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UNESCO Calls for Listing Great Barrier Reef as an "In Danger" Site

Great Barrier Reef
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Published Nov 28, 2022 8:34 PM by The Maritime Executive

The United Nations' conservation organization, UNESCO, has recommended that Australia's Great Barrier Reef be placed on its "List of World Heritage in Danger," citing the impact of climate change and water pollution on one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world. It is the second time in as many years that UNESCO has made the recommendation, and it closes an appeal for reevaluation brought by former Australian environment minister Sussan Ley.

At Ley's request, UNESCO experts visited the reef for 10 days in March. Their trip overlapped with a mass bleaching event -  a large-scale coral die-off caused by excess heat. The report issued Monday is the result of the team's findings, and they concluded that Australia's management guidelines for the reef "are lacking clear climate change targets and implementation measures" and "are not fully implemented, particularly in relation to water quality and fisheries."

Australia has limited control over climate change, but it does have jurisdiction over manmade water quality issues. The report called for greater efforts to rein in pollutants. While acknowledging the "sheer scale" of the challenge, the team called for dramatically and rapidly reducing farm fertilizer and silt runoff. The first priority is repairing drainage gullies on grazing land to control silt outflow, and at an accelerated pace; the second is to make sure that two planned dam projects comply with water quality requirements; and the third is to improve management of sugarcane and banana plantations along the drainage. It also called for the state government of Queensland to ban fishing with gillnets within the reef marine park, citing the impact of bycatch on species like dolphins, sharks and turtles. 

Though an "in danger" listing sounds like a serious warning, there is still hope for the reef. These technical interventions could "drastically improve" Australia's ability to manage the impact of climate change on the reef's ecosystem, the authors found. The report also recommends that Australia commit to more ambitious reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. 

Australia's government has changed hands since the investigative team visited in March, and the new Labour administration has accepted the results without public protest. "We finally have a government in Canberra working with Queensland and acting on climate change," said Queensland environment minister Megan Scanlon in a statement.