The Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, Port Developments and Shipping Superhighways Part 1: Multiple Uses and the Great Barrier Reef – Conflict or Co-existence?

The Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, Port Developments and Shipping Superhighways Part 1: Multiple Uses and the Great Barrier Reef – Conflict or Co-existence?

This is the first of a three part series of articles by Dr Ted Christie focussing on the environmental issues involved in recent development proposals affecting the Great Barrier Reef. Dr Christie is a barrister and environmental scientist with a keen interest in the use of dispute resolution processes to facilitate the cooperative selection of best outcomes for Australia.



Over 1,000 people marched in Brisbane to raise awareness of new and emerging threats to the GBR (25 August 2013)


The evaluation by  the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural  Resources for the inclusion of the Great Barrier Reef in the World Heritage List in 1981,  stated “… if only one coral reef site in the world were to be chosen for the World Heritage List, the Great Barrier Reef is the site to be chosen”. UNESCO World Heritage Committee


The Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area (GBRWH Area) was the first Australian property nominated for inclusion in the World Heritage List. It was inscribed as a World Heritage natural property in 1981. It has an area of around 348,000 square kilometres. The reef is 3,000 km long, stretching along the coast of Queensland from near Bundaberg, to beyond the tip of Cape York. The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s most extensive coral reef ecosystem, having the world’s largest collection of coral reefs. There are around 2,500 individual reefs of varying sizes and shapes, 400 types of coral – as well as 4,000 types of molluscs, a great diversity of sponges, anemones, marine worms, crustaceans and 1,500 species of fish.

The GBRWH Area stretches from the low water mark along the mainland coast up to 250 kilometres offshore. This wide depth range includes vast shallow inshore areas, mid-shelf and outer reefs, and beyond the continental shelf to oceanic waters over 2,000 metres deep. The GBR Marine Park occupies about 99% of the GBRWH Area; the 1% balance remaining includes over 900 islands, narrow inlets or channels between islands, Queensland waters around major ports and intertidal areas protected by Queensland legislation

The global significance of the GBRWH Area is not simply because it provides some of the most spectacular scenery on earth – or that it has exceptional natural beauty. It is also a natural heritage property that the UNESCO World Heritage Committee concluded had “outstanding universal value” and that “no other World Heritage property contains such biodiversity.

The GBR nomination met all four criteria for listing, as then defined in the World Heritage Convention, for a “natural property” to have “outstanding universal value”. The GBR nomination also met the Convention’s “condition of integrity” criteria as it included the areas of the sea adjacent to the reef. The World Heritage Convention only required a “natural property” to meet at least one of the four prescribed criteria to be considered for inclusion in the World Heritage List.

Federal and State legislation enables the GBRWH Area to be managed as a multiple-use area. Existing uses vary across a diverse range of activities. Commercial marine tourism provides significant economic and employment benefits for regional Queensland. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority reported visitation to the entire GBR Marine Park was approximately 1.99 million visitor days in 2012. Other commercial uses include fishing and shipping activity. Key non-commercial uses include recreation (e.g. boating, fishing and diving), scientific research and defence training. The GBRWH Area is central to the culture of Indigenous people. Also, the Commonwealth legislative framework for protecting World Heritage values imposes a legal obligation “recognising and promoting indigenous peoples’ role in, and knowledge of, the conservation and ecologically sustainable use of biodiversity”.

Concerns for the need to protect the reef from potential new environmental hazards along the coastline of Queensland, led to a major people power rally in Brisbane in August 2013. The rally acted as a trigger to stimulate wider public debate by heightening awareness of the nature of the controversy over proposed developments in the GBRWH Area and the Development v Environment issues in dispute.

Concern at the rally reflected potential risk to the natural heritage and environmental values of the GBRWH Area arising from widespread and significant industrial developments along Queensland’s coastline related to coal and LNG industries. The world’s largest coal port is proposed to be built at Abbot Point, 50 km from the Whitsunday Islands.

Dredging of ports and disposal of dredge spoil back into GBRWH waters was identified as one potential hazard to ecological health and the “outstanding universal value” of the GBRWH Area. Another potential environmental hazard was the projected increase in shipping activity; the GBRWH Area is a vital link in the production chain for many export-based industries. Claims projecting a doubling in current ship numbers – when “over 7,000 bulk carriers will crisscross the Reef every year” – have given rise to concerns over the potential for collisions or spills in the GBRWH Area.

How real are the concerns for the future use of the GBRWH Area raised by people power at the Brisbane rally? Are the natural heritage and environmental values of the GBRWH Area under potential threat from industrial developments along Queensland’s coastline and shipping? The position of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee provides some insight into these issues.

In 2011, the World Heritage Committee expressed concern over the GBRWH Area following the approval of LNG developments at Curtis Island near Gladstone. Later, in 2012, the World Heritage Committee identified a need for measures to manage impacts on the reef to ensure the conservation of the outstanding universal value of the GBRWH Area; in 2013, the concern raised was whether proposed port developments, or associated port infrastructure, may impact on the characteristics which determined the inscription of the Great Barrier Reef in the World Heritage List – or that may compromise a long-term plan for the sustainable development of the GBRWH Area.

A request was then made by the World Heritage Committee for the Federal Government to provide an updated report on the state of conservation of the GBRWH Area by 1 February 2014 with a view to considering, in the absence of substantial progress, the inscription of the property on the List of World Heritage in Danger”. None of Australia’s 19 World Heritage properties have ever been inscribed on the “List of World Heritage in Danger”. So, what is the significance of this request made by the World Heritage Committee?

The World Heritage Committee undertakes regular reviews of the state of conservation of properties that have been inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger; danger may take the form of either “ascertained danger” or “potential danger”. If the GBRWH Area were to be inscribed on the “List of World Heritage in Danger” then, on the basis of regular reviews, the World Heritage Committee may consider whether to delete it from both the List of World Heritage in Danger and the World Heritage List: The circumstances for this to arise would be if the GBRWH Area had deteriorated to the extent that it has lost those characteristics which determined its inscription in the World Heritage List (see paras. 190-91 Operational Guidelines: World Heritage Convention).

Finding solutions for environmental problems requires the potential sources of conflict that have caused the problem to be identified from the outset. Deciding on the appropriate public participation process to resolve the GBRWH Area conflict requires a process that effectively addresses the sources of conflict.

Information conflicts over scientific data arising from scientific uncertainty, different interpretations of the same information, different opinions as to what information is relevant, a lack of information, or even misinformation, are the primary sources of conflict in any environmental conflict – and in all likelihood for  the future use of the GBRWH Area.  

It is also clear that the future use of the GBRWH Area is a public interest environmental conflict, involving multi-stakeholder participants having competing interests over development and environment. In these circumstances, a structural conflict over public participation will probably arise. Identification of all relevant affected development and environment interests is essential for an effective public participation process; but this step may be problematic. Exclusion of relevant development and environment interests from participating in the GBRWH conflict may not only lead to a non-viable outcome, but also have the potential to undermine the legitimacy of decision-making by government

The challenge for government is to decide on an effective public participation process that resolves conflict and promotes co-existence between competing uses within the GBRWH Area. 


Dr Ted Christie is an environmental lawyer, nationally accredited mediator and an environmental scientist.  He specializes in alternative dispute resolution processes for finding sustainable solutions for environmental conflicts where divergent expert scientific opinion prevails.  He is based in Brisbane, Queensland.