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The Great Barrier Reef: 40 years on

Forty years ago this, WPSQ started its campaign to protect the whole of the Great Barrier Reef from limestone mining and oil drilling. Thanks to the vision and commitment of those members in 1967, we can still visit the largest living thing in the whole world off our coastline.


Ribbon Reef No 7, Cairns section, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park
Photo © GBRMPA

Milestones in the battle for the Reef

1963 The newly formed WPSQ voices concern about over-exploitation of the Great Barrier Reef.

1967 Queensland Department of Mines receives an application to mine limestone on Ellison Reef off Innisfail.

1967 Queensland Government prepares to grant licenses for offshore oil exploration on the Reef.

June 1967 Des Connell from the newly formed Littoral Society of Queensland and WPSQ council member publishes an article in the WPSQ newsletter about Queensland’s responsibility for the Great Barrier Reef and its lack of protections.

1967 WPSQ members, alerted by the President of the Innisfail Branch, begin a campaign to preserve the Reef from these threats.

1969 An oil drilling permit is granted that allows exploration in the whole of the reef.

1969 The ‘Save the Barrier Reef’ campaign committee is formed in Brisbane and Judith Wright, President of WPSQ, becomes the committee’s patron.

1970 Campaigning leads to the Royal Commission into Exploratory and Production Drilling for Petroleum in the Great Barrier Reef commences. This delays any mineralexploitation of the Reef.

1974 Following the Royal ommission, both the Australian and Queensland governments prohibit petroleum drilling on the Great Barrier Reef.

1975 The passing of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act establishes the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. Sections of the Reef continued to be added to the Park up to 2001.

1977 Publication of The Coral Battleground by Judith Wright, the classic account of the campaign to save the Great Barrier Reef that was spearheaded by the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland.

1981 Granting of World Heritage status to the Great Barrier Reef.

1990 The International Maritime Organization declares the Great Barrier Reef as the world’s first Particularly Sensitive Sea Area (PSSA).

1994 The 25-Year Strategic Plan for the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area outlines strategies for managing and preserving the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. WPSQ helps co-develop the Plan.

2004 All sections of the Park consolidated into one entity.

But what is the future of the Reef in the 21st century?

Significance of the campaign

The battle for the Great Barrier Reef can be considered the first modern conservation campaign in Australia.

  • Campaigners employed bumper stickers and public opinion polls to raise and measure public awareness of the issue. These are now standard campaigning measures.
  • WPSQ raised public awareness that resulted in the formation of the 'Save the Reef’ committee as a specific group just for this campaign.
  • WPSQ worked alongside other interested parties, such as the Littoral Society of Queensland. This type of campaign alliance was employed most recently by Wildlife Queensland in its successful campaign to outlaw the sport shooting of duck and quail in Queensland.
  • Prior to the campaign, ecological forces in the reef were not well understood and some scientists doubted the interconnectedness of the reef system as a whole.
  • The campaign disproved the prevailing view that parts of the reef were ‘dead’ and therefore suitable for mining.

Why the reef is important

Apart from its environmental value, the Great Barrier Reef is important in many ways.

  • The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef system; it comprises 70 bioregions, including a wide range of habitats and an extraordinary diversity of species.
  • The Great Barrier Reef is an economic asset to Queensland and Australia, for example it contributes at least $5 billion each year in direct income through the tourism industry.
  • The Great Barrier Reef welcomed 1.9 million visitors in 2004; 19% of all overseas visitors include the Reef in their itinerary.
  • The tourism industry in the region supplies 40 000 jobs and there are around 840 tourism operators involved in the Reef visiting industry.
  • $130 million worth of fish are caught commercially each year on the Reef (2004).
  • 70 Traditional Owner groups exist along the coast from Bundaberg to the Torres Strait Islands.

Outlook

Global warming is probably the single biggest threat to the future of the Great Barrier Reef because it is predicted to cause rises in sea temperature. Tropical coral reefs are sensitive to sea temperature and water that is even 1 degree Centigrade too warm causes fatal bleaching of the coral.

The scenario

  • What is the Great Barrier Reef?

    The Great Barrier Reef is more than2300 kilometre long and covers 344,400sqkm from Bundaberg to Torrest Strait.

    The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and World Heritage Area not only forms Australia’s largest protected area, it is the world’s largest Heritage Area.

    The entire Great Barrier Reef includes 900 islands and 2900 individual reefs – and is one of the world’s largest and most complex ecosystems.

    The ‘Reef’ is popularly known as the largest living thing on earth – and, yes, it can be seen from space.

    The Great Barrier Reef, along with reefs elsewhere in the world, has already suffered bleaching of up to 50% in 1998 and 2002.
  • If sea temperatures rise by 1 degree C (maximum sea surface temperatures over 3 days), up to 80% of the reef will be badly affected.
  • If sea temperatures rise by 2 degrees C, about 97% of the entire reef will be affected. Australia’s current greenhouse gas emissions are likely to lift the temperature by this amount.
  • If sea temperatures rise by 3 degrees C, 100% of the reef will bleach.

Targets and likely outcomes

  • The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that the temperature will rise 2 to 2.4 degrees C, that is, a 1 degree C increase is already unlikely.
  • The Queensland Government’s ClimateSmart 2050 strategy aims for a 60% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 2000 levels by 2050.
  • A 60% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions globally by 2050 will not protect the reef from total destruction.

For more information on Wildlife Queensland's activities, contact us by email or call +61 7 3221 0194.

Wildlife Queensland - July 2007