Our building of towns, cities and roads and use of land for farming or mining has a major impact not only on the land itself but on our fresh water environments, and the marine ecosystems downstream, including the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area (GBRWHA). Fresh water carries suspended sediments, nutrients and pesticides down to the GBRWHA, impacting the health and survival of all organisms living there; the reef itself, the seagrass beds and all the other plants and animals that depend on those ecosystems for survival.

This issue has been recognised for some time, and in 2003 State and Federal Governments endorsed the Reef Water Quality Protection plan (Reef Plan), put in place to “halt and reverse the decline in water quality entering the Reef”1 An update on progress towards that goal was published in 2009, with another due this year.

The development of the Reef Plan has been guided by Scientific Consensus Statement which involved a review and synthesis of significant advances in scientific knowledge on water quality issues in the Great Barrier Reef. The Statement, developed by a multidisciplinary group of scientists with oversight from the Reef Plan Independent Science Panel, is expected to be presented to the Great Barrier Reef Ministerial Forum on 10th July.

The Statement’s lead author, Jon Brodie (TropWATER2) discussed the continuing decline in coral cover and seagrass, and dependent turtles and dugongs. Coral cover on some reefs is estimated to have been around 50% in the 1960’s, and has declined from 27% in 1985 to less than 14% now, with a projection to drop to less than 5% by 20253.

There is unanimous acceptance that increased loads of suspended sediment, nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) and pesticides, particularly PSII herbicides, pose an unacceptable risk to some parts of the GBRWHA. Jon Brodie reiterated the role of enhanced nitrogen inputs in crown-of-thorns-starfish (COTS) outbreaks, macroalgal dominance over corals on near-shore reefs, coral bleaching susceptibility and interactions with suspended sediments to smother corals.

He considers the outlook for the GBR to be poor, with an outlook of continued COTS outbreaks, extreme weather and increased coastal development, and emphasised the need to do the things we can do; manage terrestrial runoff and improve management of coastal developments and agricultural land uses.


BACK to Canberra article

    Can you really put a figure on what people value about the Great Barrier Reef? How do you attach a price to intrinsic natural beauty? And, how do you understand how external socioeconomic pressures affect these values? These are the questions that Professor Natalie Stoeckl and her team from JCU and CSIRO are addressing within NERP TE Hub project 10.2. Pardon the cliché but beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder, and it is to a large group of these that the team has gone for answers to the above questions.

    So far 1500 residents from 106 different postcodes along the GBR coast and 2800 tourists from Port Douglas to Yepoon have been asked questions on the things they value about the GBR. Two hundred of the tourist questionnaires were in Japanese; with the same number in Chinese.

    Natalie and her team are finding that residents rate the ‘free’ things associated with the GBR World Heritage Area (i.e. little rubbish and clear water; spending time on beaches or being able to go fishing) as most important to overall quality of life; ahead of jobs and incomes. Most residents value the environment, feeling that significant degradation (i.e. loss of healthy coral reefs, ocean water changing from clear to turbid; twice as much rubbish on beaches) would have a more significant and negative effect on their overall quality of life than a 20% increase in local prices. Residents were also willing to pay to help ‘fix’ some of the threats to the reef, but only if other Australians paid as well.

    The tourist perspective was similar, leading the team to conclude that if water clarity deteriorated, the region could lose substantial tourism revenues, with fewer visitors and/or shorter visits, so less tourist spending.

    The conclusion so far, as Professor Stoeckl says, is: “Across both samples, environmental factors were considered to be more important to overall quality of life for residents, or as an attractant to the region for tourists, than economic factors such as ability to earn money from regional industries, and/or having high quality accommodation and ‘prices to match budget’”. The work continues and Professor Stoeckl cautions that numbers may change as more data comes in.

    For further information contact:

    Project: 10.2 Socio-economic systems and reef resilience





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