef.
Invasive Non-Native/ Alien Species, Problematic Native Species
(Crown-of-thorns starfish)
Very High Threat
Inside site
, Scattered(5-15%)
Outside site
Outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish continue to occur on the Great Barrier Reef. There is some evidence to support a connection between human-related impacts (in particular, nutrients from land-based runoff) and outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish. While the exact combination of factors that lead to primary COTS outbreaks are not fully understood, research suggests that a combination of factors may be involved, including environmental factors such as nutrient run-off, fishing pressure, coral prey availability, and hydrodynamic circulation patterns (Pratchett et al., 2017).
Over the period 2012-2015, the Australian Government invested AU$10.5 million into a targeted crown-of-thorns starfish control programme (State Party of Australia, 2015) and as of 2017 a further AU$21 million has been invested to expand the programme through to 2020. The programme has been reported to have been successful in holding the densities of crown-of-thorns below set thresholds on 75% of 57 priority reefs between Port Douglas and Townsville (State Party of Australia, 2019), however, outbreaks of crown-of-thorns remain a serious threat.
 
Fishing / Harvesting Aquatic Resources
(Impacts from fishing on target and non-target species)
High Threat
Inside site
, Widespread(15-50%)
Outside site
Rezoning of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in 2004 (GBRMPA, 2004) increased no-take zones up to 33% of the World Heritage site, along with the reduction of effort in some commercial sectors. The introduction of 16 dugong protection areas, in 1997, has also been positive. The overall compliance and surveillance programme for the no-take zones and spatial protection provided by dugong protection areas to gillnet fishing is highly sophisticated (GBRMPA, 2009; UNESCO and IUCN, 2012), however, non-compliance remains an issue for both the recreational and commercial sectors (GBRMPA, 2014), even though the number of commercial fishing offences has been showing a declining trend over recent years (GBRMPA, 2019a). Staff and resources for field compliance programmes have increased in recent years. Incidental capture in commercial mesh nets is noted as one of the anthropogenic factors that cumulatively impact dolphin populations (GBRMPA, 2019a). Fishing activities are also a high risk to other non-target species, including sawfish, dugong, sea snakes. In 2017, the Queensland Government released the Queensland Sustainable Fisheries Strategy 2017-2027 that aims to ensure fisheries resources are managed in a sustainable and responsible manner (Queensland Government, 2017). In June 2017, the Queensland Government approved AU$20.883 million over 3 years to support implementation. The Progress Report (Year 2) of the implementation of the Strategy noted that progress in most of the 10 identified reform areas was "on track" and that all actions planned for 2018-2019 have been completed. However, some of the 2020 targets have not been achieved yet, such as for example the "No Queensland fisheries overfished" target, with some stocks (scallop, snapper and pearl perch) noted as overfished (Queensland Government, 2019b).
Tourism/ visitors/ recreation
(Tourism)
Low Threat
Inside site
, Widespread(15-50%)
Outside site
Compared to other threats, direct impacts from tourism remain low. The marine tourism industry is a key partner in the protection and management of the Great Barrier Reef. Many tourism operators ensure their activities are best practice by following the Responsible Reef Practices for tourism operators. High Standard Tourism Operators voluntarily operate to a higher standard than required by legislation as part of their commitment to ecologically sustainable use. These operators are independently certified as meeting best practice standards for the key areas of protection, presentation and partnership. Nonetheless, some impacts from tourism, and recreational activities in general, occur and include direct impacts through anchor damage, boat strikes, damage to corals by divers and snorkellers, disturbance of wildlife, as well as potential indirect impacts, such as for example introduction of invasive species (GBRMPA, 2019a).
Ocean acidification, Temperature extremes, Storms/Flooding
(Climate change and severe weather)
Very High Threat
Inside site
, Throughout(>50%)
Outside site
Climate change poses the biggest threat to the long-term conservation of the Great Barrier Reef and its Outstanding Universal Value (GBRMPA, 2019a). Of most concern are ocean warming and acidification and the increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. The back-to-back coral bleaching that occurred in 2016 and again in 2017 was unprecedented, impacting the upper two-thirds of the length of the Reef. The most recent 2020 bleaching was severe and the most widespread ever recorded (ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, 2020; GBRMPA, 2020). 25% of reefs were severely affected – that is, on each reef more than 60% of corals were bleached (GBRMPA, 2020). A further 35% of reefs had more modest levels of bleaching. This followed the highest monthly sea surface temperatures (in February) ever recorded on the Great Barrier Reef since the Bureau of Meteorology’s records began in 1900. The proportion of severely bleached reefs in 2020 was exceeded only by 2016, and 2020 was the second-worst mass bleaching event of the five experienced on the Great Barrier Reef since 1998. A study by Hughes et al. (2017), based on data collected during the 2016 bleaching, as well as previous events, showed that of the 171 individual reefs that were aerially surveyed, 43% bleached in 1998, 56% in 2002, and 85% in 2016. The northern region of the Great Barrier Reef was affected most in 2016 (Hughes et al., 2017). The interim report on 2016 coral bleaching notes widespread bleaching of various levels of severity throughout the World Heritage site, with the most severe bleaching documented between the tip of Cape York and just north of Port Douglas (GBRMPA, 2016b). The 2017 bleaching event caused further decline in coral cover in the northern two thirds of the Great Barrier Reef (GBRMPA, 2019c). The unprecedented severe bleaching and mortality of corals in 2016 in the Great Barrier Reef was widely seen as a game changer. Some have argued that given the severity of the damage and the slow trajectory of recovery, the overarching vision of the Reef 2050 Long-term Sustainability Plan is no longer attainable for at least the next two decades (Tarte et al., 2017). The 2019 Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report concluded that "significant global action to address climate change is critical to slowing deterioration of the Reef’s ecosystem and heritage values and supporting recovery" (GBRMPA, 2019a). 
Shipping Lanes
(Shipping)
High Threat
Inside site
, Widespread(15-50%)
Outside site
Shipping is associated with different negative impacts, including noise pollution and risk ship strikes to marine animals. A recent study quantified the risk of ship strikes to the population of the east Australian humpback whales in the Great Barrier Reef and noted spatial conflict between their main breeding area and the main shipping route that services large export ports (Smith et al., 2020). The same stufy further predicts a three- to five-fold increase in risk to humpback whales from ship strikes over the next ten years. Risk of oil and chemical spills is of concern (e.g. the Chinese ship Shen Neng 1 grounded on the Reef in 2010 – the largest ever known direct impact by a ship in the Great Barrier Reef, damaging an area of 0.4 km2). As a result of this, the Vessel Traffic Service was extended to cover the entire Reef Region. Shipping may also introduce invasive species from ballast water and there are problems of waste disposal, anchor damage and biocides from anti-fouling. Management and regulation of shipping and marine safety is implemented through the Australian Marine Safety Authority (GBRMPA, 2009; UNESCO and IUCN, 2012; Senate Hearing, 2013). The North East Shipping Management Plan (North-East Shipping Management Group, 2019) provides the framework for the management of risks, and complements the Reef 2050 Plan. Since 2014, five oil spills from ships have been reported, one being a moderate-size oil spill and four minor ones (GBRMPA, 2019a). The latest comprehensive assessment of impacts of ship anchorages was undertaken in 2013, but it is estimated that impacts remained at the same level given that shipping traffic has been maintained at similar levels (GBRMPA, 2019a).
Commercial/ Industrial Areas
(Coastal development and ports)
High Threat
Inside site
, Scattered(5-15%)
Outside site
The 2019 Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report noted that the Great Barrier Reef's "ecosystem remains vulnerable to the effects of legacy, current and future coastal development, as well as cumulative impacts. The primary pressure from coastal development is from agricultural land use. By comparison, pressure from urban, industrial and mining development is minor” (GBRMPA, 2019a). Extension of existing ports and dredging continue to pose significant threats to the Outstanding Universal Value of the Great Barrier Reef. Impacts from such development include loss and degradation of critical habitat for marine megafauna; fragmentation of dugong, turtle and dolphin populations through habitat loss and degradation. This matter has also been discussed extensively by the World Heritage Committee, which in 2017 welcomed the decision to establish a permanent ban on dumping of dredged material from all capital dredging projects within the World Heritage site (World Heritage Committee, 2017). Legislation has since been passed to ban sea-based disposal of capital dredge material in the World Heritage site and to restrict new port development within current port limits (UNESCO, 2017). Mandated under the Queensland Sustainable Ports Development Act 2015 (Ports Act, Part 1, Clause 2), master plans have been in preparation for the priority ports Gladstone, Abbot Point, Townsville and Hay Point/Mackay. While some impacts associated with the operations of ports have been reduced, others persist, for example direct impacts continue to occur from coal dust contamination, which escapes as coal is transferred between train and ship (GBRMPA, 2019a).
Additionally, impacts of inappropriate coastal development remain of concern, as has been highlighted in the Reef 2050 Plan and the Scientific Consensus Statement (Waterhouse et al., 2017, Schaffelke et al., 2017). Certain improvements in this area have been achieved in recent years; however, their positive impacts have yet to be demonstrated (Leverington et al., 2019).
Solid Waste
(Marine debris)
High Threat
Inside site
, Widespread(15-50%)
Outside site
Ocean currents transport debris around the world’s oceans making the Great Barrier Reef Region vulnerable to debris from both local and more distant sources. Given the rapid increase in plastic production globally, the longevity of this material and the disposable nature of plastic items, plastic marine debris is likely to persist into the future. While knowledge on distribution and movement of marine debris of all sizes continues to grow, less is known about the frequency, geographic extent and broadscale effects of its interactions with the species (GBRMPA, 2019a).
Diseases/pathogens
(Outbreak of disease)
High Threat
Inside site
, Scattered(5-15%)
Diseases are known to have affected a number of organisms, including corals, turtles, dolphins, urchins, sponges, molluscs, seagrasses, fishes and crabs. The causes of disease are difficult to ascertain but are likely to be varied. Increased susceptibility is caused by stress from both acute and chronic influences. For example, outbreaks of coral disease have been linked to increased sea temperature, making further outbreaks likely. Similarly, high disease rates in some commercially caught coral trout in 2016 may have been influenced by heavy bleaching on source reefs. Consequences will vary depending on the disease and duration of outbreak but could have major effects at a broad scale (Brodnicke et al. 2019; GBRMPA, 2019a).
Very High Threat
Recent severe bleaching events have already demonstrated the scale of impacts from climate change. Impacts of climate change are predicted to further accelerate in the future. Severe weather events, such as cyclones are also predicted to increase in their intensity. Other potential threats include possible impacts from further expansion of port facilities and increases in shipping traffic associated with the operation of the Carmichael Coal Mine.
Mining/ Quarrying
(Potential impacts of the Carmichael Coal Mine)
High Threat
Outside site
The Carmichael Coal Mine is located in the Galilee Basin of central Queensland, approximately 300 kilometres inland. The Carmichael Coal Mine and Rail Project was proposed by Adani Mining Pty Ltd in 2010. The project was considered a controlled action under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. The project received an initial approval from the Ministry of Environment in 2015. Subsequently, further documents developed by the project's proponent, such as the Groundwater Dependent Ecosystems Management Plan and the Groundwater Management and Monitoring Plan, were also assessed in consultation with CSIRO, Geosciences Australia and other relevant organizations. Following this assessment, the plans, by then further modified by the approval holder to address some of the issues raised through the review, were approved in 2019 (Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, 2020). The project has been controversial and a number of international banks and insurance companies have refused to support the project, some over wider environmental concerns, but some with specific reference to Adani's activities (Hall, 2020).
Main concerns related to the conservation of the Great Barrier Reef are around the possible impacts from further expansion of port facilities at the Port of Abbot Point, from where the coal would be shipped, and increases in shipping traffic that would result (Grech et al., 2015).
Climate change poses the most significant threat to the long-term conservation of the Great Barrier Reef. Significantly the 2016, 2017 and 2020 bleaching events have seriously affected many elements underpinning the Outstanding Universal Value of the site. Poor water quality due to catchment runoff, impacts from coastal development, impacts from fishing and crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks also continue to pose major threats to the long-term conservation of the site. Despite the scale of management and significant resources in place to deal with these challenges, the level of threats to the site’s values remains very high. The cumulative impacts due to the synergistic effects of multiple threats is also of increasing concern.
Management system
Mostly Effective
The Australian and Queensland governments have been working together for the long-term protection and conservation of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park since its inception in 1975.
This cooperative approach was formalised by the Emerald Agreement in 1979. It was updated in July 2009 with the Great Barrier Reef Intergovernmental Agreement to provide a contemporary framework for cooperation between the governments, recognising challenges such as climate change and catchment water quality not foreseen at the time of the 1979 agreement.
The 2015 Agreement reflects the shared vision for the future outlined in the Reef 2050 Plan, and renews the Australian and Queensland governments’ commitment to protecting the Great Barrier Reef and its Outstanding Universal Value.
The Great Barrier Reef Ministerial Forum oversees the implementation of the Intergovernmental Agreement. The Ministerial Forum is comprised of two ministers each from the Australian and Queensland governments with responsibility for matters relating to the environment and marine parks, science, tourism and/or natural resource management.
The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) is the management authority for the park, which covers some 99% of the World Heritage site. It works in partnership with the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service to deliver an effective Joint Field Management programme; ensuring that users of the Reef comply with Zoning Plans (GBRMPA, 2011; GBRMPA and Queensland Government, 2018). The management system includes a multi-use zoning plan, local plans of management and numerous strategies for biodiversity conservation, tourism, invasive species management, water quality, etc. The Reef 2050 Long-term Sustainability Plan adopted by the Australian and Queensland Governments in 2015 has been welcomed by the World Heritage Committee as providing an overarching framework for the management of the World Heritage site in the face of multiple and complex challenges. The Plan defines a comprehensive vision for the conservation of the site’s OUV over the next 35 years and proposes 7 major outcomes for the World Heritage site to be delivered by 2050 (UNESCO, 2015).
In 2017, an independent review of the governance of the Marine Park Authority was commissioned and the Government has accepted all 24 recommendations made by the independent report, which are now being implemented (State Party of Australia, 2019).
Effectiveness of management system
Some Concern
The adoption of the Reef 2050 Long-term Sustainability Plan (Reef 2050 Plan) has been recognised as a very significant step in providing an overarching framework for the management of the World Heritage site and addressing the multiple threats it is facing; however, progress towards achieving some of the targets has been slow so far (UNESCO, 2017).
An independent review of the management effectiveness, prepared as a separate assessment for the 2019 GBR Outlook report reviewed a set of management topics (such as coastal development, ports, fishing etc.) and concluded that across many topics the effectiveness of existing measures was good or very good and that many of the improvements are the result of the Reef 2050 Plan. However, positive outcomes on the ground have not been fully achieved yet for more complex topics, namely climate change, land-based run-off, coastal development, fishing and biodiversity (Leverington et al., 2019).
Boundaries
Mostly Effective
Boundaries of the World Heritage site mostly match the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. The Marine Park comprises 99% of the site. Parts of the World Heritage site not included in the Marine Park comprise: islands under State (Queensland) jurisdiction (about half of these are national parks); State waters and internal waters of Queensland (e.g. deep bays or narrow inlets, many of which are State Marine Parks); and a number of small exclusion areas around major ports/ urban centres (e.g. Cairns). These boundary differences result in jurisdictional complexities, and in many cases, have resulted in challenges in regards to management of GBR coastal freshwater ecosystems, estuaries and port exclusion areas. The World Heritage site is managed through a comprehensive multi-level ‘management system’ of a range of spatial and temporal plans of which the comprehensive multiple-use zoning system (GBRMPA, 2004) is a key component, and which is matched by complementary Queensland legislation in the adjoining State land and waters. The Coral Sea Commonwealth Marine Reserve, which covers 989,842 km2 and abuts the entire eastern edge of the World Heritage site, adds substantial additional protection for the site's integrity (State Party of Australia, 2013b). While the Australian Government’s EPBC Act 1999 provides the framework to protect and manage Australia’s World Heritage sites, and State legislation exists to manage locations that fall within the site but not the Marine Park, there has been a lack of integration of research, management and monitoring activities in these areas.
Integration into regional and national planning systems
Some Concern
The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) is the statutory Australian management authority for the marine park, and works with the Queensland Government and a range of State and Federal government agencies in cooperative partnerships (GBRMPA, 2011; GBRMPA, 2019a; GBRMPA, 2020b). In general terms, the actual Marine Park falls under Australian Government jurisdiction, and the adjacent catchments are within the jurisdiction of the Queensland State Government. These differences lead to issues when adopting an ecosystem-based approach to management (Brodie and Waterhouse, 2012). They also add layers of complexity to integrating the World Heritage site into national and regional planning. The Reef 2050 Plan includes several actions for regional and national planning.
Relationships with local people
Mostly Effective
There is a strong commitment to the protection of the World Heritage site among all stakeholders involved, including Commonwealth, State and local authorities, Traditional Owners, representatives from NGOs, the private sector and the wider community (UNESCO and IUCN, 2012).
Over the past decade, GBRMPA has been working with Traditional Owners in the development and implementation of Traditional Use of Marine Resources Agreements (TUMRA’s). These are community-based plans for management of traditional resources which are accredited in legislation and have proved a successful mechanism moving toward joint management of the Reef.
In 2019, GBRMPA released its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Strategy aimed at improving understanding, protection and promotion of Indigenous heritage values of the Reef (GBRMPA, 2019b).
GBRMPA is also supported by two Reef Advisory Committees (Indigenous Reef Advisory Committee and Tourism Reef Advisory Committee) and 12 voluntary community-based Local Marine Advisory Committees. GBRMPA also engages with stakeholders through the Reef Guardians programme which includes Reef Guardian Schools, Councils and Fishers. The Reef 2050 Advisory Committee and Reef 2050 Plan Independent Expert Panel support the implementation of the Reef 2050 Plan.
Projects funded under the $704 million Australian Government Reef Trust program focus on relationships with local people, such as farmers (https://www.environment.gov.au/marine/gbr/reef-trust/projects). 
Legal framework
Mostly Effective
The primary objective of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 (Australian Government, 1975) is “…to provide for the long term protection and conservation of the environment, biodiversity and heritage values of the Great Barrier Reef Region”. The legislation, however, also has secondary objectives, including “allowing ecologically sustainable use”. In addition, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999 is a model for World Heritage legal framework, and other laws. There are many other relevant pieces of Federal and State legislation that provide additional legal protection and apply over differing jurisdictional areas within the GBR, addressing such matters as Native Title, sea dumping, historic shipwrecks, fisheries, etc. (see GBRMPA, 2019a). A number of specific new regulations have recently been adopted to address some specific issues. These include a ban on sea-based disposal of capital dredge material in the World Heritage site (but not maintenance dredge spoil) and restriction of new port development to current port limits (UNESCO, 2017). The statutory Zoning Plans are only one of many statutory spatial management layers used within the GBR. Others include statutory plans of management for high use and important conservation areas, site plans, special management areas, and other spatial and temporal management provisions (e.g. defence training areas, designated shipping areas, seasonal closures and agreements with Traditional Owners). Today there are complementary (State/Federal) management provisions for virtually all marine waters in the GBR Region irrespective of the jurisdiction.
Legal framework continues to be improved, with new regulations being adopted to address specific threats to GBR, such as for example the recent legislation adopted by the Queensland Government in 2019 aimed at strengthening the regulatory framework for reducing nutrient and sediment releases from existing and new agricultural activities and new industrial development and the 2018 Vegetation Management laws (State Party of Australia, 2019).
Law enforcement
Mostly Effective
Complementary management arrangements are in place between GBRMPA and the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Servce and Partnerships (QPWSP) and the joint Field Management Program is jointly undertaken with the Queensland Government. Other State and Federal agencies work with GBRMPA, including the Queensland Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. Under the Queensland Sustainable Fishing Strategy 2017–2027, vessel tracking of priority commercial fisheries in the World Heritage Area – net, line and crab – commenced on 1 January 2019. The program now has a fully-functioning commercial drone operation capable of conducting effective over-water marine surveillance. The GBRMPA provides support for Traditional Owner groups with rangers through the Eyes and Ears — Better Witness training package. This training helps participants determine and describe their role in compliance while working as rangers or as part of the greater community, and be potentially better witnesses when dealing with compliance issues (GBRMPA, 2019d). The GBRMPA’s resources include funding and capacity directed at ensuring tourism and other uses are environmentally sustainable. This is done by developing tourism management arrangements as well as managing tourism permits, environmental impact assessments, planning, compliance and enforcement. The Department of Defence contributes to providing for security and border protection, assists with quarantine and fisheries enforcement. The remoteness of some locations within the World Heritage site makes enforcement particularly challenging. In 2018–19, there were 928 days dedicated to compliance patrols — 821 days on vessels, nine land-based days and 98 days of chartered flights — to encourage user compliance and maintain the World Heritage values (Field Management Program summary 2018-19). In 2018-19, there were 1117 possible offences reported. Illegal recreational fishing comprised 56 per cent of these offences, similar to the preceding two years. These reported offences resulted in 166 infringement notices ($334,013 in fines), 45 caution notices, 277 advisory letters, 14 warning notices and 41 court prosecutions (GBRMPA and Queensland Government, 2019).
Implementation of Committee decisions and recommendations
Some Concern
The 39th session of the World Heritage Committee in 2015 was a crucial moment where the Committee examined progress made by Australia in the implementation of its requests. Decision 39 COM 7B.7 (World Heritage Committee, 2015) noted efforts by the State Party but noted with concern the conclusions of the Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report 2014 and while it acknowledged efforts in regards to a number of previous requests, it maintained concern over a number of ongoing and serious threats to the OUV of the site. This Decision also requested the State Party to submit an update on progress with implementation of Reef 2050, which was received by the World Heritage Centre in 2016. A comprehensive review of the performance in meeting the targets established under the Reef 2050 Plan will be undertaken by the World Heritage Committee at its 44th session in 2020 (World Heritage Committee, 2017).
Sustainable use
Mostly Effective
Traditional use of marine resources within the World Heritage site may include activities that are identified as part of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ customs or traditions, for the purposes of satisfying personal, domestic or communal needs. In addition to specific management strategies for the sustainable use of species, other Traditional Use of Marine Resources Agreement (TUMRA) activities may include cultural heritage mapping/surveys; protection, research and monitoring sea country; compliance, leadership, knowledge management; education, information exchange; language mapping on sea country.
Zoning, regulatory limits and permits are provided to facilitate opportunities for sustainable use of the Marine Parks. Permits are issued mainly for tourism, research, harvest fisheries, dredging and infrastructure (for example jetties and marinas) and include detailed risk based environmental impact assessment.
Under the Offshore Constitutional Settlement arrangement, all fisheries within the GBR Region, are managed by the Queensland Government through Fisheries Queensland (except for tuna and tuna-like species which are managed by the Commonwealth of Australia). In 2017, the Queensland Government released the Queensland Sustainable Fisheries Strategy 2017-2027 that aims to ensure fisheries resources are managed in a sustainable and responsible manner. This strategy sets out clear targets to be achieved by 2020 and 2027 and a range of actions to deliver on targets. There are 33 actions across ten reform areas (Queensland Government, 2017).
Sustainable finance
Mostly Effective
The Queensland and Australian governments provide significant investment in the World Heritage site and its management. In addition to maintaining its AU$35 million expenditure contributing to improved water quality, the new Queensland Government has committed an additional AU$100 million over five years towards water quality initiatives, scientific research and helping business transition to better environmental practices in primary production and fishing industries (Commonwealth of Australia, 2015; 2016). Projected investment in the coming decade for research and management activities on the Reef and in the adjoining catchments along the coast is more than AU$2 billion (Commonwealth of Australia, 2015; 2016). This level of investment continues previous budget support to the management of the site. Previous investment included the GBRMPA receiving more than AU$200 million over the five years up to 2011 (GBRMPA, 2011). This included AU$2.13 million for an initiative to control crown-of-thorns starfish. In addition, funding has been earmarked for AU$12.5 million over four years from 2013 to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation to coordinate research in areas such as reef resilience and climate change; AU$2.8 million for projects to inform the comprehensive strategic assessment and long-term sustainable development planning for the World Heritage Area and adjacent coastal zone; AU$12.4 million over four years to 2015 for reef ecosystem research through the National Environmental Research Program (NERP) followed by a further AU$31.8 million over 5 years through the National Environmental Science Program (NESP); more than AU$11.25 million for 14 projects in catchments that flow into the GBR lagoon for activities which restore, manage and better protect biodiversity; and AU$3.68 million over four years through the NERP’s Tropical Ecosystems Hub for water quality research aimed at better understanding the drivers and impacts of water quality on the biodiversity of the GBR. While the level of funding is significant compared with many other World Heritage areas, to date, most funding has been spent addressing water quality, and while it has achieved some positive results, it has not managed to stop the deteriorating trends of many World Heritage values (IUCN Consultation, 2017). The Reef 2050 Plan Investment Strategy provided by the State Party as part of their Update Report to the World Heritage Committee in 2016 maps out AU$ 1.28 billion against the 2050 LTSP actions over the next 5 years, excluding general investment such as the Reef Fund (UNESCO, 2017). Total investment over the decade through to 2023-2024 is predicted to exceed AU$ 2.7 billion (State Party of Australia, 2019).
Staff capacity, training, and development
Mostly Effective
While base training of staff is good there is limited on-the-job training for field staff in biodiversity management issues. Some staff participate in workshops, conferences and steering committee meetings at GBRMPA. Processes involved in developing programmes such as cumulative impact assessment and integrated monitoring would help build staff capacity. Despite ongoing levels of financial support to the World Heritage site, funding has not kept pace with an increase in use of the protected area. While activities including compliance, maintenance of faculties and work on threatened species are prioritised, the lack of funding increases is resulting in an ongoing decline in management capacity (Hockings et al., 2014). The Independent Review of Governance also recommended increasing the classification levels of middle management staff of GBRMPA commensurate with their responsibilities (Craik, 2017). Leverington et al. (2019a) concluded that recently, there has been a stabilisation of funds received by the Marine Park Authority to undertake its core business, and a significant increase in funding for the Field Management Program that had been static since 2008. Requirements for management of high priority topics has resulted in a decline in staffing and resourcing in some areas.
Education and interpretation programs
Highly Effective
The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority undertakes a number of programmes to inform and motivate members of the community about the Great Barrier Reef and its protection and management, including ways they can contribute to its health.
Communication and engagement strategies are developed, implemented and evaluated on a range of programmes and topics. Each identifies key audiences, tools and channels and messages to communicate and promote engagement in a strategic and coordinated way.
The Marine Park Authority’s external website is the central hub of information about Reef health and management, with more than 500,000 visits recorded on the site each year.
Social media channels — such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn — are also used to communicate and engage with an online community in excess of 60,000 users about the Reef and its management. E-newsletters provide targeted information to subscribers.
A targeted education and compliance strategy has been implemented to help give effect to the zoning plans of the World Heritage site, with focus on high-risk threats. A network of Community Access Points distribute zoning maps and educational material to raise awareness and encourage visitors to follow the zoning rules.
Engagement occurs through regional networks, Local Marine Advisory Committees, the Reef Guardian stewardship programme, the Reef HQ Aquarium, and through information services provided to stakeholders and the community.
ReefHQ Great Barrier Reef Aquarium is the Australian Government’s National Education Centre for the Great Barrier Reef and receives approximately 140,000 visitors annually. Through the provision of educational and informational services relating to the Marine Park, ReefHQ ensures the community and stakeholders have a clear understanding of the value of the Great Barrier Reef, the threats to its sustainable future and their role in protecting it. ReefHQ achieves this through providing world class living exhibits complemented by thematic and interactive educational experiences, which raise awareness and encourage behavioural change within the community that will help protect the Great Barrier Reef.
More than 288 schools and over 132,000 students and 8,700 teachers are helping build the resilience of the Great Barrier Reef through the Reef Guardians Schools programme. Other Reef Guardian programmes include the highly successful Reef Guardian Council programme and the Reef Guardian Fishers programme. A number of Marine Aquarium Fish and Coral Collection Fishers operating under their Pro-vision Reef Stewardship Action Plan 2013 (Mitigating Ecological Risk in a Changing Climate) have also joined the Reef Guardian programme.
Tourism and visitation management
Highly Effective
Commercial marine tourism is the largest Reef-dependent industry within the Region, but tourism is concentrated in about seven per cent of the area. On average, 86 per cent of tourism visits occur within waters adjacent to Cairns, Port Douglas and the Whitsundays. These areas have plans of management to manage high visitation , and tourism in these areas is concentrated around tourism pontoons, popular islands and beaches. Marine tourism is well managed, with planning, policy and permit systems in place (IUCN Consultation, 2020). Managers apply a range of management tools in an effort to minimise impacts from tourism. Whilst the tourism planning system adequately addresses the localised impacts of tourism, the management arrangements do not effectively address the larger threats posed by climate change and water quality. Under the ‘High Standard Tourism Program’ operators work to protect and present the Reef. Operators must be independently assessed under Ecotourism Australia’s ECO Certification Program as operating at the two highest levels of the programme: Ecotourism and Advanced Ecotourism to be recognised as high standard by the GBRMPA. Sixty four operators were certified as high standard as at December 2018, an improvement from 44 in 2009.  The GBRMPA has developed factsheets to assist tourism operators to reduce their emissions and adapt to climate change (State Party of Australia, 2013b). To some extent, successes in managing tourism have meant that management emphasis has shifted from tourism to other high impact threats.
Monitoring
Mostly Effective
The Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) Long-term Monitoring Program (LTMP) has been in place since 1985, and measures coral health and zoning effectiveness (e.g. presence of target fish species within protected zones versus outside them) (see https://www.aims.gov.au/docs/research/monitoring/reef/reef-monitoring.html). In addition, this integrates with the GBR Marine Monitoring Program which has been operating since 2005 and focusses on the health of inshore corals, seagrass meadows and water quality. Catchment monitoring occurs as part of the Paddock to Reef Program. Aerial survey monitoring of dugong populations is led by James Cook University; and for fish, the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries implements monitoring programs for important commercial and recreational species. Specific programmes to collect fisheries information are in place including biological monitoring, stock status process, recreational surveys, log books for Species of Conservation Interest (including turtles and dugong), quotas, vessel monitoring systems, licensing and Performance Management Systems. While ports conduct a diverse range and number of monitoring programs, there are gaps in the range, quality and consistency of data gathered across ports generally. This also applies to the presentation and availability of collected data, based upon a review of the publicly accessible ports monitoring data. This situation has improved since 2014 and continues to improve (Leverington et al., 2019). The Reef 2050 Integrated Monitoring and Reporting Program is currently being designed to draw together and build upon multiple existing monitoring and reporting systems to measure and assess performance against targets in the Reef 2050 LTSP, although Leverington et al. (2019) indicated that very slow progress in the development of the programme was of concern. The programme's design is currently being finalized, following which governance, funding and data systems with need to be established to support its delivery (State Party of Australia, 2019).  
Research
Highly Effective
Strong research and science base, the result of a large and long-term investment of efforts, and the involvement of many scientists and institutions (UNESCO and IUCN, 2012). The Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report process and the Great Barrier Reef Region and coastal zone strategic assessments have accumulated and consolidated knowledge relevant to the management of the GBR and made this available to managers, stakeholders and the general public. In addition, these processes have identified key knowledge gaps and have stimulated programmes and projects to fill these knowledge gaps (Hockings et al., 2014). The science of responding to impacts from stressors such as climate change is only in its infancy (Leverington et al., 2019). Similarly, Leverington et al. (2019) consider that a major research effort is needed around reef restoration and methods of enhancing the resilience of ecosystems within the Great Barrier Reef to ensure that such efforts are based upon solid evidence of effectiveness.
Management agencies have developed strong and extensive partnerships with research providers such as CSIRO, the Australian Institute of Marine Science and universities. The National Environmental Science Programme (NESP) is involved in reef water quality research, with investment by the Australian Government of more than AU $31 million for this research area (State Party of Australia, 2020). The Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) is also working with Traditional Owners to develop research and monitoring partnerships and combine science with Indigenous knowledge (State Party of Australia, 2020).
The enormous size of this World Heritage site and surrounding developmental pressures means that there will always be protection and management challenges. The management authority (the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, or GBRMPA) has often been cited as a leader in protected area management; however, there remain strategic issues concerning climate change and sustainable development that continue to be of significant challenge for the future of the Great Barrier Reef. Although the management authority has taken extensive and innovative measures in order to protect the site, until the status of values is shown to be maintained, concerns remain and overall the threats remain significant and the status of the values for which Great Barrier Reef was inscribed on the World Heritage list continue to deteriorate. The adoption of the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan has been recognised as a significant step in providing an overarching framework for the management of the Great Barrier Reef and addressing the multiple threats it is facing; however, progress towards achieving some of the targets has been slow so far.
Assessment of the effectiveness of protection and management in addressing threats outside the site
Some Concern
Legally through the EPBC Act any threats to the World Heritage site from outside its boundaries require assessment and authorisation. However, some differences of opinion over the impact of some economic activities, and how they will affect the Outstanding Universal Value of the site, have led to community concerns. Statutory instruments used to assist the management of the Great Barrier Reef are generally contemporary and appropriate. However, the relevant Queensland legislation is not always consistent with the Commonwealth legislation, often due to differences in objectives. The Great Barrier Reef Zoning Plan has been very effective for some issues, such as fishing. However, zoning (spatial planning) is not designed to comprehensively address management of some other topics (e.g. recreation). That is why a range of other spatial and temporal management tools are also used (Hockings et al., 2014; Leverington et al., 2019).
Best practice examples
Examples of best practice are numerous. The complementary Zoning Plans (GBRMPA, Queensland, 2004) have been widely cited as an important management and protection tool. The sound governance/legislative framework, with complementary legislation and integrated management for all State and Federal waters is a model approach. The EPBC Act for World Heritage is also a model piece of legislation. Communication, community training, ecotourism certification and outreach programmes (Reef Guardians, etc.) are also best practice. There is also widespread public support and consensus that the GBR is important, with many industries recognising that their future depends upon its health.
World Heritage values

Exceptional geological formations and processes linking reefs, coral cays and continental islands.

High Concern
Trend
Deteriorating
Throughout the Great Barrier Reef calcification has declined by 14 percent between 1990 and 2005 due to increasing sea surface temperatures (De'ath et al., 2009) and the unprecedented decline in coral since 2016 following the mass bleaching events has further affected reef-building processes (GBRMPA, 2019a). Overall, processes that influence reef formation and maintain sediment accumulation on reef islands have been showing negative trends due to impacts associated with climate change and these trends are expected to further intensify (GBRMPA, 2019a).

Spectacular species assemblages

High Concern
Trend
Deteriorating
In addition to coral cover (see other sections) there is a reported decline of species associated with the reef, and some evidence of seabird decline (GBRMPA, 2009; GBRMPA, 2019a). However, there has been no record of loss of species assemblages.

Superlative natural beauty above and below the water

High Concern
Trend
Deteriorating
Coral cover, a primary indicator of reef status, is declining. This is due to a number of interrelated stressors, specifically coral bleaching but also including terrestrial runoff of sediments and nutrients and associated crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks, water acidification associated with climate change, and coral diseases (Brodie & Waterhouse, 2012). While the level and extent of impacts from recent 2016-2017 bleaching events is still being assessed, it is considered that coral mortality has been significant (Hughes et al., 2017). Analysis of the long-term dataset shows hard coral cover has significantly declined over the past 30 years (GBRMPA, 2014).
However, the picture is not simple or clear cut, with reefs in different regions showing enormous differences in trends, including both increases and declines (GBRMPA, 2009; 2014).
Coral reef mortality and impacts of severe cyclones have continued to negatively affect the outstanding natural beauty of the site (GBRMPA, 2019a). Acroporid and pocilloporid coral species are reported to have declined by more than 75 per cent on reefs severely bleached in 2016 and 2017, resulting in the significant loss of three‑dimensional structure (GBRMPA, 2019a).

Outstanding on-going ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of coastal and marine ecosystems and communities of plants and animals

Critical
Trend
Deteriorating
The loss of coral cover already observed in some areas will profoundly change virtually all reef processes, in many cases for at least 1-2 decades if no other major perturbations occur. For example, particle feeding by corals has declined, predation on them has increased (on a per-capita basis), disease of corals is increasing, and recruitment of corals has been impaired. Other key processes that have been affected are symbiosis between corals, zooxanthellae and microbes, competition for space, herbivory, calcification and the provision of coral habitat. Climate change continues to have negative impacts on some critical processes, such as reef building and recruitment (GBRMPA, 2019a). It was estimated that the amount of larval recruitment declined in 2018 by 89% compared to historical levels, following unprecendented consequent bleaching events in 2016 and 2017. This is also an indicator that the ecological resilience of the system and its capacity to return to the same species composition following the bleaching events is compromised (Hughes et al., 2019). Coral recruitment across the entire Great Barrier Reef is estimated to have declined by 89 per cent in 2018 compared to recruitment levels before 2016 (GBRMPA, 2019a). Other ecological process have also been significantly affected, including predation (linked to the decline in the abundance of reef-associated predators, such as sharks), symbiotic processes involving corals (linked to the mass coral bleaching events) and recruitment for many species, largely due to chronic and acute disturbances (in particular, corals, fishes and some turtles and seabirds) (GBRMPA, 2019a).

Outstanding diversity of plants including mangroves and seagrass

Low Concern
Trend
Stable
In contrast to international trends, the overall condition of mangrove forests in and adjacent to the World Heritage site is relatively stable (GBRMPA, 2014 and 2019a). As for seagrasses, it is expected that higher sea temperatures will have negative impacts on heat-sensitive seagrass species, such as Zostera muelleri. On the other hand, seagrass species composition is reported to be recovering in some areas following extensive losses in previous years (GBRMPA, 2019a).

Outstanding diversity of invertebrate species, including hard and soft corals

Critical
Trend
Deteriorating
The unprecedented back-to-back coral bleaching that occurred in 2016 and again in 2017 was the worst ever recorded on the GBR, impacting the upper two-thirds of the length of the Reef. Tragically, the 2020 bleaching -  the third in just five years - was the most widespread  ever recorded (Hughes and Pratchett, 2020) .The category 4 Cyclone Debbie in March 2017 was the tenth severe cyclone to impact the Reef since 2005 and had a major impact on the Whitsundays and the southern GBR (IUCN Consultation, 2017). A study by Hughes et al. (2017), based on data collected during the 2016, as well as previous bleaching events, showed that of the 171 individual reefs that were aerially surveyed, 43% bleached in 1998, 56% in 2002, and 85% in 2016 (Hughes et al., 2017). The interim report on 2016 coral bleaching notes widespread bleaching of various levels of severity throughout the property, with the most severe bleaching documented between the tip of Cape York and just north of Port Douglas (GBRMPA, 2016b). The two consecutive bleaching events in 2016 and 2017 have caused several bleaching and loss of corals resulting in unprecedented levels of coral mortality. Overall, populations of many coral species across have deteriorated significantly since 2014 (GBRMPA, 2019a). Other inverterbrate species are also being impacted by climate change. In 2016, mass mortality of shrimp and crabs was observed in a shallow-water lagoon in the northern part of the Great Barrier Reef, which was attributed to temperature stress (GBRMPA, 2019a).

Outstanding diversity of fish including threatened species

Critical
Trend
Deteriorating
There is long-term monitoring of 214 species of coral reef fish populations while fisheries-dependent monitoring provides some information on the trend of a number of species targeted by fishers; however, there is limited fisheries independent monitoring. The 2009 and 2014 Outlook Reports (GBRMPA, 2009; 2014) note some significant declines in ecologically important species such as some of the 134 shark and ray species. It is possible that the speartooth shark has become extinct from waterways on the east coast of Australia (UNESCO and IUCN, 2012). There are significant range contractions and population declines for freshwater sawfish and green sawfish from the southern and central section of the Great Barrier Reef north to at least Cooktown (UNESCO and IUCN, 2012; GBRMPA, 2012b).
While the impacts of the 2016 and 2017 bleaching events on fish species, heavily dependent on coral reef habitats, are still being evaluated and while certain time-lags are expected, overall, negative trends have already been observed, including decreased diversity and sub-lethal effects, such as reduced fitness (GBRMPA, 2019a). Overall, the trend for bony fishes is that of deterioration (GBRMPA, 2019a).
Declines have also been observed in the populations of shark species, particularly for the scalloped hammerhead shark (Sphyrna lewini), which has declined throughout its entire Australian distribution and there may have been declines in tiger, hammerhead, whaler and white sharks (GBRMPA, 2019a).

Threatened reptiles

High Concern
Trend
Deteriorating
Some significant declines in ecologically important species such as marine turtles have been reported (GBRMPA, 2009; 2014). Research indicates that green turtle populations may be at the beginning of a decline, including declining annual average size of breeding females, increasing re-migration interval and declining proportion of older adult turtles to the population (Limpus et al., 2003; Brodie and Waterhouse, 2012). The southern green turtle population has recently been reported to continue to recover (State Party of Australia, 2019). However, there are serious concerns about the northern population of the green turtle in the GBR, as a recent study has shown an extreme female-bias (99.1% of juveniles) in this population due to the impacts of rising temperatures affecting the sex ratio of hatchlings, with warmer incubation temperatures increasing the proportion of female hatchlings. The study concluded that a complete feminization of this population was possible in the near future (Jensen et al., 2018).
High concerns also remain for the future of loggerhead and hawksbill turtle populations (State Party of Australia, 2020). However, some improvements have been recorded, including the increase from 118 nesting females of loggerhead turtles at Woongarra coast in 1997 to 421 in 2017 (GBRMPA, 2019a).
While sea snakes occur in relatively high abundance and diversity in some areas, some localised depletions of some populations of sea snakes have been reported. While up-to-date information for all sea snake species with the Great Barrier Reef is lacking, overall, it is assumed that most populations remained stable in recent years (GBRMPA, 2019a).

Bird diversity

Critical
Trend
Deteriorating
While there is regular monitoring of seabird populations at a number of sites, long-term trend information is only available for a small number of islands. Six seabird species have declined reef-wide from 1980 to 2017: crested tern, brown booby, masked booby, common noddy, sooty tern and roseate tern (GBRMPA, 2019a). Overall, condition of seabirds is poor, however, no consistent overall trend could be identified and slight increases in some populations have also been reported, such as the breeding population of red-tailed tropicbirds on Raine Island. However, the condition of many species is deteriorating. Main threats to seabirds include the impacts of changes in sea surface temperature on food supplies, fishing impacts on prey species, direct disturbance by visitors and ingestion of marine debris (GBRMPA, 2019a).

Threatened marine mammals

High Concern
Trend
Stable
The dugong population in northern areas of the Region is considered in good condition and stable with no evidence of a major decline. However, evidence for serious dugong decline in some areas from 1962 to 1999 (Marsh et al., 2005) triggered significant conservation initiatives. Possible causes of mortality include incidental netting in fish nets and shark nets, loss of seagrass habitat due to water quality impacts and coastal development and hunting (Marsh et al., 2007). The combination of severe weather events in 2011 has also increased dugong mortality with evidence suggesting that large numbers of animals moved to the northern GBR as a result of the seagrass loss (UNESCO and IUCN, 2012). In 2011, there was an estimated population of only 600 animals between the Daintree River and the Region’s southern boundary compared with an estimate of around 2,000 from the previous survey in 2005 (GBRMPA, 2014). Dugong breeding rate is reported to have increased recently (State Party of Australia, 2019) and the percentage of calves observed increased from zero in 2011 to more than 10 per cent of the population in 2016 (GBRMPA, 2019a). However, overall the dugong population declined between 2005 and 2016 based on the statistical analyses of the aerial survey data (GBRMPA, 2019a).
It is estimated that 15 species of whale inhabit the Region, either seasonally or throughout the year, and there is limited information on the condition of most of these, with the exception of the humpback whale and the dwarf minke whale.
The population of ‘east Australian’ humpback whales has increased to an estimated population of more than 14,500 animals in 2010 (Noad et al., 2010), about half of the estimated pre-whaling population size (Brodie and Waterhouse, 2012).
The last survey of the eastern Australian humpback whale population in 2015 recorded more than 24,000 whales - an estimated
recovery of 58–98 per cent of the original population, which at this rate of recovery means that the population was likely to be more than 30,000 in 2018 (GBRMPA, 2019a). While some local threats remain (e.g. entanglement in nets, vessel strikes), the greatest threat to the persistence of whales populations is climate change and its impacts on food sources outside the Great Barrier Reef (GBRMPA, 2019a).
Populations of two inshore marine mammals, the endemic Australian snubfin dolphin and the Indo-Pacific humpbacked dolphin are at risk, especially from interactions with large mesh fishing nets and increasing human use of their inshore habitat. Snubfin dolphins appear to be in serious threat due to the recent coastal industrial boom (UNESCO and IUCN, 2012; Cagnazzi et al., 2013). Populations of both dolphin species may have continued to decline due to human-related mortality, however, data is limited (State Party of Australia, 2019).
 
Assessment of the current state and trend of World Heritage values
Critical
Trend
Deteriorating
The Great Barrier Reef is a very large World Heritage site with multiple attributes comprising its Outstanding Universal Value. Since inscription in 1981, and despite overall good management and protection, many iconic species and habitats have declined. While there have been positive trends, such as some improvements in water quality and the increase in humpback whale numbers, most of the values of the Great Barrier Reef continue to be seriously affected by a range of threats. The 2016, 2017 and 2020 coral bleaching events have been unprecedented in severity, frequency and impacts and have caused loss of corals along two thirds of the Great Barrier Reef, resulting in unprecedented levels of coral mortality. Declines in other important attributes of the Outstanding Universal Value are also of serious concern, with population declines recorded across plant, invertebrate and vertebrate species. It is expected that higher sea temperatures will have negative impacts on heat-sensitive seagrass species. Continued declines in loggerhead, hawksbill and northern green turtle populations and scalloped hammerhead shark are also of concern. The condition of many seabird species is deteriorating, due to the impacts of changes in sea surface temperature on food supplies and other factors. Populations of two inshore dolphin species, the endemic Australian snubfin dolphin and the Australian humpback dolphin may also have continued to decline due to human-related mortality. The integrity of many important processes underpinning the complexity of the Great Barrier Reef has also been declining, as a result of climate change combined with other factors, including reef building and recruitment, with coral recruitment across the entire Great Barrier Reef estimated to have declined by 89 per cent in 2018 compared to recruitment levels before 2016.

Additional information

Outdoor recreation and tourism,
Natural beauty and scenery
The direct and indirect value-added contribution to the Australian economy is estimated at AU$6.4 billion in 2015-16. This includes AU$5.7 billion from the tourism industry, $346 million from recreational activity and AU$199 million from commercial fishing and aquaculture. This economic activity generates about 64,000 jobs, mostly in the tourism industry, which takes over 2 million tourists to the GBR each year. These industries, and their flow-on activities, underpin a significant and growing proportion of Queensland’s regional economy (Deloitte, 2017). A wide variety of recreational activities occur in the Region, and popular destinations include islands and reefs. Visits to the Region by catchment residents are increasing, likely tied to local population growth and people visiting more frequently.
Factors negatively affecting provision of this benefit
Climate change
Impact level - High
Trend - Increasing
Pollution
Impact level - Moderate
Trend - Increasing
Overexploitation
Impact level - Moderate
Trend - Increasing
Invasive species
Impact level - Low
Trend - Increasing
Habitat change
Impact level - Moderate
Trend - Increasing
Importance for research,
Contribution to education
There is a great deal of research and education activities conducted within the World Heritage site, which also creates jobs. A range of academic institutions, government agencies and foundations undertake research in and about the Great Barrier Reef, providing income and employment in regional communities. These include:
• Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS)
• Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA)
• JCU ARC Centre of Excellence
• GBR Foundation
• A network of six island research stations (Lizard Island, Low Isles, Green Island, Orpheus Island, Heron Island and One Tree Island). In 2015–16, AU$130 million of revenue was generated by these organisations through the conduct of scientific research, reef management and related activities. They spent AU$57 million and AU$65 million on employment and intermediate inputs respectively. The total value of scientific research and reef management associated with the GBR in 2015–16 is around AU$182 million contributed to the Australian economy (Deloitte Access Economics, 2017).
Factors negatively affecting provision of this benefit
Climate change
Impact level - High
Trend - Increasing
Pollution
Impact level - Low
Trend - Increasing
Overexploitation
Impact level - Moderate
Trend - Increasing
Invasive species
Impact level - Low
Trend - Increasing
Habitat change
Impact level - Low
Trend - Increasing
Cultural identity and sense of belonging,
History and tradition,
Sacred or symbolic plants or animals,
Sacred natural sites or landscapes
Traditional Owners’ connection to sea country within the Region continues to be practised and maintained according to traditional customs and spiritual lore, reflecting ongoing stewardship and custodianship. Many Traditional Owners use marine resources to practise their sustainable ‘living maritime culture’, provide traditional food for families, and educate younger generations about traditional and cultural rules, protocols and activities in sea country (GBRMPA, 2014).
Factors negatively affecting provision of this benefit
Climate change
Impact level - Moderate
Trend - Increasing
Pollution
Impact level - Low
Trend - Increasing
Overexploitation
Impact level - Low
Trend - Increasing
Invasive species
Impact level - Low
Trend - Increasing
Habitat change
Impact level - Low
Trend - Increasing
Fishing areas and conservation of fish stocks
Recreational and commercial fishing is permitted but regulated. Commercial fishing and aquaculture in and adjacent to the Region generate about AU$199 million per year (Deloitte Access Economics, 2017). Recreational fishing continues to be one of the most popular pastimes in the Region. Some areas within the GBR World Heritage site provide important nursery grounds for a number of commercially valuable species. Traditional use of marine resources continues to provide environmental, social, economic and cultural benefits to Traditional Owners and their sea country.
Factors negatively affecting provision of this benefit
Climate change
Impact level - Moderate
Trend - Increasing
Pollution
Impact level - Low
Trend - Increasing
Overexploitation
Impact level - Moderate
Trend - Increasing
Invasive species
Impact level - Low
Trend - Increasing
Habitat change
Impact level - Low
Trend - Increasing
Tourism-related income,
Provision of jobs
The economic contribution of the Great Barrier Reef to the Australian economy increased from approximately AU$5.4 billion in 2006–07 to AU$6.7 billion in 2015-16 (Deloitte Access Economics 2017). The number of full-time positions that are dependent on the Reef has fluctuated, from 53,800 in 2006–07 to 69,000 in 2011–12, and then to 64,000 in 2015–16.
Factors negatively affecting provision of this benefit
Climate change
Impact level - Moderate
Trend - Increasing
Pollution
Impact level - Low
Trend - Increasing
Overexploitation
Impact level - Low
Trend - Increasing
Invasive species
Impact level - Low
Trend - Increasing
Habitat change
Impact level - Low
Trend - Increasing
The large size of the Great Barrier Reef and the fact that it was inscribed on the World Heritage List under all four natural criteria supports the evidence for the wide array of benefits provided by the site to the people living both within and outside the World Heritage site. In addition to nature conservation and conserving cultural and wilderness values, the site provides a wide range of ecosystem services, furnishes a wealth of scientific knowledge and provides jobs through tourism, fishing, park management, research and education. Local populations can benefit from traditional, recreational and commercial fishing and hunting (some Traditional Owners continue to hunt dugong) provided that it is sustainable. Economic benefits of tourism associated with the Great Barrier Reef used to be very substantial, however, it is unclear how these activities will recover following the COVID-19 pandemic.
Organization Brief description of Active Projects Website
1 GBRMPA; Reef and Rainforest Research Centre (RRRC); Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators (AMPTO); various universities including James Cook University Removal of crown-of-thorns starfish and research into management of outbreaks of this pest species.
http://www.gbrmpa.gov.au/our-work/our-programs-and-projects/crown-of-thorns-starfish-management
2 Various organizations Numerous projects are undertaken by different organizations
3 Joint Field Management Program The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the Queensland Department of Environment and Science, through the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, operate a joint field management program for the marine and island national parks, encompassing the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and the Great Barrier Reef Coast Marine Park.
http://www.gbrmpa.gov.au/our-work/field-management

References

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