Human Activities Put Pressure on Great Barrier Reef

CANBERRA, Australia, July 10, 2003 (ENS) - The world's longest reef is losing its dugongs and nesting sea turtles at a rapid rate, according to the first comprehensive assessment of the Great Barrier Reef since 1998.

Australian Environment Minister Dr. David Kemp released the "2003 State of the Reef Report" last week at a reef conference in Townsville, Queensland.

"The Great Barrier Reef is under mounting pressure," Kemp told delegates. "The numbers of nesting loggerhead turtles have declined between 50 and 80 percent, and dugong populations adjacent to Queensland's urban coast are estimated to be only three percent to what they were in the 1960s."

The annual flow of sediments and nutrients from land based activities into the reef has increased four-fold since European settlement, according to the report.

In the past few years the reef has suffered two of its worst ever recorded coral bleaching events caused by unusually hot sea water.

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Snorklers explore the Great Barrier Reef (Photo courtesy CRC Reef Research Centre)
"Indeed, this is sobering news but it is not unique to the Great Barrier Reef," Kemp said. "The report states there are similar pressures elsewhere in the world, which has seen a loss of up to 25 percent of the world's coral reefs."

The Australian government has implemented dugong protection areas in conjunction with the Queensland government to protect dugongs from drowning in fishing nets, said Kemp, and has introduced plans to manage potential conflicts of use and tourism development in high use areas of the reef.

Reef based tourism is estimated to be worth between A$1-2 billion a year and commercial fisheries worth about A$400 million annually.

Kemp said the Australian government is working with the Queensland Fisheries Service to develop a new sustainable line fisheries management plan for the reef and to introduce mandatory use of turtle excluder devices and bycatch reduction devices to stop turtles from dying in trawl nets.

Many parts of the Great Barrier Reef are still in very good condition, but the report warns there is no room for complacency on the part of industry, the community and governments.

Kemp's emphasis was on the efforts made by the current government headed by Prime Minister John Howard to make the reef "sustainable on an ecological, economical and recreational basis."

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Runoff onto the reef's coastal zone from land based activities such as agriculture (Photo courtesy Australian Institute of Marine Science)
Through the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), the Commonwealth government has jointly developed the Reef Water Quality Protection Plan with the Queensland government to protect the reef from land based pollution.

The central government has proposed a six-fold increase in protected areas and marine sanctuaries within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park – in consultation with industry, communities and key stakeholders – as part of the recently released Draft Zoning Plan under the Representative Areas Program (RAP).

The government has invested A$3 million over three years to boost the surveillance capacity of federal and state law enforcement authorities in detecting illegal fishing operations resulting in a 300 percent increase in the number of offenders apprehended, Kemp told the delegates.

But the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) today blamed the Australian government for allowing single hull oil tankers to continue to ply the Australian coast, right through the middle of the Great Barrier Reef and other marine protected areas.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority does not require oil companies to indicate the type of vessel they have chartered to transport oil into Australia. The agency which oversees shipping and marine safety has no way of knowing if a vessel on its way to Australia could pose a potential threat until it arrives at an Australian port, said Serge Killingbeck of the ACF.

For the first time, the reef is being viewed as a potential source of new medicines to fight cancer. On June 22, the Townsville based Australian Institute of Marine Science signed a five year memo of understanding with the U.S. National Cancer Institute and handed over its first consignment of 400 samples from Queensland marine organisms.

The agreement allows extracts from Queensland organisms such as soft corals, sponges and starfish to be examined for anti-tumour activity at the NCI’s laboratories which have screening facilities that are not available in Australia. The organisms will be analyzed for compounds that may prove successful against human cancers.

"This world first, five year agreement puts the international spotlight on the huge value of Queensland’s unique biodiversity," said Queensland Premier Peter Beattie.

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Bowling Green Bay in front of the Australian Institute of Marine Science facility in Townsville. (Photo courtesy Indo-Pacific Sea Turtle Conservation Group)
The newly introduced Representative Areas Program aims to protect biodiversity in each of more than 70 habitat areas of the Great Barrier Reef.

With just under four weeks left in the second community consultatation phase for the Representative Areas Program, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) today announced that more than 2,150 submissions have been received.

During the first public consultation phase last year more than 10,000 submissions were received.

GBRMPA Chair Virginia Chadwick says the early flood of submissions was a good sign for reef protection. "Most of the submissions have been very constructive and early next month we will set about the enormous task of analyzing each submission," she said.

"One message we are really trying to make clear is that this is not a fisheries management issue. This is about protecting all the living things in various habitats including coral reefs, seagrass beds and in deep water areas," Chadwick said.

Members of the public have until August 4 to turn in their submissions, either by mail to: GBRMPA, 2-68 Flinders Street, P.O. Box 1379 Townsville, Queensland 4810, Australia or online at: http://www.gbrmpa.gov.au.