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Reef Report for Monday, June 30, 2014

The United Nations and the Great Barrier Reef, an update on whatís been happening.

Lately the United Nations conservation arm, UNESCO, has been a bit at odds with the Australian government over the ecological health of the Great Barrier Reef, the ways that the Australian and Queensland Government protect the reef, and plans for port expansion to accommodate increased mineral resource shipments overseas.

Thereís been a lot of news on this issue over the past 18 months, but we can give you a short background and current update, and you can follow the links below and find more details.

The Great Barrier Reef is one of just 197 natural areas worldwide that are listed as World Heritage Sites, a nomination given for their exceptional natural values. The country where these sites are location Following a periodic review in 2011, UNESCO informed Australia that it was considering changing the status of the Great Barrier Reef to "in danger" to reflect UNESCOís concerns over the health of the reef, and the status of plans made for the Great Barrier Reefís conservation.

Since then there have been meetings and at least two postponements of the deadline for making this determination, the most recent being earlier this month. In that meeting UNESCO postponed making this decision until 2015, at which time it will welcome an update on the conservation status of the Great Barrier Reef, then make a determination.

In the decision to postpone a final decision on the status of the Great Barrier Reef, UNESCO noted their concerns about the uncertainty of the mitigation plans for dredge spoil dumping, over the planned transfer of power over environmental review and approval of proposed projects from the Federal to the Queensland government, and over the fact that project approvals are being made without a thorough Long Term Plan for Sustainable Development. Have a look at pages 102 to 105 of UNESCOís report for the details.

This news has been spun all sorts of ways, depending on whoís doing the writing. The mineral and ports sector sees this as good news, that the trend towards a healthier reef is good and that the plans for mineral and port development are good. Conservation organizations look at it as UNESCO giving one more chance for the Australian and Queensland governments to get things right.

The likely reality is that the health and conservations status of the Great Barrier Reef is somewhere in between, and the future is uncertain, and dependent on how well the current conservation plans are revised to be more effective, and how well they are carried out. While itís admirable that the Queensland Government plans not to expand any ports beyond their current boundaries, the undeveloped zones within these boundaries are extensive. At one port, Abbot Point, a permit has been issued that will allow 3 million cubic metres of the harbor to be dredged and dumped within the marine park boundary.

Itís also admirable that many of the port enlargement plans come with extensive offset programs. In the case of Abbot Point, over 140 stipulations and offset programs that reduce sediment washing into nearby rivers are forecast to produce a net benefit to water quality of 150%.. However, as recent problems in the Bundaberg port enlargement show, the local track record for follow through on such projects has not been consistently effective. The potential for even less effective follow through is there, as recent proposed budget cutbacks to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Authority, the CSIRO, and the Australian Institute of Marine Science leave one to wonder where the human and financial resources are going to come from to monitor the effectiveness of and compliance with so many mitigation measures.

Recently the Australian and Queensland governments released updates on the Reef Water Quality Protection Plan, in report card form. The good news in this yearís report card is that it points out improvement in the levels of pollutant loads in water flowing onto the reef from shore and an increase in the number of farms and graziers that are adopting more environmentally friendly practices. The bad news is that if you look at the region by region assessment of the health of the reef the marks are mostly poor and very poor. Yes, thereis improvement, but we are hoping that planners for further protection take these improved marks, (still mostly Cís Dís and Fís) are not good enough, and that more effective measures must be adopted, along with funding for assuring that there is staff available to monitor and enforce compliance with these standards.

(C) DiveTheReef The weekly reef report is written by Joel Groberg of DiveTheReef.com, who compiles them from the many conversations he has with dive staff in the area, as well as† many other local sources in the dive community.

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