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Great Barrier Reef Marine Park

Case Authors

Dave Gershman, Julia Wondolleck and Steven Yaffee, University of Michigan


The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park of Australia is a partnership of the federal government and the province of Queensland to manage human activities and respond to threats to the reef ecosystem. The marine park is nearly the size of California and was created by a 1975 federal act. The Great Barrier Reef was selected as a World Heritage Site in 1981.

Management of the marine park is conducted by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, a federal agency funded by the federal and provincial governments. The park authority manages human activities such as fishing, shipping, and tourism by issuing permits, enforcing statutory regulations, and developing management plans that employ marine zoning. Management is conducted in partnership with Queensland.

The park authority also conducts outreach and education programs, enters into partnerships with stakeholder groups, establishes priorities for research, and conducts ecological monitoring.

The marine park has been successful because of strong national and provincial commitments, consistent leadership, and support from the tourism industry.

The marine park is notable for its use of adaptive management. The park authority rezoned the marine park in 2004 after receiving scientific assessments that questioned whether conservation goals were being met by the previous system of zoning. The new zoning strategy conserves a representative selection of habitat. No-take zones that are off-limits to fishing were enlarged to cover 33 percent of the marine park, up from 4.5 percent previously.


MEBM Attributes

  • Scale: Focus on an ecosystem-wide scale.
  • Collaboration: Involvement of multiple levels of government and stakeholders.
  • Adaptive Management: Use of research findings to adapt conservation strategies.
  • Complexity: Management encompasses a range of stressors that affect the reef.

Mission and Primary Objectives


The mission of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is provide for the protection, wise use, understanding and enjoyment of the Great Barrier Reef in perpetuity through the care and development of the marine park.

The mission provides for reasonable use of the resource and requires protection of its biodiversity. The marine park is managed as a multiple-use park.


Objectives include the following:

  • Reducing threats to the marine park.
  • Facilitating the recovery of threatened species.
  • Managing areas of high use and/or high value.


Key Parties

Lead Organizations

Federal Government

  • Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority: Reports to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts, and manages the park jointly with the Province of Queensland.

State Government:

  • Province of Queensland: Manages regulations on effort, gear and other restrictions on fishing within the marine park and within provincial waters.


  • Traditional Owner Groups: Indigenous stakeholder groups who manage specific areas through mechanisms of Traditional Use of Marine Resource Agreements.

Key Parties

  • Coastal Communities
  • Commercial and Recreational Fishers
  • Tourism Operators/Industry


Program Structure


Members of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s management body are chosen by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts. The marine park authority employs roughly 180 staff members.

Federal-State Coordination

A Great Barrier Reef Ministerial Council coordinates federal and Queensland policy relating to the management of the Great Barrier Reef. The council includes provincial and federal representatives. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts serves as the chairman. It meets approximately once each year.

Advisory Committees

The park authority appoints members to the following standing advisory committees: 

  • Issue-Focused: Four advisory committees provide advice relating to the ecosystem, indigenous matters, tourism and recreation use, and catchment and coastal issues. This last committee also provides advice on establishing priorities for research and monitoring.
  • Local Marine Advisory Committees: Eleven geographically-focused, community-based advisory committees provide input from local communities and serve as a forum for local people, interest groups, and agencies to discuss issues related to marine resources.

Additional advisory committees can be established tackle specific matters on an ad-hoc basis.


Motivations for Initiating Effort

In 1975, the Australian Parliament passed the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act, which established the park authority as a separate federal agency, and established the concept of a multiple-use marine park.

The legislation was sparked by an outbreak of the crown-of-thorns starfish. Other concerns had been raised about potential oil spills from vessels or extractive uses of the marine environment.

The park was founded in 1979. The park authority has the authority to regulate activities that pose a threat to the ecological integrity of the marine park. The park authority created management plans that included zoning for four main sections of the park in the 1980s. A fifth section was zoned in 1998. Twenty-eight additional sections were zoned in 2000 and 2001.

In the 1990s, however, scientific assessments cast doubt on the effectiveness of the largely piece-meal zoning strategy and whether conservation goals could be achieved. Changes in Australian policy provided additional legal motivations for the marine park to overhaul its zoning strategy.

In 1998, Australia released its Oceans Policy, which committed federal policy to an ecosystem-based approach to marine protection. The policy also committed the government to creating a national representative system of marine protected areas.

In 1999, Parliament passed the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, which defined places like the Great Barrier Reef as matters of national environmental significance. The Act empowers the marine authority to order a halt to any activity that risks the health of the marine park.

Ecosystem Characteristics and Threats

The Ecosystem

The Great Barrier Reef stretches more than 2,300 kilometers along the northeastern coast of the province of Queensland, Australia. The reef is a broken maze of 2,900 individual reefs, containing 900 islands and cays. Given its great size, the marine park encompasses a diverse range of inter-connected habitats, supporting areas of great biodiversity.

Among the species found within the marine park are more than 5,000 species of mollusks, 1,500 species of fish, more than 400 species of marine algae, 360 species of hard coral and, one-third of the world’s soft coral, six species of marine turtles, and about 15 percent of Australia’s population of dugong, a marine mammal.

About 850,000 people live in the coastal communities adjacent the marine park or within the watersheds that empty into the coastal area. Mining is the most valuable industry, producing minerals worth AUD $7 billion a year. Tourism is the largest employer in the region. It provides 40,000 jobs in the region and has a gross value of $4.2 billion a year. Recreational fishing is worth $240 million a year and commercial fishing is worth $119 million a year.


When the park was established, the key threats included:

  • Vessel collisions with the reef.
  • Potential for oil spills from vessels.
  • Potential underwater exploration for minerals.
  • Harmful outbreaks of the crown-of-thorns starfish which kills coral.
  • Over-exploitative fishing activity.

Threats to the park’s ecosystem are periodically reassessed. Today the park also identifies threats that include:

  • Climate change that will increase ocean temperatures and enhance the frequency and severity of coral bleaching.
  • Non-point and land-based sources of pollution that degrades water quality.
  • Human activities, which include 17 fisheries located within the marine park and 840 commercial tourism operators permitted to access the park.
  • Increasing tourism; 1.97 million visitor days were recorded within the park in 2004.


Major Strategies

Marine Zoning

Scientific monitoring data gathered in the late 1990s prompted the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to begin overhauling its piece-meal system of marine zoning into a unified system. Approved in 2004, the new system attempts to conserve at least 20 percent of 70 representative bioregions across the park. Sites deemed special or significant that fall outside the zones also receive the highest level of protection. The zoning system protects 33 percent of the marine park through no-take zones, and an additional 33 percent of the park is protected against certain types of fishing activity, such as trawling.

The rezoning plan required the consent of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts and Parliament.

Early in the development of the plan, the park formed a Scientific Steering Committee to develop principles that would reflect conservation goals. The principles clearly supported expanding the area of the marine park that would be off-limits to fishing and other human uses. One principle, for instance, supported the protection of representative amounts of the entire range of habitats.

The process was highly adaptive. The park authority quickly realized public support was low. The public lacked a common understanding of the threats facing the marine park and did not agree with the proposed solution, an expansion of zoning prohibiting human activities. In particular, commercial and recreational fishers disagreed with the scientific basis for the rezoning.

The park authority responded by expanding its strategy to involve the public in describing the bioregions, which enhanced public ownership of the conservation goals and their underlying concepts in a less confrontational manner.

A software package allowed the park authority to express the conservation principles in multiple ways on maps of the marine park, and adjust the boundaries of the zones during talks with stakeholders to minimize impact on socio-economic values.

The rezoning plan was estimated to reduce the profits of commercial fishers by AUD $2.6 million per year.


The park authority engages in partnerships and collaborations with stakeholder groups to encourage greater environmental stewardship. Among the partnerships is the High Standard Tourism Program. Tourism operators are encouraged to use business practices that conform to the highest levels of EcoCertification through Ecotourism Australia. Participating tourism operators receive promotional and marketing benefits, such as exposure on the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Web site. More than 50 percent of visitors to the reef now use a tourism operator that is participating in the program.

A second partnership is the Eye on Reef Monitoring Program, which trains tourism operators to monitor and record the health of the reef. Scientists use the data and the program also fosters greater awareness of the ecological conditions among tourism operators.

Education and Outreach

The park authority conducts education and outreach through a variety of channels. Examples include the Reef Guardian School program, which encourages environmental sustainability education in 220 participating schools. It also provides grants to schools that have reduced human impacts on the reef.

Workshops have been held on climate change for tourism operators to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, and integrate climate change into their future business operations and planning.

Communications include a monthly newsletter distributed to 1,800 stakeholders in the region.

Water Quality Programs

The park authority combines a variety of strategies to improve the condition of the area’s water quality. Water quality in the marine park is monitored. Run-off from agricultural paddocks is also monitored. Monitoring programs have informed the issuance of guidelines for water quality. The guidelines were integrated into national and Queensland policy.

The park authority and Queensland are engaging stakeholders, such as agricultural and chemical industries. A Reef Water Quality Protection Plan, developed by Queensland and the park authority, indentifies low-cost measures to encourage improved planning and assists land owners in adopting best management practices.


Monitoring, Assessment and Evaluation

The park authority uses monitoring to collect data on the ecosystem, assesses threats to the ecosystem, and evaluates its processes to improve marine management.

Several monitoring programs examine ecological conditions and the data is used to inform management decisions.

Periodically, the park authority assesses its scientific needs and produces a framework for integrating science into management decisions. The most recent document is the “Scientific Needs for the Management of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park: 2009-2014.” The document identifies priority areas of research for external scientists.

Other assessment activities examine pressures on the ecosystem and marine authority responses to ensure that new threats are identified and addressed. A Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report was produced in 2009 and establishes a framework to align management activities with identified threats to the ecosystem.

Park authority activities are regularly evaluated. Evaluations are performed internally and by external parties. Evaluations reflect a commitment to adaptive management at the local level of the marine authority and the national level of the federal government.

The 2004 rezoning process, for instance, was reviewed by a private contractor, Futureye, as well as a government review panel that reported to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts. The panel review also examined a wider scope of activities, including governance. The recommendations from those evaluations were adopted and will enhance outreach and engagement.



Ecosystem Protection

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park has steadily increased its level of protection of the reef ecosystem and research indicates the protections are effective.

Today, no-take zones comprise 33 percent of the marine park. That percentage of protection was an outcome of the public involvement process, and does not reflect a specific numerical target that had been declared at the outset.

The zones reflect a desire to manage the ecosystem in a comprehensive manner. Adjacent no-take areas are zones offering more moderate levels of protection.

Scientific assessments were used to identify areas of high conservation value, such as coral reefs, sponge beds, seagrass beds and deep water areas.

Research detected increases in both fish density and average size within the most protective zones.

Adaptive Management

The park authority has successfully adapted its management and protection strategies. Regular evaluations identify lessons that inform future management decisions.

Zoning was adapted based on a new understanding within the scientific community of the best practices for ecosystem conservation. Care was taken in the rezoning to avoid sudden transitions between highly-protected and open-use areas, citing the need to create buffers. A more consistent form of zoning also was sought. The connectivity of habitats was recognized.

The process used to involve stakeholders in the rezoning also was adapted mid-way. And, following the completion of the rezoning, the park authority changed its consultation process on the recommendation of independent reviews. Among the changes was the creation of a new non-statutory body called the Community Partnerships Group to coordinate engagement activities.

Factors Facilitating Progress

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park has been facilitated by the following factors:

  • Dedicated, Energetic Leadership: Dedicated individuals were able to develop credibility in scientific circles and establish connections with external parties and user groups. Jon Day, who had worked at the park authority for more than 20 years, was responsible for the Representative Areas Programme, the formal name of the rezoning effort.
  • Legal Authority: The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act of 1975 gave the park authority clear legislative direction and authority to manage human uses, and seek to reduce or eliminate threats. The strong language provided justification for the park authority to move forward on zoning and other protective strategies despite a certain level of opposition among commercial and recreational fishermen.
  • Federal and Provincial Commitment: Strong support from both levels of government has been crucial to the success of the marine park. Goals of key decision-makers have been aligned with those of the park authority. The park authority’s proposed rezoning of the Great Barrier Reef was controversial in 2004. Local officials in communities adjacent the marine park were sympathetic to the concerns of fishers. But federal and provincial officials sent clear signals of their concern for the health of Australia’s ocean resources. Queensland had greatly reduced fishing effort through new regulations. A government commitment to economic relief for displaced fishers led to greater community acceptance of the rezoning strategy. A review panel created by the federal government subsequently recommended the rezoning strategy be maintained for at least seven years to allow the ecosystem sufficient time to respond.
  • Support from the Tourism Industry: The tourism industry is the largest employer in the region and has supported the marine park. Tourism is valued at AUD $4.2 billion a year, greater than the value of recreational fishing ($240 million) and commercial fishing ($119 million). Tourism operators see their businesses as tied to the health of the ecosystem. They supported the reduction of fishing activity because it would eliminate user conflicts. Tourism industry support represents a powerful political constituency in favor of the marine park.


The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has identified the following challenges:

  • Fishing Sector Opposition: Declining fisheries, rising prices of fuel and imports of cheap fish from Asia are adding to the stress of commercial fishers, who continue to oppose strategies of the marine park. Engaging with those stakeholders will remain a challenge for the marine park.
  • New Stressors: Threats such as climate change pose a greater challenge for management.


Website Links

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