Current management is not enough to halt pollution on the Great Barrier Reef



When the most recent report card for the Great Barrier Reef was released last year, it painted a depressing picture of the reef’s condition.

The condition of the reef, measured by coral, seagrasses and water quality, remains poor. Reductions in nutrients and sediment from rivers flowing into the reef is well less than the targeted reductions. Particularly noticeable is the small reduction in dissolved inorganic nitrogen (17% compared with a target of 50%), the nutrient closely linked with crown-of-thorn starfish infestations.

The report card also showed that the uptake of best management practices by the sugarcane and grazing industries has little or no chance of reaching the target of 90% of farms by by 2018.

Despite at least 15 years of concerted action by the Australian and Queensland governments, including a large investment (around A$500 million), the ecological health of the reef is not improving and in fact may be continuing to deteriorate.

Slow to recover

The Great Barrier Reef had a terrible year in 2011, with extensive coastal flooding and Cyclone Yasi, followed by increased crown-of-thorns infestations. There has been some recovery from these events, but overall the ecological condition of the Great Barrier Reef is precarious.

The Australian and Queensland governments have in response adopted the Reef Plan 2050. But this is not enough to arrest the decline.

It has been recognised for some time that a major threat to the reef’s health is from contaminants contributed from agricultural activities in the catchment. And of these grazing and sugarcane production contribute the greatest loads to the reef. (Of course climate, climate change, shipping, fishing are also important too).

Past and current management action plans have focused on reducing the contaminant loads contributed by agriculture, by providing incentives to assist farmers to voluntarily introduce best management practices.

In a report tabled earlier this year, the Queensland Audit Office made a scathing assessment of the management of water quality in Great Barrier Reef catchments up to 2013. They concluded that:

Land management practice programs are not achieving the changes needed to realise the Reef Plan goal within the established timelines and the extent and sustainability of change is not being comprehensively monitored at the farm scale.

They also found that “the lack of incentives [money] and disincentives [regulation] combined with poor communication have seen a slow industry take-up in some voluntary improvement programs.”

Reef protection legislation, seeking to control contaminant loads from cattle grazing and sugarcane growing, was introduced in Queensland in 2010. To date these regulations have not been actively pursued, although the Queensland Office of the Great Barrier Reef have recently announced the governments intention to work more closely with farmers to assist them in meeting their legislative obligations to reduce the loss of nutrients, pesticides and sediment from their activities.

The new Reef Plan 2050 adopts the same model – voluntary adoption of best management practices. While there are examples where of farmers have changed their practices, for example by retaining more vegetation cover in the grazing industry and targeting fertiliser applications in the sugarcane industry, these are too few in number and too slow in implementation to make the required difference. According to the report card only 13% of sugarcane farmers have adopted plans across the catchment.

We also question the effectiveness of some of the best management plans being adopted – are they good enough? There needs to be an independent audit of both the effectiveness of the various farmers\’ practices and the level of their adoption.

We believe that there are four areas that can be improved to help the reef’s prospects.

Focus on ‘hot spots’

Hot spots are smaller areas where large loads of contaminants are generated.

There is now considerable research showing that fine sediment delivered to the reef lagoon is predominately derived from erosion of gullies and riverbanks, and not from the bulk of the land.

Equally, it is well known that most of the dissolved inorganic nitrogen entering the reef comes from sugarcane growing regions. This dissolved inorganic nitrogen is the main trigger for crown-of-thorns infestations.

Management actions need to focus on these hot spots to achieve the most cost-effective outcomes.

Best management practices

Voluntary adoption needs to be combined with sensible regulation to enforce adoption where this is not occurring fast enough. Many sugarcane growers still use excessive amounts of nitrogen fertiliser and would be discouraged from this practice if they were fined for any excessive loads of dissolved inorganic nitrogen leaving their property. The Reef Protection legislation allows for this to occur.

There should be an independent assessment of the currently-accepted best management practice for each agricultural industry, and particularly grazing and sugarcane, to ensure they are actually the best and will lead to the required reduction in contaminant loads.

A more rigorous process for assessing the level of uptake of farmers\’ plans, including an independent audit of the process, is needed.

Reducing the level of farming

Perhaps it is time to look at whether there is too much farming in the Great Barrier Reef catchments. For example, it may be necessary to reduce the area of certain land-uses to achieve the contaminant reduction targets necessary to save the Great Barrier Reef.

Considerable levels of government funding would be required to achieve this objective. Although a somewhat analogous situation is already underway in the Murray-Darling Basin where the Australian government is investing around A$13 billion (note the discrepancy with the investments in the Great Barrier Reef) to rebalance water use. This includes buying water entitlements for the environment and investing in on-farm and off-farm irrigation efficiency programs. The saved water also goes to the environment.

The Australian and Queensland government have committed to invest more than A$2 billion over the coming decade in Reef management and research activities. While this is a substantial investment, it is insufficient given the magnitude of the task. We suggest this needs to be increased to at least A$5 billion over the period to 2025.


The on-ground catchment management also needs to be significantly improved. The current natural resource management groups are struggling to have the necessary influence in improving management in the Great Barrier Reef catchments. They have no legislative mandate and are under-resourced.

We suggest Queensland might follow the lead of Victoria and establish catchment management authorities for the reef catchments with the necessary legislative backing.

Setting bold future goals is necessary, but these long-term goals need to be accompanied by incremental goals (e.g. two-year milestones) so that better accountability and tracking can occur within political lifespans.

We urge the Federal and Queensland governments to revise and strengthen Reef Plan 2050. As it stands, we are not confident this plan can contribute sufficiently to saving the Reef. The Great Barrier Reef is an iconic part of Australia and it deserves our very best efforts so that future generations can enjoy this incredible natural resource.

Author Bios: Barry Hart is Emeritus Professor Water Science, Monash University and Bill Dennison is Professor of Marine Science, University of Maryland