For nearly 30 years, dating back to its establishment under Australian law in 1975, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) has served as a leader for the global community of MPA planners and managers. With experience gained from managing one of the largest and oldest MPAs in the world, GBRMPA staff have advised multiple peer agencies worldwide and been a regular presence at international meetings. GBRMPA programs to link land and sea conservation, particularly on water quality, and to study climate change as a threat to MPAs were among the highest-profile programs of their kind. The rezoning of the marine park in 2004 remains one of the most rigorous MPA-planning efforts achieved to date, anywhere. GBRMPA programs have earned their reputation for representing the best practices – the gold standard – in the field.

This era of global leadership may be drawing to a close.

Over the past six months, 17 GBRMPA officers have agreed to take voluntary redundancies* and are stepping down as part of a downsizing and restructure of the agency. These include five members of GBRMPA’s Senior Management Team at the director level, some of whom may be familiar to readers of MPA News: Jon Day (Director of Heritage Conservation), Paul Marshall (Director of Climate Change), and Adam Smith (Director of Environmental Impact Assessment). Also departing are Directors Hugh Yorkston (Water Quality and Coastal Development) and Chris Briggs (Tourism and Recreation).

Editor’s note: For readers unfamiliar with the term voluntary redundancy, it is a financial incentive offered by an organization to encourage employees to resign voluntarily.

The exodus of senior staff represents a sudden and dramatic change for the agency. Collectively, the 17 departing officers have over 250 years of experience and institutional knowledge relating to the Great Barrier Reef. Much of that knowledge is walking out the door with them.

The timing of the departures is noteworthy given the Australian Government’s recent 2014 Outlook Report for the Great Barrier Reef. The report concludes that even with recent management initiatives to reduce threats from climate change, land-based runoff, coastal development, and fisheries:

“[T]he overall outlook for the Great Barrier Reef is poor, has worsened since 2009, and is expected to further deteriorate in the future. Greater reductions of threats at all levels…are required to prevent the projected declines in the Great Barrier Reef and to improve its capacity to recover.” (

The loss of expertise has happened during the lead-up to an important meeting next year when UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee will consider whether the Great Barrier Reef should be added to the “World Heritage in Danger” list given the range and severity of threats it faces.

The redundancies have also occurred around the same time as a controversial decision by GBRMPA to approve an application to dump three million cubic meters of dredge spoil inside the marine park (MPA News 15:6 and 15:4). Although that approval is being reconsidered following opposition from the Australian public, the scientific community, the UNESCO World Heritage Programme and other institutions, the decision was a blow to staff morale at the conservation agency, according to insiders. At least some staff, and many outside the agency, perceived the decision as GBRMPA’s crumbling to political pressure from the Federal Government.

MPA News speaks with some of the departing directors about what has driven the current changes at GBRMPA and what it means for the agency’s leadership role going forward.

How voluntary were these redundancies?

Early in 2014, GBRMPA personnel were advised that the agency would need to reduce staffing. Like all Australian government agencies, GBRMPA’s budget was undergoing cuts as part of an across-the-board reduction in public service costs. For GBRMPA, this meant a cut of AUD 2.8 million (USD 2.5 million) in Federal Government funding.

Government agencies including GBRMPA offered their staff voluntary redundancy packages to assist in meeting the downsizing needs. At GBRMPA, 17 officers applied for and were provided redundancy packages.

For at least some of the GBRMPA senior directors, structural changes within the agency meant little prospect of continuing in leadership roles on critical issues like heritage and climate change. In effect, the restructure heavily influenced the decision by some to take a redundancy package. However, as noted by outgoing director Jon Day, “It would seem odd that leaders in such important issues like climate change and heritage could be considered ‘redundant’ at this juncture in the management of the Great Barrier Reef.”

The factors in accepting the redundancy package varied by person. Reg Parsons, GBRMPA compliance manager and one of the 17 departing staff, was already contemplating leaving the agency to establish a new International Centre for Compliance Management in MPAs (described in MPA News 15:6 and 14:5). Others were already nearing the end of their careers.

“Each person who took the voluntary redundancy had their own reasons,” says Adam Smith. “Several had been at GBRMPA for a long time and were close to retirement. A deciding factor for others was that they were frustrated with the leadership and culture at GBRMPA, and the redundancies provided a financial opportunity to try something new that fitted with their values.”

“The decision to approve sea dumping in the Marine Park was a factor for several people to move on,” says Smith. “I joined GBRMPA in 1999 because of the privilege of working to protect the reef and GBRMPA’s great reputation, leadership, passionate staff, and values. I left in 2014 because some of these attractions had been diluted by politics and bureaucracy, and I felt I could make a bigger difference for the Reef if I worked in the private sector.” Smith is now a director at Reef Ecologic, an NGO that provides conservation-oriented research and innovation services to coastal communities and marine enterprises.

Paul Marshall, who ran GBRMPA’s climate change program, has joined Smith at Reef Ecologic, where he will be focusing on developing tools and approaches for climate-resilient MPA management, application of ecosystem services concepts and making biodiversity offsetting applicable to coral reef settings. He notes GBRMPA’s changes this year are just the latest (and largest) in a series of changes in recent years.

“GBRMPA has been going through some difficult times in the last few years as shrinking budgets necessitated efficiency measures,” says Marshall. “For at least some of the senior officers who accepted redundancies, the decrease in institutional capacity made it difficult to feel effective in areas that are important for the future of the Great Barrier Reef. In my situation, the voluntary redundancy program provided an opportunity to pursue options to work on Great Barrier Reef issues from a non-government platform.”

What impacts will the departures have on GBR management?

It is unusual for any institution to lose a significant number of its senior officers in as short a span of time as GBRMPA has. The departures are likely to have an impact on the agency’s day-to-day and long-term efforts.

“It is disappointing that such redundancies were even contemplated for GBRMPA at this time, given that the number of pressures on the Great Barrier Reef is increasing,” says Jon Day. “More disturbing is the fact that much of the expertise that has been, or is being, lost is in the areas of the main threats facing the Reef.”

Climate change, for example, no longer features as a distinct programmatic area in GBRMPA’s organizational structure. The staff dedicated to implementing the GBR Climate Change Adaptation Strategy and Action Plan 2012-2017 has shrunk from eight full-time positions to less than one full-time staffer.

Marshall led the GBRMPA’s climate change work for over 10 years. “There are staff remaining in GBRMPA who are very dedicated to helping the agency address the challenges associated with climate change,” he says. “But the reality is that they are over-worked and under-resourced to provide the level of programmatic support on this issue that characterized GBRMPA’s work in the previous (2007-2012) period.”

“It is extraordinary for so many experienced, long-term directors and managers who have made a great contribution to the Reef, industry, and stakeholders to leave at the same time,” says Smith. “The knowledge, networks, and skills of the directors will be missed by remaining staff and stakeholders.”

Can GBRMPA remain a best-practice leader for the global MPA community?

At the Third International Marine Conservation Congress, held in August 2014 in Glasgow, there were no GBRMPA personnel in attendance. In past years, a GBRMPA presence at such an international meeting would have been a certainty.

“The key to leadership is great people who set a vision, inspire others, take action, and make a positive difference,” says Smith. “GBRMPA has had and continues to have some great leaders at all levels. In the past two or three years, however, there has been a perceived change in culture from passionate protection of the Reef in partnership with stakeholders to a risk-averse culture focusing on processes such as the strategic assessment. It has been increasingly difficult for GBRMPA to progress best practice on challenging issues such as dredging, spoil disposal, climate change mitigation or unsustainable fishing.”

Marshall says there is hope for the future. “GBRMPA still has an enviable pool of expertise and experience to draw on, and the exodus of senior officers creates opportunities for other staff to develop and take on leadership roles,” he says. “This can bring new ideas and energy to the organization, and help GBRMPA make up ground on tackling the big challenges common to MPA management everywhere – including developing new approaches and contributing at the frontiers of best practice. The unfortunate, and hopefully temporary, reality, however, is that remaining staff have huge workloads and will be operating with a strong focus on the most immediate issues.”

Increasingly, says Marshall, the effectiveness of GBRMPA and its reputation as a leading MPA management organization will depend on partnerships with researchers, industry bodies, private enterprise, and the NGO community. “Like elsewhere around the world, the Great Barrier Reef needs all the help it can get if it is to continue to deliver valuable ecosystem services and associated community benefits into the future.”

For more information:

Adam Smith, Reef Ecologic. Email:

Paul Marshall, Reef Ecologic. Email:
Jon Day, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University. Email:

BOX: Australian and Queensland Governments release 35-year plan for Great Barrier Reef

While GBRMPA is experiencing the strains of budget cuts and restructuring, the Australian and Queensland Governments released for comment their 35-year sustainability plan for the Great Barrier Reef. The draft Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan, released for public comment on 15 September, aims to satisfy a requirement of the UNESCO World Heritage Programme. The Great Barrier Reef is a World Heritage site.

Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt said the plan is an overarching framework for managing the Reef from 2015 to 2050. “This Reef Plan is the Queensland and Australian Governments’ commitment to working with industry and the community to improve the health and resilience of the Great Barrier Reef for future generations,” said Hunt. The draft plan is available for comment at

BOX: Australian Government appoints review panels for marine reserves

Australia’s ruling Coalition Government has announced the personnel and terms of reference for several panels to review the country’s Commonwealth marine reserves and their zoning plans. The review will pertain to 33 sites, covering a total of 2.3 million km2, that were designated in 2012 by the previous Labor Government in Australia.

The panels include an Expert Scientific Panel and five Bioregional Advisory Panels. Lists of the panels’ chairs and members are available at

When the Coalition Government came to power in September 2013, it said the new reserves had been imposed without adequate consultation of industry, and would unfairly “lock out” recreational fishermen from large areas of the ocean (MPA News 15:3 and 15:2). The new Government scrapped the zoning plans for the reserves (which had been set to take effect July 2014) and announced it would appoint review panels to recommend new zoning based on the best available science and consultation with stakeholders.

Among the 33 sites under review is the 1-million-km2 Coral Sea Marine Reserve, of which roughly half would have been no-take under its original management plan. The review panels will report to the Government in mid-2015.