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Death of the Great Barrier Reef

UNESCO Is Examining Australia's Neglect of the Great Barrier Reef

Every July since 2012, UNESCO has threatened to place the Great Barrier Reef on their 'in-danger' list. In Part 1 of our two-part series, we're looking at Australia's efforts to avoid the listing

by Julian Morgans
Jun 27 2015, 11:33pm

Clownfish. Image via Flickr user JamesDPhotography

Every July since 2012, UNESCO has threatened to place the Great Barrier Reef on their 'in-danger' list. This is something Australia has anxiously avoided, as it would undermine the country's $7 billion annual tourist industry, based around the reef. But from today UNESCO's World Heritage Committee meets in Bonn, Germany, to discuss heritage sites from around the world, and how they're being managed.

Realistically, the reef is unlikely to be listed. In May UNESCO released a draft decision saying that it would remain off the dreaded list. So instead, Australia will likely use the opportunity to talk progress, as big changes were promised by 2015.

So, what's happened in the intervening 12 months? Is the Australian Government as serious about preservation as they claim? Well yes, and no.

For a further look at these issues, check out our video: The Grim Barrier Reef (Part 1)


The story begins with Australia's updated report on the state of the reef, released in February. The report, delivered to UNESCO, provided a basis to evaluate progress, but as critics pointed out, also provided an opportunity to whitewash mismanagement.

Of the 41 metrics that evaluate the reef's value, 24 of them including coral, marine turtles, dugongs and seagrass have deteriorated since its heritage listing in 1981. Because of this, the report dryly concluded "the property remains in good condition, although the property is under pressure."

A year ago VICE spoke with a diving instructor on Airlie Beach who described language like "under pressure" as a bit like moving the goal posts. According to Tony Fontes, incremental damage allows lowered standards to gradually become the norm. As he put it, "people with long-term memories of the reef, they die off or move away. And the new people see the reef and they think it's great, but they don't know what it used to be like. One day the goal posts will move again and we'll think one-fish coral is amazing."

Tony might have a point. Since 1985 the reef has lost some 50 percent of its coral cover, as a study by the Australian Institute of Marine Science discovered in 2012. Damage on that scale is nothing short of tragic, and doesn't seem reflected in the term "under pressure".

But not long after the report was published, something unexpected happened. On February 13 Queensland's pro-coal, pro-dredging, pro-coastal development Liberal National Party were wiped out at the polls. A slightly more environmentally minded Labor Government took office, with an incoming environment minister relabelled 'Minister for the Great Barrier Reef,' just in case the electorate didn't getting the message. And while the state government under Annastacia Palaszczuk isn't perfect, there's undoubtedly been a renewed interest in environmental conservation.

Throughout history conservation work rarely happens until things hit crisis point. And this is what seems to be happening now.

The first sign came in March, although to be fair, the previous Queensland Government had a hand in it too. That was when the state and federal governments, along with scientific support from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, released a joint sustainability plan, providing the Great Barrier Reef with a preservation plan all the way up until 2050. Aptly titled, The Long Term Sustainability Plan, the paper maps strategies to reduce nitrogen runoff by up to 80 percent and total suspended sediment by up to 50 percent in key catchments by 2025. Famers claim this is mission impossible, but at least we now have a plan to argue over.

And as part of this plan, on March 21, the Australian Federal Government pledged a Reef Trust of $140 million. After years of doom and gloom stories, and pontification from Leonardo DiCaprio, actual money was on the table. And broadly speaking this is part of a larger interest in the reef over the past years.

"Environmental accidents continue to be a very important generator of political response," observed Andrew Blowers and Steve Hinchliffe in their book Environmental Responses. In this, they describe that throughout history conservation work has rarely happened until things hit crisis point. And this is what seems to be happening now.

Last September we travelled to Queensland to see the quiet boom that's happening in research and environmental conservation, often run by NGOs or funded philanthropically. The WWF is running one such project to investigate why turtles are washing up dead on Queensland's beaches. Check out the embedded video for more on that.

Along with privately funded programs, federal projects are also underway to control crown-of-thorns starfish and reduce the access cattle have to reef-bound waterways. And on a state level, the new government has allocated $100 million over four years for a raft of new programs.

Progress is being made, but we're not out of the woods yet. On the downside, dredging is set to continue in the state's four major ports, while Abbot Point is still technically slated to become the world's largest coal port. Additionally, Federal Parliament just voted to reduce Australia's renewable energy target, so only 23.5 percent of our electricity will come from renewables by 2020. Indonesia, by comparison, has a target of 26 percent by 2025. And of course, climate change is still the number-one threat to the reef.

But perhaps the thing that most clearly illustrates Australia's vacillation between posturing and sincerity is their recent effort to lobby UNESCO. In March, journalists from France, India, the Philippines, Portugal, Germany, and Japan (which are all member countries) were brought on all-expenses paid tours of the reef, to see environmental projects in action. As the Sydney Morning Herald reported, this even included a briefing by the Chief Executive of the Queensland Resources Council—the state's premier mining lobby group—on how ports and coal ships pose no threat to reef health. And while this is not completely unusual, several media organisations including the Financial Times, the Times, Le Monde, and Deutsche Welle, all declined the junket.

The essential problem, politically speaking, is that Australia is going through an era of environmental apathy. Sustainability just isn't prioritised in the same way port building is, for example. And while funding is being allocated federally, it's well below the $500 million that several scientists and the WWF say is needed.

This all puts the country in a position where, come the meeting in Bonn, Australian delegates will depend on a bit of spin to sell their work, even if that is only marginally effective. "The major cause for the reef degradation is not only a consequence of extreme weather conditions and climate change as Australian Government documents seem to imply," José Filipe Mendes Moraes Cabral told the Australian delegation last year. "But it is also due to human causes and interference."

Devastating no, but it's nice to know UNESCO are watching.

In Part 2 we'll look to the future. Australia's fervour for coal mining and associated port construction has been highly controversial, while coming at a time when coal prices are plummeting. So, what's happening with coal developments along the coast? And what will they mean for the reef?

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