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The Great Barrier Reef Strategic Assessment – Towards A Holistic, Long-Term Approach To Protected Area Management


The Great Barrier Reef is an amazing natural treasure and one of the most precious ecosystems on Earth. It is critical to the cultural, economic and social wellbeing of more than one million people who live in its catchment and is valued by the national and international community. In light of increasing pressures, and concerns raised by the World Heritage Committee on the impacts of development in 2011, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority worked with the Queensland Government and the Commonwealth Department of the Environment to undertake a comprehensive strategic assessment. This strategic assessment took a comprehensive look at the Reef's values, the threats to those values and what is needed to manage and protect them. It considered the marine environment and adjacent coastal zone, and how cumulative impacts affect the marine environment in the short and long term. It resulted in a 25-year management plan which outlines how Reef management will be strengthened. In addition, a Reef 2050 Plan is being developed, which will provide an overarching framework with clear targets to guide actions for the protection and management of the reef from 2015 to 2050.

Problem, challenge or context: 

Like many coral reefs around the world, the Great Barrier Reef is under pressure. Climate change, poor water quality from land-based run-off, impacts from coastal development, some remaining impacts of fishing, and outbreaks of crown-of-thorn starfish are among the most serious threats to the Reef. The Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report 2014, released in August, confirmed these to be the main threats, with climate change the most serious one likely to have far-reaching consequences in the decades to come. The accumulation of all impacts is likely to affect the Reef’s ability to recover from serious disturbances such as cyclones, floods and mass coral bleaching, which are predicted to become more frequent in the future. The long-term protection of the Reef needs both a concerted international effort to reduce global climate change and national, state and local action to build the Reef’s resilience by reducing impacts. 

Specific elements of components: 

The comprehensive strategic assessment of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area and adjacent coastal zone was undertaken by the Australian and Queensland governments between 2012 and 2014. It examined the values of the Great Barrier Reef (including attributes which contribute to the Reef’s outstanding universal value), threats to those values, and actions required to protect them. 
The comprehensive strategic assessment included: 
• an assessment of the Great Barrier Reef Region, which was led by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and examined the marine component; and
• an assessment of the Great Barrier Reef Coastal Zone, which was led by the Queensland Government and focused on the coastal areas adjacent to the Region.
These assessments were carried out under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act 1999, Australia’s central piece of environmental legislation. Draft reports were made available for public comment and peer reviewed. Comments received through these processes were incorporated into final reports and detailed in supplementary reports. 
The outcomes of the assessments are now being operationalised through a range of management tools and are informing development of a long-term sustainability plan (the Reef 2050 Plan) for the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area. 
The strategic assessment process for the Great Barrier Reef Region was guided by terms of reference and aligned with the Queensland Government’s assessment for the adjacent coastal zone through a joint technical framework. 
It used grading statements to standardise the assessments of the condition of values, impacts on values, management effectiveness and risk. To reflect differences within the Region, the descriptions and assessments often distinguished between four broad areas: the northern third, inshore and offshore, and the southern two-thirds, inshore and offshore — with the north-south dividing line in the vicinity of Port Douglas. Similar divisions were made for the Region’s catchment. 
The strategic assessment was based on the best available information as at June 2013, including scientific data, expert opinion, and Traditional Owner and stakeholder knowledge.
Throughout the assessment process, the Authority consulted with its expert and community advisory groups. There were also opportunities for input from broader Traditional Owner and stakeholder groups through purpose-designed workshops and follow-up surveys, plus meetings with a range of interested organisations, groups and individuals. Public consultation on the draft strategic assessment and program reports for both the Region and the coastal zone took place over a three-month period from November 2013.
Management effectiveness was independently assessed by a team of three assessors with comprehensive knowledge of protected area management, particularly in the Queensland marine environment. In addition, independent consultants peer reviewed the draft strategic assessment and program reports.

Key lessons learned: 

• The need for a clearly defined process outlining methods to be used and opportunities for stakeholder input.
• The merit in utilizing a range of tools to assess impacts ranging from value-impact matrices, qualitative and quantitative models to understand cause and effect relationships and spatial mapping approaches (no one tool is perfect).
• The importance of considering the effects of impacts across a range of scales, both spatially and temporally, and the cumulative effect of multiple impacts on values;
• The necessity of taking into account how a ‘shifting baseline’ in the condition of values affects assessments of current condition and trend of values.
• The importance of relying on best available information, including scientific data, expert opinion, and Traditional Owner and stakeholder knowledge.

Impacts and outcomes: 
  • The assessment found that while the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area’s outstanding universal value remains largely intact, the overall health of reefs, especially in the southern two-thirds of the Region – below about Cooktown - has declined significantly. The Great Barrier Reef is one of the world’s most resilient tropical marine ecosystems, but impacts are accumulating over time and over an ever-increasing area.
  • The strategic assessment concluded that managing the multiple impacts affecting the Reef requires a multi-pronged approach. It presented a series of recommended improvements to management arrangements that can be implemented by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and across local, state and national government programs. Given the size and complexity of the Reef, this involves balancing environmental protection with national, state and community interests.
  • The 25-year management program for the Authority (the Program Report) outlines how the Reef will be managed for the years ahead. It includes clear targets, cumulative impact guidelines and regional standards, restoration activities and an integrated monitoring and reporting program. For the first time, it considers the whole-of-Reef, with a focus on regional and local solutions.
  • In addition, the outcomes of the strategic assessment are being used to develop the Reef 2050 Plan, in partnership by the Australian and Queensland governments and in close consultation with partners including the resources, ports, tourism, fishing, agriculture, Indigenous, local government, research and conservation sectors. This Plan will inform future development by drawing together the marine and coastal components of the comprehensive strategic assessment, providing an over-arching framework to guide protection and management of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area from 2015 to 2050. It identified areas of action from the strategic assessments and seeks to address gaps for future management of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.
Contact details: 
Russell Reichelt, Chairman, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority
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