Great Barrier Reef: Are We Making Progress?

Elaine Seager
June 23, 2017

With so much investment pouring into Reef projects in the Wet Tropics, how do we know if we’re really making any difference?

Reef Trust III, Reef Trust IV, Major Integrated Project, BMP…these are just some of the projects that Terrain and industry are involved in, but there are many other reef projects also happening in our region.

It can be confusing trying to understand how they all fit together, but the important points to remember are:

  • All of these projects are delivering actions under the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan.
  • Progress is being reported through the Great Barrier Reef Report Card and the Wet Tropics Report Card.

Measuring Changes

The Great Barrier Reef Report Card is the main report card produced each year to assess the combined results of all Reef Plan activities. The last one covered the year to June 2015 (it takes approx. 18 months to collate all the information).

Some of the key findings included:

  • We are making some progress.
  • We need to accelerate the rate of progress to meet our Reef Plan targets.
  • We are more than halfway towards the sediment and pesticide targets according to modelled pollutant load reductions.
  • Water quality at mid and outer shelf sites is generally good to very good overall because it is less directly influenced by river discharge.
  • The overall inshore marine condition remained poor.

The Reef Report Card is an important tool for measuring progress but we must view it within this context:

  • There will be significant time lags between making changes to land management practices and measurable scores.
  • Significant changes in the scores are not going to happen overnight.

Changing the way we do things on the ground often requires lengthy complex processes and significant capital investment.

Research even suggests it could take years to see improvements downstream for pesticides and up to decades for nutrients and sediments, depending on rainfall and runoff.

How is the information gathered?

The primary source of agricultural data for the Reef Report Card is the Paddock to Reef modelling program.

NRM bodies, industry organisations, QDAF and other agencies and projects collect farming practice information from farmers who are engaged in Reef programs. Data is collected initially and again after undergoing improvements in farm management. This information is pooled by catchment so it is kept anonymous but allows us to assess the effect of changes on the ground.

The results are based on reported improvements and are analysed to show an estimate of the annual average reduction in pollutant loads entering the Great Barrier Reef from agriculture.

Obtaining accurate information is vital for us to understand what is happening on the ground so we can tell the story about the impacts of improved farming practices.

Regional Report Cards

We are now also able to measure the specific progress we are making within the Wet Tropics region.

The Wet Tropics Pilot Report Card was released in December 2016 and provides a baseline for us to compare future changes in the health of our nine catchments (most were graded moderate).

Importantly, it covers all land uses, not just agriculture.

Besides enabling us to assess individual catchments in our region, the pilot report card is a mechanism for unifying the community on waterway health. This is potentially its greatest legacy.

The Wet Tropics Healthy Waterways Partnership now has 30 financial partners from a diverse range of organisations across industry, research, all levels of government, the business sector and community conservation groups.

All of these partners share a common vision and recognise the need to work together to improve the health of waterways flowing into the Great Barrier Reef.

You can find Report Card 2015, including an interactive version, on the Reef Water Quality Protection Plan website at www.reefplan.qld.gov.au. The Wet Tropics Pilot Report Card is available at www.wettropicswaterways.org.au.