In 1981, the Great Barrier Reef was inscribed on the World Heritage list for its Outstanding Universal Value. The Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area (GBRWHA) extends more than 2,300km along the Queensland coast and reaches more than 250km offshore.

In the international setting, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), through the World Heritage Committee (Committee) is responsible for the implementation of the World Heritage Convention to which Australia is a party, and under which, the Great Barrier Reef has been listed as a World Heritage property.

Within Australia both the federal and Queensland State governments have direct legislative responsibilities within the GBRWHA.

Natural resource management and land based environment protection are primarily regulated by the Queensland government. The federal government regulates matters of national environmental significance, including world and national heritage properties and their values, under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act).

Australia’s framework for management of the GBRWHA is primarily constituted by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 (Cth) and the EPBC Act.

World Heritage Committee

At its 35th session, in June 2011, the World Heritage Committee noted with extreme concern, the approval of LNG processing and port facilities within the GBRWHA on Curtis Island.

This concern led the Committee to request an invitation from Australia for a reactive monitoring mission to visit the GBRWHA and assess the overall state of conservation of the area.

The Committee also requested that Australia prepare a State Party Report on the state of conservation of the GBRWHA and addressing each of the concerns raised by the Committee.

The details of the Committee’s concerns can be found in decision 35 COM 7B.10.

State Party Report

The Australian Government submitted the State Party Report (Report) to the Committee on 1 February 2012. The report was prepared in cooperation with the Queensland Government.

Australia expressed its regret that the Committee had noted concerns about the management of the GBRWHA. The Report also presented the Government’s position that the Outstanding Universal Value of the GBRWHA has not been compromised by the decision to approve LNG processing facilities on Curtis Island.

Through the Report, the Australian and Queensland Governments also committed to a comprehensive Strategic Assessment of the GBRWHA and adjacent coastal zone under the EPBC Act, with the aim of ensuring that future planning considers cumulative impacts and is based on the best available science.

The Strategic Assessment will comprise two components. The first, to be led by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, will examine regulatory controls of the marine environment and how well they operate to protect matters of national environmental significance.

The second component will be led by the Queensland Government and will assess matters related to the coastal zone including planning for urban, industrial and port development and current management arrangements.

Draft Decision

During March 2012, a joint World Heritage Centre and International Union for Conservation of Nature reactive monitoring mission visited the GBRWHA.

In its subsequent report (which is yet to be publicly released, but which is quoted in the Committee’s State of Conservation Report in respect of the GBRWHA – document WHC-12/36.COM/7B.Add) the mission noted a rapid increase in proposals for Queensland coastal development with the potential to impact upon the Outstanding Universal Values of the property.

The mission’s report also highlighted particular concerns regarding the:

  • overall protection and management of the property;
  • water quality; and
  • climate change.  

Nevertheless the mission concluded that the property does not currently meet the requirements for inscription on the List of World Heritage in Danger. 

A draft decision to be considered by the Committee at its next meeting is contained in the State of Conservation Report. In its current form, the draft decision requests that:

  • Australia not permit any new port development or associated infrastructure outside of the existing and long-established major port areas within or adjoining the property;
  • Australia submit an updated report on the state of conservation of the property by 1 February 2013, with a view to the Committee considering, in the absence of substantial progress, the possible inscription of the property on the List of World Heritage in Danger at its 37th meeting in the same year;
  • Australia complete the Strategic Assessment and resulting long-term plan for the sustainable development of the property for consideration by the Committee at its 39th session in 2015;
  • Australia undertake an independent review of the management arrangements for Gladstone Harbour.  

The draft decision also urges Australia to establish the Outstanding Universal Value of the property as a clearly defined and central element within the protection and management system for the property.

Next Steps

The 36th meeting of the World Heritage Committee will be held in St Petersburg from 24 June to 6 July 2012.

The draft decision will be considered at that meeting and the Committee may choose to amend the text in its final decision. Based on previous decisions of the Committee, there are likely to be important amendments made prior to the decision being finalised.

In terms of the listing of the property on the World Heritage List, the Committee may decide:

  • that the property has not seriously deteriorated and that no further action should be taken;
  • that the property has seriously deteriorated but not to the extent that its restoration is impossible. The property will be maintained on the World Heritage List provided the State Party takes necessary measures to restore the property within a reasonable period of time;
  • to inscribe the property on the list of World Heritage in Danger;
  • to delete the property from the list if it is concluded that the property has deteriorated to the point where it has irretrievably lost those characteristics which justified its inscription on the List.