Editor's note: Jon Day is director of conservation for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) in Australia.

By Jon Day

Most people associated with managing marine or coastal areas have heard of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). Many also know that the GBR is an extremely large marine park and may even be aware that there are different zones that prohibit various activities in certain areas. There are, however, many misconceptions about the zoning scheme.

Zoning provides a spatial framework for managing use while providing differing levels of protection for different areas. In some parts of the world, zoning is based solely around allowing, or prohibiting, specific activities in specific areas. In the GBR the emphasis is on providing a spectrum of zones with differing objectives. The objectives and the provisions in the zoning plan then clarify what activities are appropriate in the zone.

There are seven zones: the General Use Zone allows the widest range of marine activities, and the Preservation Zone the fewest. Under each objective for each zone, the GBR Zoning Plan sets out in detail two specific lists of "use or entry" provisions: a list of activities that are allowed to occur in that zone without a permit, and a list of activities that may occur after a permit has been granted. If an activity is not on either list, then it is effectively prohibited. For communication with the wider public, the allowable activities in the Zoning Plan have been made into a simple activity/zoning matrix.

Contrary to popular belief, not all activities listed in the Zoning Plan can occur with a permit. For example, activities such as aquaculture or harvest fishing that may or may not have an impact MAY be permitted even in Habitat Protection Zones, but only after undergoing a detailed permit assessment process.

There is also a special "catch-all" permit provision in the GBR Zoning Plan ("any other purpose consistent with the objective of the zone…") that provides for new technology or activities that were not known when the Zoning Plan was approved and which therefore are not in either of the above lists. In all zones an activity that is not specifically listed but is deemed to be consistent with the zone objective may be considered for a permit. This essential requirement (i.e., to be consistent with the zone objective) is an important first consideration whenever a permit application is considered for a particular zone. The "any other purpose" provision is an important "safety net" that has enabled new activities to be considered while maintaining the integrity of the overall zoning scheme.

Another misconception is that the Marine Park was zoned when implemented. The first zoning plans were progressively developed for parts of the Marine Park in the early 1980s, but it was not until 15 years after the Marine Park was declared (i.e., 1988) that the entire area was zoned. From 1988 until mid 2004, less than 5% of the entire GBR was zoned in highly protected "no-take" zones.

The Representative Areas Program did rezone the entire Marine Park during a single comprehensive planning process, and today one-third of the GBR (i.e., 117,000 km2) is now highly protected. An additional one-third is protected from activities that would impact the benthic habitat (including Habitat Protection Zones, Conservation Park Zones, and Buffer Zones).

While zoning is a key management instrument for the conservation and management over the entire area (344,400 km2), another misconception concerns the role that zoning plays in the GBR Marine Park. Zoning does provide a spatial basis for determining where many activities can occur, but zoning is only one of many spatial management tools used in the GBR. Some of the other management tools or strategies applied in the GBR Marine Park include:

  • Permits;

  • Statutory "plans of management";

  • Site plans/special management areas;

  • Other spatial restrictions (e.g., defense training areas, shipping areas, agreements with traditional owners);

  • Best environmental practices/codes of practice; and

  • Partnerships with industry.

A final misconception is that zoning and hence management of the GBR is confined to just the "wet bits" in the Marine Park. Legislative controls apply equally to the airspace above the Marine Park (up to 3000 feet) as well as into the seabed; and in November 2004, the State of Queensland "mirrored" the Commonwealth zoning in most of the adjoining State waters, so there is now complementary zoning for virtually all the State and Commonwealth waters within the entire GBR World Heritage Area.

For more information on the GBR zoning system, including history of the zoning program and maps, go to www.gbrmpa.gov.au/corp_site/management/zoning.

For more information

Jon Day, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Townsville, Queensland, Australia. E-mail: j.day@gbrmpa.gov.au