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Not in danger

Sonya Angelica Diehn, Bonn
July 1, 2015

UNESCO has affirmed a decision that the Great Barrier Reef is not an endangered World Heritage site. Although Australia has plans to improve its condition, these have yet to be implemented.

Aerial view of the Great Barrier Reef
Image: imago

The world's largest array of coral reefs is not an endangered World Heritage site, UNESCO decided today.

The 21 state parties of the World Heritage Committee unanimously confirmed a draft decision against an endangered listing from earlier this year. That report, however, did assess the current condition of the Great Barrier Reef as poor, and projected further deterioration.

Australian state party delegates attending the committee meeting in Bonn, Germany, appeared visibly relieved upon announcement of the decision. Had the reef been added to a list of World Heritage sites in danger, Australia would then be required to develop a corrective program.

"This decision is an example of the World Heritage Convention and the multilateral system working effectively," Australia's Environment Minister Greg Hunt stated after the decision, also praising civil society for its role.

Beyond activating conservation measures and a UN funding mechanism, an inscription into the list of World Heritage sites in danger would tarnish both the reputation of the site and the country stewarding it.

Declining conditions

Listed as a World Heritage Site in 1981, the Great Barrier Reef - off Australia's northeastern coast - covers an area larger than the United Kingdom and Ireland combined.

Australian state party members immediately after the decision to not list the Great Barrier Reef as an endangered World Heritage Site (Photo: Sonya Diehn)
World Heritage Committee countries praised Australia for measures already takenImage: DW/S. Diehn

Hosting 1,500 species of fish, more than 30 species of cetaceans, and endangered species including sea turtles and dugongs, about half of the reef's coral has died over the past three decades.

Damage from tropical cyclones, over-predation by the crown-of-thorns starfish, and coral bleaching have caused this damage and continue to present primary threats to the reef.

A decrease in water quality, including from sediment and agricultural runoff, has allowed the starfish to thrive beyond its natural capacity, and decimate the coral directly.

Increasing ocean temperatures due to global warming kills algae that through a symbiotic relationship nourish the coral - when this algae dies, the coral loses its color and can starve to death over longer periods of high water temperatures.

Activists also cite development of ports on the nearby coast as contributing to the reef's decline. Abbot Point, a port used primarily to export coal from mines in the inland Galilee Basin, is a particular point of contention.

Measures taken

During the proceedings, committee members expressed broad support for recent measures Australia has already taken to address the reef's deteriorating condition.

Bleached coral at the Great Barrier Reef in Australia
Coral bleaching is a primary threat to reefs worldwideImage: imago/blickwinkel

A long-term sustainability plan that Australia developed and released last year pledged to eliminate primary dredge material, not expand ports beyond current boundaries, reduce pollutant loads and address poaching of endangered species.

The plan also pledged 2 billion Australian dollars for investing in conservation over the decade to come, and appointed a "Great Barrier Reef Minister."

Reflecting the views of many, the party representative for Germany in its statement at the committee deliberations pointed out there was still a "long way to go on implementation," and that "financing needs to be secured."

Australia will be required to report to the committee on progress toward improvement in 18 months.

Climate change unaddressed

WWF - which had organized an action involving several hundred supporters crocheting a life-sized reef in front of the World Convention Center - also acknowledged Australia's progress on the issue.

WWF action in front of the World Conference Center in Bonn, Germany (Photo: Géza Aschoff / WWF)
WWF, which organized an action at the event, praised the decision as "strong but fair"Image: Géza Aschoff / WWF

But "plans alone will not save the reef - we need to see those plans turn into some very concrete action," said Dermot O'Gorman, the CEO of WWF Australia.

O'Gorman also told DW that the scrutiny focused on the issue could curb port development.

Greenpeace criticized Australia's planned port expansion as an imminent danger to the reef. "It is good that there is a plan - but this plan has loopholes so big you can drive coal ships through them," said Jessica Panegyres of Greenpeace.

Greenpeace is calling for cancellation of planned new coal development - and for clearer climate pledges. "Australia has been a global laggard on climate change," Panegyres told DW, despite the fact that climate change endangers the reef.

After the UNESCO decision, Hunt called climate change "fundamentally important."

"We will achieve our first and second round of targets, and we will set an ambitious target for the post-2020 period in the coming weeks," Hunt stated.

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