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Mary Riddle headshot

Inside Australia's Plan to Save the Great Barrier Reef

By Mary Riddle
aerial shot of boat sailing through the great barrier reef

Last week the Australian government agreed to establish new policies to protect the Great Barrier Reef, after over a decade of campaigning from UNESCO’s World Heritage Marine Program. So what's the plan, and will it be enough? 

"We have finally come to a constructive point"

Among other things, UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) recognizes the most significant natural and cultural locations as World Heritage sites. Its World Heritage Marine Program includes 50 protected ocean sites across 37 countries.

The Great Barrier Reef, the largest and most diverse coral reef ecosystem in the world, is one of them. But it's threatened by rising ocean temperatures, poor water quality and pollution from agricultural operations, among other impacts.

The new measures will include a ban on some of the more destructive methods of fishing, compliance incentives for farmers to prevent synthetic fertilizers and other soil nutrients from flowing into waterways, and a total reduction in Australia’s greenhouse emissions. 

Dr. Fanny Douvere leads the World Heritage Marine Program at UNESCO and oversees the organization’s conservation efforts around the world. “It has been over a decade that UNESCO has been alerting the world to the challenges in the Great Barrier Reef, but we have finally come to a constructive point in our exchanges,” she said.

What's the plan to save the Great Barrier Reef?

Last year, UNESCO conducted a monitoring mission to determine the greatest challenges that threaten the Great Barrier Reef. Based on what they found, UNESCO researchers created 10 recommendations for the Australian government to implement that could help save the fragile ecosystem.

A ban on gillnet fishing is one of the most consequential recommendations the Australian government agreed to include in the new plan. This highly destructive form of fishing uses large nets and is not selective about the types of species it catches. Vulnerable coral reef species, such as hammerhead sharks, turtles and dolphins, are often caught in gillnets. Australia will phase out gillnet fishing by 2027 and immediately close off vulnerable areas for gillnets. 

Threats to the Great Barrier Reef go beyond fishing practices. Climate change is raising ocean temperatures and threatening the fragile coral reef ecosystem, which can only survive in a narrow temperature range. Additionally, coral reefs rely on photosynthesis, so they need clear, clean water that sunlight can penetrate. Sediment and nutrient discharge from nearby farms are devastating the water quality of the Great Barrier Reef, leading to algae blooms and blocking the sunlight needed for photosynthesis.

While climate change is an international problem requiring global cooperation, Australia can take measures to improve the Great Barrier Reef’s chances of survival.

“When we can reduce pressures such as poor water quality and gillnet fishing, we can build resilience in the ecosystem and coral reefs can withstand the effects of climate change better," Douvere said. "It can more easily recover from mass bleaching events when the reef is in as healthy a state as possible.” 

Fighting climate change ensures a future for coral ecosystems

Emissions reductions are critical for the survival of the Great Barrier Reef, because coral reef ecosystems cannot survive if warming exceeds 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures.

The Australian government also committed to greater emissions reductions to fight climate change. The country signed its first climate law after UNESCO's mission last year. It calls for a 43 percent cut in emissions by 2030 and established an independent climate authority to advise the government on setting further emissions reduction targets.

What's next?

Australia has committed a total of $2.9 billion to the new safeguarding measures for the Great Barrier Reef. Douvere noted that there could be economic pain points for farmers and fishermen affected by Australia’s new policies, but the Australian government has financed programs to help ease the transition.

“Biodiversity and climate change are hugely important for everybody," she said. "We are not working to save these places just because we love going to these places, but rather because they are incredibly important places for everybody, including the financial sector. The Great Barrier Reef makes an annual contribution to the GDP of Australia of $6 billion to $7 billion on an annual basis. The whole environmental system is underpinning our economy.”

Image credit: Osman Rana and A. Shuau (Obofili) via Unsplash

Mary Riddle headshot

Mary Riddle is the director of sustainability consulting services for Obata. As a former farmer and farm educator, she is passionate about regenerative agriculture and sustainable food systems. She is currently based in Florence, Italy.

Read more stories by Mary Riddle