Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Acts

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Acts

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Acts: The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park protects the world’s largest coral reef system, covering a surface of around 34 millions hectares. It is home to 600 types of hard and soft corals, more than 100 species of jellyfish, 3000 varieties of molluscs, 500 species of worms, 1625 types of fish, 133 varieties of sharks and rays, and more than 30 species of whales and dolphins. In 2010, a set of environmental laws from Australia were honoured with the Future Policy Silver Award, recognising a major transition point in the management and protection of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. However, today, these policies could now be labelled ‘future injust’ as the Australian Government appears to prioritise the stewardship of its fossil fuel reserves over the stewardship of its unique environment and duties towards future generations. Widespread damage to the reef continues to be reported, due to coral bleaching, caused by rising ocean temperatures, with activities in the region also causing significant harm.  

At a Glance

  • As the world’s most extensive coral reef ecosystem, the Great Barrier Reef is a globally outstanding and significant entity. Practically the entire ecosystem was inscribed as a World Heritage site in 1981, covering an area of 344,400 square kilometres.
  • The implementation of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act in 1975, until recently was regarded as an exemplary model of marine management and conservation.
  • The government is increasingly criticized for failing to acknowledge the extent of the destruction to the Reef, or its causes, and as a result, for not taking additional measures to protect it. Recent developments, including continued rising GHG emissions in Australia, approval of giant coal mining projects near the Reef and drilling and dredging plans which are likely to cause significant damage, have all led to international criticism.
  • The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) has confirmed 30% of the Reef died in 2016, and despite signs of recovery, the reef remains in great danger due to rising temperatures, depletion of the water quality, and increased human activity.
  • The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has issued three position statements (2019-2020) concerning impacts of climate change, fishing and marine debris on the Great Barrier Reef. These position statements clearly state the dangers that the Great Barrier Reef currently faces and urge action to be taken in order to prevent further damage.

Policy Reference
Connected Policies
Selection as a Future-Just Policy

These policies were recognised by the Future Policy Silver Award in 2010 for their effective protection of an outstanding World Heritage Site. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Protection Act pioneered the idea of a ‘multiple-use’ park, a model which has since been adopted for many other protected areas worldwide.

However, recent developments (elaborated further below under ‘Impact’) have undermined these efforts and are threatening protection of the Marine Park. Today the policies would likely be considered ‘future-injust’ in light of their dilution by dominant and prevailing fossil fuel interests, which threaten the survival of the Reef.

Future-Just Policy Scorecard

Our “Best Policies” are those that meet the Future Just Lawmaking Principles and recognise the interconnected challenges we face today. The goal of principled policy work is to ensure that important universal standards of sustainability and equity, human rights and freedoms, and respect for the environment are taken into account. It also helps to increase policy coherence between different sectors.

   Sustainable use of natural resources

  • The Act states, as a specific objective, the ecologically sustainable use of the Great Barrier Reef Region according to ecosystem-based management. The conservation of biodiversity and ecological integrity are also fundamental decision-making considerations.
  • This means protecting and conserving the environment, biodiversity and heritage values of the Great Barrier Reef Region.
  • The Act contains a number of strict liability and aggravated offences to protect the Marine Park Area.
  • However, recent developments show that the government is disregarding biodiversity and ecological integrity by allowing coal mining in areas that are close to the Reef despite the scientific evidence indicating potential damage.

   Equity and poverty eradication

  • The Act defines ecologically sustainable use as to “sustain natural processes while maintaining the lifesupport systems of nature and ensuring that the benefit of the use to the present generation does not diminish the potential to meet the needs and aspirations of future generations.
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are the Traditional Owners of the Great Barrier Reef Region and evidence of their sea country connections goes back over 60,000 years. At least one member of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority must be an indigenous person.
  • Today there are approximately 70 Traditional Owner clan groups whose sea country includes the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

   Precautionary approach

  • The precautionary principle is explicitly mentioned by the Act as a principle of ecologically sustainable use but precautionary measures are not applied to prevent further damage and the government is not able to provide enough proof that mining projects will not harm the Reef. On the contrary, there is evidence that mining near the Reef contributes further to their bleaching.
  • The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is responsible for assessing the acceptable level of risk. Prior to designating a zoning plan, the Authority must prepare a publicly available statement of the environmental, economic and social values of the area.
  • The Act aims to educate the public on the Great Barrier Reef Region to improve their understanding. It also promotes research for this purpose as an objective and certain areas of the Reef are ordered to be left in a natural state for the purposes of scientific research.
  • The Act includes a duty upon every person using or entering the Marine Park to prevent or minimise harm to the environment.

   Public participation, access to information and justice

  • The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) is expected to consult the public on a range of matters, including permit applications and proposed developments.
  • A list of current plans, applications and assessments for public consultation are available online, along with details on the process.
  • The opportunity for the public to comment on a proposal is an important part of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority environmental assessment and consultative processes. However, based on recent developments, public comments and concerns regarding the decision to expand nearby ports and pursue coal mining have not been taken into account.
  • Local people and traditional resource managers are expected to be consulted in the designation of zoning plans.
  • The Act reserves certain areas of the Barrier Reef for public enjoyment and appreciation.
  • The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s Reef Guardian program recognises the good environmental work undertaken by communities and industries to protect the Great Barrier Reef.

    Good governance and human security

  • The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority was established by the Act to carry out its implementation and participation in a transparent and efficient manner.
  • A zoning plan created by the Authority is considered a legislative instrument once accepted by the Government Minister.
  • The Authority can issue management plans for specific purposes such as tourism or protection of a particular endangered species.
  • The Act contains a number of strict liability and aggravated offences to protect the Marine Park Area.

   Integration and interrelationship

  • The Act states as a principle of ecologically sustainable use that decision-making processes should integrate both short and long term environmental, economic, social and equitable considerations.
  • The 1994 Strategic Plan for the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area was based on joint planning between Commonwealth, State and Local Governments with Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, the tourism industry, commercial and recreational fishing, conservationists and scientists.
  • The Act aims to maintain healthy ecosystems within the marine park as this is something local industries, such as tourism and fishing, rely on.

   Common but differentiated responsibilities

  • The Act explicitly mentions intergenerational equity as a principle of ecologically sustainable use and “that the present generation should ensure that the health, diversity and productivity of the environment is maintained or enhanced for the benefit of future generations.
  • The Great Barrier Reef is recognised as a World Heritage Area and the Act aims to respect this status and promote the values associated with it.


The Great Barrier Reef is the largest living structure on the planet, stretching over 2300km and visible even from space. It is home to an incredible marine life and contains 70 distinct habitat types, 400 species of corals, over 30 species of whale, dolphin and porpoises, more than 120 species of shark, stingray and skate, 9 species of seahorses and 17 species of sea snake. It is one of the most complex natural ecosystems in the world.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park was created by the legislative act in 1975 and was considered, until lately, an exemplary policy for marine management and conservation. The park covers an area of 344,400 km2 in north-eastern Australia and is bigger than the territories of the United Kingdom, Switzerland and Holland combined.

In 1981, almost the entire ecosystem was inscribed as a site of World Heritage as the world’s most extensive coral reef system. No other World Heritage site contains such biodiversity.

Almost two decades after the Act, a long-term 25 year strategic plan for the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area was produced as a model for the protection of a World Heritage Site as one of “Australia’s most precious natural treasures.” Rather than consisting of a single protected area, there are different zones allocated to different activities, with their own rules and prohibitions.

The Act was then reviewed in 2006 to ensure consistency with the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, Australia’s leading law with regards to environmental affairs.


The Act`s objectives are specified in the Article 2:

The main objective is to provide for the long term protection and conservation of the environment, biodiversity and heritage values of the Great Barrier Reef Region.

Other objectives, in so far as they are consistent with the overall goal above, are to:

  • allow ecologically sustainable use of the Great Barrier Reef Region for purposes including the following:
  • public enjoyment and appreciation;
  • public education about and understanding of the Region;
  • recreational, economic and cultural activities;
  • research in relation to the natural, social, economic and cultural systems and value of the Great Barrier Reef Region;
  • encourage engagement in the protection and management of the Great Barrier Reef Region by interested persons and groups, including Queensland and local governments, communities, Indigenous persons, business and industry;
  • assist in meeting Australia’s international responsibilities in relation to the environment and protection of world heritage (especially Australia’s responsibilities under the World Heritage Convention).

Methods of Implementation

The Act applies to throughout the Australian jurisdiction and to everyone in Australia and its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

To achieve its objectives, Article 3 of the Act:

  • provides for the establishment, control, care and development of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park; and
  • establishes the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority; and
  • provides for zoning plans and plans of management; and
  • regulates, including by a system of permissions, use of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in ways consistent with ecosystem‑based management and the principles of ecologically sustainable use; and
  • facilitates partnership with traditional owners in management of marine resources; and
  • facilitates a collaborative approach to management of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area with the Queensland government.

The following activities are considered offences if carried out in the Marine Park:

  • Mining or geological storage operations in Great Barrier Reef Region;
  • Prohibited conduct under a zoning plan;
  • Operation of a fishing vessel if prohibited under a zoning plan;
  • Construction;
  • Damage-causing vessels;
  • Contravention of an order by the Marine Park Authority;
  • Discharge of waste.

Some of these offences carry strict liability or are considered aggravated offences for the purpose of the Act. However, the government continues to support mining in Queensland near the reefs, risking additional stress on the reefs. Marine park users have a duty to take reasonable steps to prevent or minimise environmental harm and inspectors can issue fines for a broader range of minor breaches. Civil rather than criminal penalties can be sought, although seeking criminal penalties is still an option. Being unaware of the marine park, of its zones, of location within the marine park, and of the restrictions on marine park usage is not an excuse under the law, unless it is an honest and reasonable mistake.

The most recent move from the government to ensure the effective implementation of the Act came in 2015 with the “Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan”, which was derived from the last four decades of lessons learnt from managing the Reef. The Plan focuses on actions to address key threats and boost the health and resilience of the Reef in the face of climate change. According to the plan, dumping of capital dredge spoil will be banned within the marine park and World Heritage Area, and dredging for new projects will be confined to established ports. However maintenance dredging will continue. Sediment in runoff will be reduced to 50% below 2009 levels by 2025, and nitrogen by 80%.


The Act was considered ground-breaking legislation in providing for ‘reasonable use’ to co-exist with conservation and thus establishing the concept of a multiple-use park.

Future Injust?

However, there are growing threats to the Great Barrier Reef resulting from climate change, pollution, coastal development and fishing. The biggest domestic threat seems to be the government`s support for coal mining projects.

Despite constant raising of concerns from local communities, scientists and environmental experts, the government`s insistence on expanding mining and port projects near the reefs has caused further damage; the expansion of the Abbot Point coal port, which was backed by the government previously, has released coal dust in 2017 after Cyclone Debbie and caused environmental harm in the wetlands of Queensland. Another project belonging to the same international firm received support and financial incentive from the government despite these negative developments and the ongoing concerns raised. The imbalance of government stewardship of the coral reef and the stewardship of fossil fuel reserves has become increasingly stark with some labelling these actions as ‘climate criminality’.

Under these circumstances, together with the global temperature rise in the oceans the government`s most recent strategy from 2015, Reef 2050 Long Term Sustainability Plan, is regarded as unachievable due to recent bleaching and the fact that climate change will continue. While the government alone cannot address climate change, Australia as one of the top emitters of greenhouse gas emissions, should do more to reduce its domestic emissions. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) has confirmed 30% of the Reef died in 2016, and modelling for this year indicates that a further 19% has, or will, die. Changes have to be made today, as scientists are providing strong evidence that future bleaching is likely to become more frequent and severe.

Potential as a Transferable Model

When it was first introduced, many standards and principles of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act were exemplary including the prohibition of exploitative resource use, principles of inter-generational equity, the integration of both long-term and short term economic, environmental, social and equitable considerations, and the principle of community engagement as well as recognising and promoting the role for indigenous people in the conservation and ecologically sustainable use of biodiversity. Many of its concepts have also been adapted for use in other similar situations, elsewhere in the world. Unfortunately, today, the Act does not seem to be enough for providing the protection needed in the face of rising ocean temperatures. Scientists predict that the bleaching will continue due to ongoing climate change and they are urging the government to increase protection to avoid further damage stemming from domestic conditions. Instead, the government is emphasizing economic determinants and continues to back harmful mining projects, disregarding the urgent need for extra protection measures. 

Additional Resources

Latest update 2020.

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