Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef ecosystem on Earth and home to an amazing diversity of plants, animals, and habitats. This globally significant area was declared a multiple-use marine park covering 344,400 square kilometers in 1975. Coral reefs comprise around seven percent of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. The park includes remarkable biodiversity ranging from shallow inshore fringing reefs and seagrass beds to deep oceanic waters over 250 km offshore.
In the late 1990s, there were concerns that the levels of biodiversity protection for the Great Barrier Reef were inadequate. Less than five percent of the marine park was within “no-take zones,” that is, zones that prohibit the removal of resources by activities such as fishing or collecting. The existing no-take zones lay primarily in the remote northern sector of the Great Barrier Reef.
Today, a number of management strategies are in place to protect the marine park. The cornerstone of these strategies is a comprehensive multiple-use zoning system that provides high levels of protection in key areas, while allowing a variety of other sustainable uses, including many types of fishing, to occur in other zones across the marine park.
The current zoning plan is the result of a thorough, but controversial, rezoning of the entire area between 1999 and 2003. The Representative Areas Program (RAP) took a systematic approach to the rezoning to ensure that the range of biodiversity within the Great Barrier Reef was adequately protected. When the revised zoning plan for the marine park came into effect in July 2004, the proportion of the park protected by no-take zones increased to more than 33 percent (115,000 square kilometers). This comprises the world’s largest network of no-take zones. Together, the zoning network and the other management approaches ensure effective and integrated protection of this huge, World Heritage-listed area.
Biological diversity enables ecosystems to function and provides ecosystem services that are essential for human well-being.
In the Great Barrier Reef, such ecosystem services include food, recreational opportunities, and contributions to local livelihoods and economic growth.
The Representative Areas Program (RAP) took a systematic approach to zoning that ensured comprehensive protection of the biodiversity of the Great Barrier Reef.
The RAP process has helped to ensure the health, productivity, and resilience of the Great Barrier Reef.
The RAP/rezoning efforts, however, were only one important component in the ongoing adaptive management approach to ensure the future of the Great Barrier Reef.
Stretching for 2,300 kilometers along the northeast coast of Queensland, Australia, the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is the world’s largest coral reef and one of the world’s richest, most complex ecosystems. Home to 30 species of whales and dolphins, six species of marine turtles, and a breathtaking diversity of fish and coral, the Great Barrier Reef attracts an estimated 16 million visitors a year, and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Area in 1981.
While coral reefs initially made the GBR famous, reefs comprise only about seven percent of the overall GBR ecosystem. There is an extraordinary variety of other marine habitats and communities ranging from shallow inshore areas and seagrass beds, to deep oceanic areas over 250 kilometers offshore and deeper than 1,000 meters.
Because of the iconic status of the GBR, many people think the entire area is a marine sanctuary or a marine national park and therefore protected equally throughout. Many do not understand that the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park has always been a multiple-use, marine-protected area. The park allows a wide range of commercial and recreational activities, including many extractive industries, though not mining or drilling for oil. Within the outer boundaries of the federal marine park are some 900 islands, most of which fall under the jurisdiction of the state of Queensland.
While the GBR remains one of the healthiest coral reef ecosystems on the planet, its condition has declined significantly since European settlement. The primary pressures facing the GBR today are climate change; declining water quality due to catchment runoff; loss of coastal habitats due to development; and a small number of impacts from fishing activities including incidental catch of protected species and the death of nontargeted or discarded (bycatch) species. The best way to ensure the future of the GBR is to reduce as many of these pressures as possible, allowing the ecosystem to be more resilient to the pressures that remain.
In 1975, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act represented pioneering federal legislation. It enabled “reasonable use” of natural resources to coexist with conservation, thus introducing the concept of a multiple-use marine park. The legislation established the marine park, along with a statutory agency, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), to plan and manage the park. It also initiated a comprehensive and systematic process to develop zoning plans.
The multiple-use zoning system provides high levels of protection for specific areas, while allowing a variety of other uses to occur in certain zones. These other uses include shipping, commercial fishing, recreational fishing, aquaculture, tourism, boating, diving, developmental works including dredging, and military training. The GBRMPA uses a range of management tools, including organizing the park into eight different zone types and granting permits for a variety of activities.
Under the legislation, the GBRMPA has the power to perform any of its functions in cooperation with the State of Queensland, a Queensland agency, or with a local governing body in that state. This cooperation is important given the adjoining Queensland marine parks, national parks, and islands.
Management of the GBR is complex jurisdictionally and involves a number of agencies. The GBRMPA acts as the primary adviser to the Australian government for the care and development of the marine park and the GBR World Heritage area. A range of Australian (federal) and Queensland (state) government agencies are involved in field management of the waters and islands within the outer boundaries. The Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service is a major provider of field management activities. Other assisting agencies include Queensland and federal police, Queensland Boating and Fisheries Patrol, Customs Coastwatch, Customs Marine Unit, and the state and federal marine safety agencies.
Many national and international organizations now recognize the GBRMPA’s approach to planning and protecting the Great Barrier Reef as one of the most comprehensive and innovative global advances in the protection and recovery of marine biodiversity in recent decades. The GBRMPA has received 14 awards from international, national, and regional organizations in recognition of the GBR rezoning process. These awards acknowledge that the rezoning process and outcome represent “best practice” and have influenced many other marine conservation efforts both within Australia and internationally.
The planning process that led to the 2003 Zoning Plan was a long and expensive one, with considerable political, social, and economic challenges. But ultimately the planning process and the subsequent results have set international benchmarks in marine conservation. This paper offers a description of this process and the many obstacles overcome.
The Biological Diversity of the GBR
The extraordinary biological diversity within the GBR includes the following:
This range of species and habitats and their interconnectivity make the GBR one of the richest and most complex natural ecosystems on earth. No other World Heritage Area contains such biodiversity; this diversity, especially the endemic species, gives the GBR enormous scientific and intrinsic importance. The GBR also contains a significant number of threatened species.
Stakeholders and Economic Value
Natural beauty aside, the GBR’s social and economic value is significant, particularly for the one million residents who live in the adjoining areas. In recent years, there have been an estimated 14.6 million recreational visits per year to the marine park from residents in the GBR catchment, with an additional 1.9 million visitor days from tourists carried by commercial operators into the GBR.1,2 Tourism, recreational activities, and commercial fishing associated with the GBR bring in about AUD$5.4 billion annually, generating some 66,000 jobs, mostly in tourism.3 Over 83,000 recreational vessels are registered in the area adjoining the GBR.1
These industries underpin a significant and growing proportion of Queensland’s regional economy and they rely on the continued health of the GBR ecosystem for long-term economic sustainability. As a result, the GBR is important for a broad range of stakeholders, not just those who visit and use its resources.
Zoning as a Key Management Tool
Governments worldwide face a longstanding challenge when attempting to balance environmental protection with public use. The first zoning plan for only a small section of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park was finalized in 1981. It introduced a spectrum of seven marine zones. These range from the least restrictive, General Use Zones, which allow most reasonable uses including various types of fishing; through “no-take” Marine National Park Zones, which allow public access, but prohibit any extractive activities such as fishing or collecting; to Preservation Zones, very small “no-go” areas, set aside as undisturbed “scientific baselines” or reference areas in which only approved scientific research is permitted. These various zone types have been refined, but still exist today.
Zoning plans were designed to protect the biodiversity within the planning area and ensure its sustainability, while also reserving some areas of the GBR for public enjoyment. During the 1980s and early 1990s, the GBR zoning plans were considered an important advance in marine conservation. But by the mid-1990s, many believed they did not go far enough to protect the range of biodiversity in the GBR.
By the late 1990s, the highly protected no-take zones, which prohibit any fishing or collecting, covered only five percent of the overall marine park. Furthermore, the location of most of those original no-take zones reflected an almost exclusive focus on one habitat type—coral reefs—with a skewed emphasis on the more remote and “pristine” areas of the GBR.4 Finally, the zoning was inadequate to ensure that the entire GBR ecosystem remained healthy, productive, and resilient into the future. The system was not designed for the rapidly increasing number of tourists and recreational visitors, or the decline in biodiversity due to threats such as deteriorating water quality, increasing coastal development, outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish, or the impacts of some fishing activities and shipping incidents.
Developing the New Zoning Plan
Between May 1999 and December 2003, the GBRMPA undertook a comprehensive planning and consultative program to develop a new zoning plan for the marine park.5 A primary aim of the program was to better protect the range of biodiversity in the GBR by increasing the extent of no-take areas (locally known as “green zones”) and ensuring they included representative examples of all the different habitat types (hence the name, the Representative Areas Program or RAP). The program aimed to increase the protection of biodiversity as well as maximize the benefits and minimize the negative impacts of the rezoning on the existing users of the marine park. These aims were achieved by a comprehensive program of scientific input, community involvement, and agency innovation.
The planning program for rezoning the entire marine park would be no easy task. It would stretch over a five-year period, cost some AUD$12 million, and require over 1,000 formal and informal meetings. In total, 31,600 written public submissions were received—so many, the agency was required to develop a web-based query tool just to manage them all. It was one of the most comprehensive processes of community involvement and participatory planning for any environmental issue in Australia’s history—though it was not without the many political, economic, and cultural tensions that accompany any debate on environmental protection.
As one of the earliest tasks for the rezoning, the GBRMPA collated some 40 datasets of existing biophysical data. From 1999 to 2000, GBRMPA used this information to work with scientists to develop a map of 70 broad habitat types, or bioregions. Key stakeholders, including commercial fishermen and researchers, were consulted during these phases.4,5 Maps showing the 30 reef and 40 non-reef bioregions that make up the entire GBR can be viewed online.
Between 2000 and 2001, committees of external scientific, socioeconomic, and cultural advisers assisted in the development of 11 biophysical operational principles and four socioeconomic operational principles to inform the zoning process.6 These principles, which were endorsed by the federal minister, clarified the planning rules up front and were presented for public information before any new zones were proposed.
The biophysical operational principles included recommendations for minimum amounts of no-take areas for each bioregion (e.g. a minimum of 20 percent per bioregion) and each known habitat type. The recommendations established the minimum in the context of global experience and in light of the uncertainty about what amounts would be adequate for effective conservation.
The planning principles included advice on the size, shape, and recommended replication of no-take zones in order to achieve the most appropriate ecological outcomes and to facilitate public understanding of and compliance with the zone locations. The biophysical principles also provided a sound basis against which to assess the final extent of protection in no-take zones.6 The social, economic, cultural, and management feasibility principles aimed to ensure the zones were as compatible as possible with human uses and values.
As required by the relevant legislation, there were two formal phases of community participation during the RAP.4-6 The first phase called for input into the preparation of a draft zoning plan. The second phase provided the draft zoning plan for public comment.
The public consultation program included some 1,000 formal and informal meetings and information sessions with people in over 90 centers along and beyond the GBR coast.7,8 These meetings included local communities, commercial and recreational fishing organizations, groups of indigenous people (many of whom are recognized as traditional owners), tourism operators, and conservation groups. Meetings were held with representative organizations such as Sunfish, the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators, World Wildlife Fund Australia, and all branches of the Queensland Seafood Industry Association within the GBR catchment area.
Expert opinion, stakeholder involvement, and computerized decision-support tools all contributed to the identification of options for zoning networks.4,6, 9 In June 2003, the draft-zoning plan was published. Between June and August 2003, the second formal community participation phase occurred. This phase encompassed more than 360 formal meetings inviting community discussion of the draft zoning plan.
The approximately 31,600 written public submissions received—10,190 in the first formal phase and 21,500 in the second phase, commenting on the draft zoning plan—were unprecedented in planning programs in the marine park. All these comments necessitated the development of faster and more effective processes for analyzing and recording the information that was received by the GBRMPA.9,10 A large number of the submissions involved spatial information, including approximately 5,800 maps in the second formal phase alone.10 The GBRMPA considered, coded, and analyzed all submissions, including this spatial information, and digitized or scanned the maps.
Once the submissions had been processed, the GBRMPA entered them into a web-based query tool designed to aid planning teams in revising the draft zoning plan. The planning teams were divided into regional groups, which considered each proposed zone in the marine park against the range of available information, including the information presented by submissions.
Many modifications were made to the draft zoning plan as a result of the detailed information provided in submissions and other information received. However, in some locations, there were limited options available to modify the proposed no-take areas, particularly in inshore coastal areas, and still achieve the recommended minimum levels of protection.
Significant changes occurred between the original zoning, the draft zoning plan, and the final zoning plan that was accepted by the Australian Parliament. These changes were highlighted in an independent and public review of the zoning program conducted in 2006.11 Many of the zoning changes are well-illustrated in a case study on the Capricorn-Bunker group of islands, a small area of the marine park, in the review report.
In November 2003, the revised zoning plan was presented to the federal minister along with a regulatory impact assessment. When the new zoning plan was tabled in the Australian Parliament, the federal government introduced a Structural Adjustment Package (SAP) to assist fishers, fishery related businesses, employees, and communities adversely affected by the rezoning.
Media attention and interest-group lobbying ensured that many members of Parliament were aware of the planning process, the high levels of public participation, and the significant changes that occurred between the draft and the final plan. The final zoning plan included many compromises and left virtually all sectors feeling somewhat aggrieved. However, there was also widespread recognition that no single sector got exactly what it wanted, and that public input had effected huge changes during the planning process.
After a statutory period for parliamentary consideration, Parliament passed the new zoning plan in March 2004. The plan came into effect in July of that year. The final zoning plan achieves its objectives in that it protects the range of biodiversity in the GBR in a way that minimizes the impact on users.
Development of the new zoning plan for the entire GBR cost approximately AUD$12 million over the 5-year period.12 This estimate includes staff salaries and operating costs but not the Structural Adjustment Package mentioned above. These costs, while significant, can be readily justified in view of the size of the area being managed and the achievement of far-reaching, long-lasting statutory protection for a World Heritage site that generates around AUD$5.4 billion every year for the national economy and adjoins some of the fastest growing areas in Australia.3
The Critical Role of Politics in the Rezoning Process
The rezoning was a complex task because of the number of industries and communities that it would potentially affect, and the potential impacts of the rezoning on access to a significant portion of the GBR which had been available for fishing. Throughout the planning process, the executive of the GBRMPA and the federal minister faced a number of key political challenges:13
Implementing the New Zoning Plan
Since the revised zoning came into effect in 2004, there has been a comprehensive and ongoing communication and education campaign through television advertising and other media. The aim of this campaign is to encourage users to get their free zoning map so they know where they can go and what they can do. Signs with zoning information are located at major boat ramps along the coast. Maps are available in a range of community information centers along the coast including bait and tackle shops. Commercial suppliers of electronic navigation charts were provided with electronic zoning information to assist in depicting the zones.
The GBRMPA continues to view education as the most effective strategy to encourage compliance with the management objectives of the marine park, and it uses a range of other communication tools to raise awareness about zoning. These include tactical news releases, media interviews, advertising, and billboards to educate visitors from outside Queensland. However, enforcement action, infringement notices, and prosecution remain important deterrence tools available to park managers.
Policing 344,400 square kilometers requires a systematic and disciplined operation. Boat and aircraft patrols operate in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park on a regular basis, checking on activities and monitoring ecological conditions. The Australian and Queensland governments have a strong commitment to ensuring compliance throughout the marine park, recognizing that without adequate compliance the management of the park would not be successful.
The role of education and public participation in management, however, should not be underestimated. People who use the marine park provide the managing agencies with invaluable surveillance information about suspected illegal activities and general usage patterns.
Some Outcomes of the 2003 Zoning Plan
The 2003 Zoning Plan went into effect on July 1, 2004. While its primary goal was to protect the range of biodiversity in the GBR, evidence has already shown other benefits.
- Research at James Cook University showed coral trout numbers have rebounded by 31 to 75 percent in about two years on a majority of reefs that were closed to fishing.14 The increased fish populations in the no-take zones mean benefits for the tourism industry on the GBR as well as enhanced sustainability of reef fishing in the long term.
- Research from the Australian Institute of Marine Science showed a marked reduction in outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish in the no-take areas closed to fishing.15 This reduction has implications for the entire GBR, not just the highly protected zones. The relative frequency of outbreaks on reefs that were open to fishing were about four times higher than on no-take reefs in the midshelf region of the GBR, where most of the outbreaks have occurred.
- Another comprehensive research program of the non-reef areas of the entire GBR analyzed 840 seabed species.16 Prior to the rezoning, 160 of these species had less than 20 percent of their predicted biomass in zones with higher protection. After the rezoning, all 840 species had greater than 20 percent of their predicted biomass in zones with higher protection.
- From 1984 through 2007, the Queensland Primary Industries and Fisheries conducted periodic surveys of seagrass habitat within GBR waters up to 15 meters deep. These surveys showed that around 30 percent of seagrass habitat occurs within no-take zones under the current zoning network.17 The ephemeral nature of seagrasses excludes a more precise measure or a more definitive statement of occurrence. As seagrass is a vital component of the broader GBR ecosystem, this occurrence in no-take zones has significant implications for conservation and enhances the sustainability of fisheries in the longer term.
A number of positive environmental outcomes have already occurred with the increased protection of the GBR marine ecosystem.18 Further research continues to demonstrate additional benefits.
In contrast, the value of the Structural Adjustment Package (SAP) has been widely debated, particularly as the rezoning process was conducted by the GBRMPA, but the SAP was handled by another government agency. Researchers recently concluded, “If robust structures are not put in place that minimize the opportunities for political interference and industry influence, there is the potential for excessive payouts to be made that undermine the social benefits of MPAs.…The roughly AUD$250 million that was spent [for the SAP] … was an enormous and disproportionate sum to … mitigate the impacts of an MPA program that had only relatively minor impacts on the financial interests of the commercial and recreational fishing sectors.”19
Management in the GBR Today
Today, a comprehensive suite of ecosystem-based management arrangements ensure positive environmental outcomes for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Guided by the principle of balancing conservation and sustainable use, the GBRMPA has developed a multiple-use management regime that allows for reasonable use while ensuring the health of the marine park and the GBR World Heritage Area for future generations.
The multiple-use zoning network provides high levels of protection in no-take zones and very small no-go zones for one-third (115,000 square kilometers) of the marine park. The design of these zones maximizes the protection of biodiversity while minimizing the impacts on all other users, including fishermen. An additional third of the park is designed to ensure protection to the benthic habitat by prohibiting such practices as bottom-trawling. The zoning network governs all human activities. It provides high levels of protection for specific areas, while still allowing a variety of other uses.
A close working partnership between the GBRMPA and the State of Queensland has evolved over 35 years, and includes such aspects as complementary legislation and joint permits. For example, Queensland has mirrored the federal marine park zoning plan in the adjoining state waters. This partnership has ensured the effective management of the complex and interrelated mix of marine, coastal, and island issues. It provides for integrated, holistic management of the entire GBR ecosystem and the consideration of issues from outside the area.
This fundamental working relationship with the Queensland government and its agencies is of critical importance for effective management of the GBR. GBRMPA staff also maintain strong partnerships with a wide range of other agencies, stakeholders, councils, traditional owners, and other indigenous groups, community members, and researchers.
Will the GBRMPA’s Approach to Planning and Management Work Elsewhere?
Other marine protected areas around the world have different management models and objectives. It is therefore important to consider the specific political, economic, social, and managerial context of the GBR when translating its lessons to other areas. Furthermore, the ongoing management of the GBR Marine Park is effective for a range of reasons, some of which may not be relevant or achievable in other areas. The GBR Marine Park management context includes the following:
- A sound governance and legislative framework, including complementary state and federal legislation
- Ecosystem-level management including management influence over a wider context than just the federal marine park
- Well-developed and integrated management with all relevant federal and state agencies, including formal and informal arrangements with Queensland as the adjacent jurisdiction
- Consequent sociopolitical support
- Widespread consensus that the GBR is important, with many industries depending upon its health and recognizing it is worth conserving
- Substantial expertise accumulated within the managing agencies, including a number of long-standing staff with considerable corporate knowledge
- Effective research and monitoring programs, prioritized to provide information for management
There are also a number of other factors that contribute to the success of the current adaptive management and ecosystem-based approach to managing the marine park. These factors include a relatively low population along the GBR coast, a reasonably high standard of living, and well- established and stable governance at all levels of government.
Zoning Is Not the Only Tool in the Management Toolkit
Today the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Zoning Plan 2003 is a key statutory management tool for the conservation and management of the entire marine park.
There are, however, many misconceptions about the role that zoning plays in the management of the GBR Marine Park. Zoning does provide a spatial basis for determining where many activities can occur, but zoning is only one of many spatial management tools used in the GBR. Furthermore zoning is not necessarily the most effective way to manage all ocean activities. Some are better managed using other spatial and temporal management tools.
The GBRMPA uses a range of other management tools to regulate access and to control and mitigate impacts associated with human use of the marine park. These tools include permits, detailed plans of management, site planning, special management areas, public education, enforcement, and temporal closures. Various other management initiatives, such as the Reef Water Quality Protection Plan, the Climate Change Action Plan, and comprehensive monitoring programs, also help to maintain the health of the GBR as a critical global resource.
Many of the lessons learned during the GBR’s RAP/rezoning process are relevant to other areas of the world, despite significant differences of scale. Other marine protected areas have used and continue to use elements such as the biophysical planning principles used to guide the RAP and the decision-support tools developed to assist in the RAP process.
Science—both biophysical and social science—provided the fundamental underpinning for the RAP. It is important to note, however, that the final, sociopolitical outcome was the result not only of the best available science, but also of other social, economic, and management considerations. For example, RAP ensured that zone boundaries could be practically identified in the field.
The RAP/rezoning demonstrates that effective marine biodiversity outcomes can be achieved by bringing together the best available scientific knowledge and comprehensive public participation to produce a legislative framework. This framework was subsequently adopted in the adjacent state waters. The overall management approach has achieved increased levels of environmental and financial sustainability.
The rezoning efforts alone, however, will not ensure the future sustainability of the GBR. The current zoning network is a fundamental component for effectively conserving habitats, biological communities, and ecosystem processes. But it is not the answer to all the issues facing the GBR. The 2009 Outlook Report identified long-term challenges facing the GBR, even if the marine park is well managed.20 Chief among these challenges is climate change. The extent of damage to the GBR ecosystem will depend to a large degree on the amount of change in the world’s climate over the next few decades and on the resilience of the GBR ecosystem to such change.
The 2009 Outlook Report also identified continued declining water quality from land-based sources, loss of coastal habitats from coastal development, and some impacts of legal and illegal fishing and poaching as the other priority issues requiring management attention for the long-term protection of the GBR.
The regulatory framework produced by the 2003 Zoning Plan has significantly enhanced the resilience of the GBR. The GBR’s resilience would further increase with improved water quality, preserved coastal habitats, and increased knowledge of fishing and its effects. Addressing these challenges will give the GBR its best chance of adapting to and recovering from the threats ahead, including climate change. Addressing all these matters will help to ensure that the Great Barrier Reef remains great for future generations.
This paper is an adaptation of a presentation made to a symposium titled “Beyond the Obituaries: Success Stories in Ocean Conservation,” held at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in May 2009. Thank you to the organizers for the invitation to the symposium and for their suggestion to prepare this paper.
Thanks also to John Baldwin, Anne Caillaud, Max Day, Belinda Jago, Peter McGinnity, and Russell Reichelt who provided comments on a draft of this paper; and The Hon. David Kemp, who was the federal minister when the zoning went through Parliament, for his perspective on the critical role of politics in the rezoning.
Finally, it is important to acknowledge that RAP was an agency-wide effort undertaken by many staff within the GBRMPA. The involvement and support of many colleagues and external experts and thousands of local people in the GBR coastal community and the wider public, who were concerned about the future of the GBR, must also be acknowledged.