The Australian government has told the UN it is acting with “renewed vigour” to halt the decline of the Great Barrier Reef in its official case arguing that the vast ecosystem should not be listed as “in danger” later this year.
The world heritage committee meets in Germany in June to consider whether the reef, which has lost half its coral cover over the past 30 years, has deteriorated badly enough to justify the listing.
In his letter to Unesco, the environment minister, Greg Hunt, said the government had acted with “renewed vigour” to safeguard the reef, stressing that Australia had heeded the alarm raised over its health.
“Australia has heard the concerns of its people and the international community loud and clear and is working harder than ever to address those concerns so that the intrinsic value of the reef is maintained and future generations can experience this stunning coral reef ecosystem and create their own memories for years to come,” Hunt wrote.
Hunt said the government’s report to Unesco “clearly demonstrates that the Great Barrier Reef does not warrant being listed as in danger.
“We know the reef is facing challenges but we are making significant progress. There is strong evidence that our efforts are working.”
Australia’s report addressed concerns raised by Unesco over the industrial dredging and dumping of sediment in the reef’s waters by stressing that five proposals to dump material had been shelved and that the practice would be banned within the Great Barrier Reef marine park – although not in its wider world heritage area.
The report added that ports would not be developed outside designated areas until 2022, although existing ports such as Abbott Point could be enlarged.
A “reef trust” would receive $40m to improve water quality and species protection, with $10.5m spent between 2012 and 2015 to tackle a plague of coral-eating starfish. A further $700,000 is being spent to remove marine debris such as plastic bags, bottles and nets. A recent analysis suggests much more will need to be spent to revive the reef.
The government’s report to Unesco said some natural features of the reef remained “intact” and some, such as the humpback whale population and the nesting sites of marine turtles, had improved.
But it admitted that “increasing infrastructure along the coastline and on islands and increased shipping traffic have degraded some of the attributes identified as contribution to top-rating views”.
Hunt recently spent time in Europe as part of the government’s determined diplomatic effort to avoid the “in danger” listing. An adverse listing would potentially damage the reef’s $6bn tourism industry, as well as Australia’s international standing, given that most endangered world heritage sites are in developing countries.
The reef was listed as a world heritage property in 1982, but has declined in recent years. A 2014 report by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority said its overall outlook was “poor, has worsened since 2009 and is expected to further deteriorate in the future”.
The report cited climate change as the reef’s leading threat, followed by pollution flowing onto the coral from farming land. The starfish plague and cyclones were also threats.
A joint federal and Queensland plan to reverse the reef’s fortunes has been criticised by scientists due to its lack of focus on climate change. Warming, acidifying oceans are potentially highly damaging to coral.
The report sent to Unesco hailed the Coalition’s Direct Action emissions plan as Australia’s contribution to tackling climate change, while pointing out the amount of sediment flowing onto the reef had fallen by 11% over the past five years.
The Greens said the report would fail to allay the concerns of the world heritage committee, maintaining the government’s approach was “business as usual”.
“It’s unbelievable that after the world heritage committee recommended no new damaging port expansions, the Abbott government went ahead and approved the world’s largest coal port at Abbot Point,” said Greens senator Larissa Waters.
“The Abbott government also hasn’t ruled out dumping from projects that have already been applied for, such as the projects in Cairns, Townsville and Gladstone. With so many dredging and dumping projects on the books for our reef, a ban that doesn’t include them would be useless.”
The World Wildlife Fund said the report was “inaccurate” and did not reflect the reef’s decline.
“The state party report claims that Australian and Queensland government policies on the Great Barrier Reef are sufficient to avoid an ‘in danger’ listing by the world heritage committee but this claim is undermined by the clear picture provided by the science,” said Dermot O’Gorman, chief executive of WWF Australia.
“The Australian government’s report to Unesco does not provide an accurate assessment of the Great Barrier Reef’s condition, nor does it provide a convincing explanation of how the outstanding universal values of the reef will be restored.”
Source: The Guardian