UNESCO’s draft decision to leave the Great Barrier Reef off its “in-danger” list is a strong endorsement of Australia’s efforts to protect the natural wonder, say federal and state ministers.
The ministers expect the reef’s health will improve on the back of a long-term sustainability plan, which bans the dumping at sea of dredge spoil and focuses on cleaning up water running onto the reef.
But conservationists say more needs to be done to protect the jewel of Australia’s tourism industry and the draft decision should not be seen as a reprieve.
The UNESCO World Heritage Committee delivered its decision late on Friday, three years after it first threatened to add the reef to its list of shame.
Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt said the preliminary ruling praised Australia’s efforts to protect the reef.
“At the end of the day, this is the strongest possible endorsement of what Australia and Queensland are doing,” Mr Hunt said.
“It is not, as some would have it, a probation – all references to ‘in-danger’ have been removed.”
Queensland Environment Minister Steven Miles was confident the Reef 2050 plan would yield results.
“We will start to see a turnaround in coral cover and a turnaround in the quality of reef,” he said.
Both ministers said they welcomed UNESCO’s scrutiny as it had helped Australia to achieve a long-term plan to improve the health of the reef, which has been in decline for decades.
The reef’s coral cover has halved since the mid-1980s because of cyclones, bleaching and the crown-of-thorns starfish.
The other main threats to the reef are declining water quality, climate change, coastal development and illegal fishing, according to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.
Greenpeace says coalmining is causing the most damage to the reef, linking the sector to climate change as part of its reef campaign.
“The Australian government can’t talk about protecting the reef while aggressively supporting the licensing of mega-mine and expansion of coal ports along the Great Barrier Reef coast,” spokeswoman Shani Tager said.
Greens deputy leader Larissa Waters said the reef was still on the “in-danger” watch list and the expansion of coal and LNG ports had to be halted.
But Queensland Resources Council chief executive Michael Roche said some green groups were more interested in ruining the coal industry than protecting the reef.
“The little recognised fact about ports and shipping is that half the ships that traverse the Great Barrier Reef area have nothing to do with the coal or gas industry,” he told AAP.
WWF Australia CEO Dermot O’Gorman said UNESCO had made the right decision but the pressure was on Australia to avoid the reef being put on the “in-danger” list in 2020.
“This draft decision is consistent with science and is in the best interests of the reef,” Mr O’Gorman said.
Apart from the embarrassment, an “in-danger” listing would have done serious harm to Australia’s economy as miners, farmers and tourism operators would have faced tough restrictions on development.
There were fears tourists would stop visiting the reef, which contributes about $6 billion to the national economy each year.
The Reef 2050 plan is being rolled out quickly to ensure the draft decision by UNESCO is endorsed when the World Heritage Committee meets at the end of June.
The Queensland government will soon introduce legislation to ban the dumping of port-related capital dredge spoil in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.
A water science task force is also working towards the ambitious targets of reducing nitrogen run-off by up to 80 per cent and sediment run-off by up to 50 per cent in key catchments.
The preliminary ruling requires Australia to give a progress report on its commitments by December 1, 2016.