Safeguarding a very special place

Home to abundant marine life, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is a source of national pride. chinadialogue takes a look at the reef’s stunning beauty – and the country’s latest plans for protecting it.

The Great Barrier Reef — the world’s largest coral reef and the only living thing on earth visible from space – is one of Australia’s great natural gifts. It is home to an abundance of marine life and known for its thousands of individual reef systems, coral cays and hundreds of tropical isles.

Reefs are important ecologically, economically and socially. In many parts of the developing tropical world, coastal communities depend primarily on them for food and protection from storm-generated waves. In Australia, the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) generates billions of dollars annually, mainly from tourism. “The whole nation is proud of it,” says Graeme Kelleher, who served for many years as chairman and chief executive officer of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

“Ecologically, the GBR protects most of the Queensland coast — more than 2,200 kilometres — from erosion and the destructive effects of storms,” Kelleher explains. “The biological diversity of the GBR is very high — more than 350 species of reef-building corals and more than 1,500 species of fish. It is regarded internationally as one of the best-protected reefs in the world, being enclosed in a World Heritage Area and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.”

“The Great Barrier Reef contains many outstanding examples of important and significant natural habitats for in situ conservation of species of conservation significance,” added Kelleher, who is also a former vice-chairman of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Commission on Protected Areas. “It contains more than 2,900 individual reefs, covering more than 24,000 square kilometres, as well as about 980 islands.”

In the wake of the grounding of the Chinese coal-carrier Shen Neng 1 on the reef’s Douglas Shoal earlier this month, Australia announced that it would extend a satellite ship-tracking system to cover all of the massive reef, to reduce the risk such an incident occurring again. The system, currently in place for most of the GBR, would be extended south, Agence France-Presse said, and would force all ships to report their positions for tracking. The change must be ratified by the International Maritime Organisation, however, because much of the area is outside Australia’s territorial waters.

Until then, Australian transport minister Anthony Albanese said, safety agencies “will begin rolling out the infrastructure necessary to support the reporting system, such as sensors, communications equipment and modified navigational software. By beginning this work now, our authorities will be fully ready for the start of mandatory reporting in July 2011.”

In the Shen Neng 1 accident, oil spillage from the now-refloated ship’s tanks appears to be relatively minimal, with the greatest damage coming in the form of a three-kilometre-long scar gouged into the coral – and possible additional damage from the vessel’s paint.

The environmental scare, however, has heightened the urgency of efforts to ensure that ships can safely negotiate the Great Barrier Reef’s sensitive waters. “The key thing that we see is needed alongside this tracking system is to have pilots onboard every large ship that traverses the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area,” the BBC quoted Richard Leck of WWF Australia as saying. Such professional navigators, he said, can prevent accidents. “Most of the incidents that occur within the World Heritage area are due to human error.”

Kelleher sees long-term benefit from the Chinese ship incident “in that without doubt, specific action will now be taken to ensure that large vessels in the future will be forced to navigate through the reef in even closer accordance with the very strict rules than is normal nowadays. It needs to be recognised that those rules are enforced strictly now.”

“This accident is without doubt a major navigational error,” Kelleher added. “A lateral error of 12 kilometres in navigation is really bad and unusual. I support the idea of large vessels carrying toxic cargo through the Great Barrier Reef being required by law to be guided by a specialised marine pilot in charge.”