The Great Barrier Reef may be listed as a World Heritage site “in danger” unless several proposed plans for new ports and other coastal development in the Australian state of Queensland are shelved.

At its annual meeting in June 2012, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee gave the Australian and Queensland governments less than a year (until February 2013) to develop and apply a highly precautionary process to consideration of coastal development proposals. That process will be expected to forbid any proposal – inside or adjacent to the site – that would significantly impact the “outstanding universal value” of the World Heritage area.

There are currently 35 applications for new coastal development in the region, including for large ports and liquefied natural gas facilities.

If the Australian and Queensland governments cannot show “substantial progress” in addressing the concerns raised, the World Heritage Committee has indicated it will consider inscribing the Great Barrier Reef to its List of World Heritage in Danger. The committee uses such inscriptions to attract international attention to threats and move governments to take action. Both governments are now undertaking a comprehensive strategic assessment of the Great Barrier Reef to address each of the key issues confronting the ecosystem.

There is nearly complete overlap between the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area: 99% of the World Heritage Area is covered by the federally managed Marine Park. The remaining 1% of the World Heritage Area is state-managed and comprises ports and most of the islands.

Sophisticated management, yet still under threat

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is generally recognized in the global MPA community for its sophisticated management, including a zoning framework based on 70 bioregions and a comprehensive water quality protection program that is co-managed by the Australian and Queensland governments. The possibility that the site could be added to the World Heritage in Danger list is a reminder that even well-managed MPAs face threats and the potential for decline.

In March 2012, IUCN and the World Heritage Centre conducted a joint mission to the Great Barrier Reef to examine the development situation. The resulting report expressed concerns regarding the lack of a sufficiently precautionary approach to decision-making on new coastal development applications. As evidence, the report stated that since 1999, Queensland government has approved 70% of all coastal development proposals that had the potential to impact the reef’s outstanding universal value. The mission report is available at .

“I think it is fair to expect more of the [decision-making] process than was in place when the World Heritage delegation visited earlier this year,” says Queensland Environment Minister Andrew Powell. Powell is a member of the Liberal National Party, which took power in Queensland in March. He says the state government is moving quickly to ensure high environmental standards are met. “We are pursuing a strategic ports plan to make sure development occurs in a measured and responsible manner in the future. Where projects are not environmentally or economically sound, I am confident the government will take action.”

UNESCO is concerned that the potential coastal development projects will cause the loss of critical habitat, including for dugongs and other threatened species. The development could also reduce overall ecosystem resilience to climate change – which, through coral bleaching and acidification, is considered the main threat facing the Great Barrier Reef.

Jon Day, director of planning, heritage, and sustainable funding for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, shares these concerns. “Expanding coastal development and the associated pressures undoubtedly poses a risk to the health of the Great Barrier Reef,” he says. “One of the best ways to build resilience to cope with climate change is to reduce these other pressures.”

For more information:

Alexandria Bernard (senior media advisor), Ministry for Environment and Heritage Protection, Brisbane, QLD, Australia. E-mail:

Jon Day, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Townsville, Queensland, Australia. E-mail:

BOX: Background on the Great Barrier Reef and marine World Heritage

  • The Great Barrier Reef was inscribed on the World Heritage list in 1981.
  • The peer-reviewed Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report 2009 ( ) highlighted threats to the Great Barrier Reef and identified the following issues in priority order as those reducing its resilience:
    1. Climate change;
    2. Continued declining water quality from catchment runoff;
    3. Loss of coastal habitats from coastal development; and
    4. Remaining impacts from fishing and illegal fishing/poaching.
  • Climate change is a global issue facing all natural World Heritage properties – particularly marine sites, for which ocean acidification is a significant threat.
  • There are currently 46 marine sites inscribed on the World Heritage list within 35 countries. The newest-listed marine site is the Rock Islands in Palau, inscribed in 2012.
  • Two marine World Heritage sites are currently inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger:Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System (Belize)
    Inscribed on World Heritage List in 1996.
    Inscribed on Danger List from 2009-present.
    Threats to site value: sale and lease of public lands for development within the site, leading to destruction of mangrove and marine ecosystems.

    Everglades National Park (United States)
    Inscribed on World Heritage List in 1979.
    Inscribed on Danger List from 1993-2007 and again 2010-present.
    Threats to site value: alterations in hydrological regime, increased nutrient pollution, and adjacent urban and agricultural growth.