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Reef Plan Scientific Consensus Statement On Critical Thinking

2017 Scientific Consensus Statement

Land use impacts on Great Barrier Reef water quality and ecosystem condition

This report provides the 2017 Scientific Consensus Statement for the Great Barrier Reef – a review of the significant advances in scientific knowledge of water quality issues in the Great Barrier Reef to arrive at a consensus on the current understanding of the system. The consensus statement was produced by a multidisciplinary group of scientists, with oversight from the Reef Independent Science Panel, and supports the development of the Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan 2017–2022.

The overarching consensus is:

Key Great Barrier Reef ecosystems continue to be in poor condition. This is largely due to the collective impact of land run-off associated with past and ongoing catchment development, coastal development activities, extreme weather events and climate change impacts such as the 2016 and 2017 coral bleaching events.

Current initiatives will not meet the water quality targets. To accelerate the change in on-ground management, improvements to governance, program design, delivery and evaluation systems are urgently needed. This will require greater incorporation of social and economic factors, better targeting and prioritisation, exploration of alternative management options and increased support and resources.

The evidence base supporting this consensus is provided in a series of four supporting chapters. The main conclusions were:

  1. The decline of marine water quality associated with land-based run-off from the adjacent catchments is a major cause of the current poor state of many of the coastal and marine ecosystems of the Great Barrier Reef. Water quality improvement has an important role in ecosystem resilience.
  2. The main source of the primary pollutants (nutrients, fine sediments and pesticides) from Great Barrier Reef catchments is diffuse source pollution from agriculture. These pollutants pose a risk to Great Barrier Reef coastal and marine ecosystems.
  3. Progress towards the water quality targets has been slow and the present trajectory suggests these targets will not be met.
  4. Greater effort to improve water quality is urgently required to progress substantial pollutant reductions using an expanded scope of tailored and innovative solutions. Climate change adaptation and mitigation, cumulative impact assessment for major projects and better policy coordination are also required to protect the Great Barrier Reef.
  5. There is an urgent need for greater investment in voluntary practice change programs, the use of regulatory tools and other policy mechanisms to accelerate the adoption of practice change, and robust monitoring and evaluation programs to measure the rate and effectiveness of adoption.
  6. Strengthened and more effective coordination of Australian and Queensland government policies and programs, further collaboration with farmers and other stakeholders, and strong evaluation systems are critical to the success of Great Barrier Reef water quality initiatives.
  7. Priorities for reducing pollutant loads are now established at a catchment scale, based on the exposure of coastal and marine ecosystems to land-based pollutants, and should be used to guide investment.
  8. A greater focus on experimentation, prioritisation and evaluation at different scales, coupled with the use of modelling and other approaches to understand future scenarios, could further improve water quality programs.

Chapter 1 (PDF, 3.0M) describes Great Barrier Reef marine and coastal aquatic ecosystem status and condition, identifies the primary drivers, pressures and threats to these systems and the known effects of land-based pollutants based on understanding derived through monitoring and modelling (Schaffelke et al., 2017).

Chapter 2 (PDF, 2.9M) describes the sources of pollutants, considered as the hazards to Great Barrier Reef ecosystems (Bartley et al., 2017).

Chapter 3 (PDF, 8.4M) applies the risk assessment components of the framework by evaluating the likelihood, consequences and quantified risk to the Great Barrier Reef coastal aquatic and marine ecosystems, particularly from different nutrient species, suspended sediment (including different size fractions) and pesticides (Waterhouse et al., 2017).

Chapter 4 (PDF, 4.6M) considers management of the risks (Eberhard et al., 2017).

Chapter 5 (PDF, 2.3M) presents an overall synthesis and draws on the previous chapters to present a management prioritisation and discussion on management implications of the new knowledge (Waterhouse et al., 2017). It also identifies uncertainties and where there remain differences in the interpretation of the scientific evidence (identified in Chapters 1 to 4).

For more information, read the Frequently asked questions (PDF, 272K).

Australia’s draft plan to improve water quality on the Great Barrier Reef has ignored official government scientific advice, which was published by the Queensland and federal governments alongside the new plan this week.

The draft Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan is an update to the plan released in 2013, and provides new water quality targets for specific parts of the reef but has very few other concrete changes overall.

That is despite the plan itself acknowledging that “current initiatives will not meet water quality targets”, noting the “urgently needed” acceleration of efforts and explicitly stating that “a step change is needed”.

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The plan repeatedly says it is “based on the best available independent scientific advice, as provided by scientific consensus statement 2017”. But that statement, published alongside the plan, is highly critical of the approach taken in the plan.

“Current initiatives will not meet the water quality targets,” the consensus statement says, calling for increased support and resources, as well as regulation to reduce agricultural runoff – a recommendation also made by a Queensland government taskforce.

In line with every other piece of scientific advice, the consensus statement concludes the reef is in poor and deteriorating quality, and lays the blame for much of the situation on water quality.

Scientists say that in the face of climate change and increased frequency and severity of bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef, improved water quality is urgently needed to relieve some of the pressures and to make the reef more “resilient”.

The plan points to $2bn being spent over 10 years by the Queensland and federal governments to protect the reef. But roughly half of that is being spent on water quality.

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That is about one-tenth of what a Queensland government taskforce concluded was needed, a figure they said would still not allow the targets to be met.

One member of the Reef Water Quality Independent Science Panel that wrote the consensus statement, Jon Brodie from James Cook University, said the governments were not listening to their own expert advice.

“In the end, the plan is not taking up the recommendations of the consensus statement at all,” Brodie said.

Asked whether the money being spent on initiatives not in line with expert advice meant the governments were wasting $1bn, Brodie said: “That was asked recently by people from the government … I think spending it as we are now … is a bit silly.”

Brodie said it was too late to spread the money across the entire reef and it was time to focus in on bits of the reef that might be able to be saved.

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“The issue we have now is the coral is in terminal condition and the best we can hope for is to protect some parts of the coral on the Great Barrier Reef,” Brodie said.

“We’re still spending a lot of money but we’re not achieving enough to provide resilience to the whole Great Barrier Reef, perhaps we could better spend it on providing resilience for just some of the coral.”

The world heritage committee flagged its concern over reef water quality at its annual meeting in July, saying “the plan will need to accelerate to ensure that the intermediate and long-term targets of 2050 LTSP are being met, in particular regarding water quality”.

Sean Hoobin from WWF-Australia said the governments were ignoring those concerns.

“There is no meaningful detail on the actions and investment needed to deliver promised cuts to reef pollution,” he said.

The minister for the environment and energy, Josh Frydenberg said in a statement: “By focusing our efforts on improving water quality, we are giving the reef the best chance to adapt and recover from the impacts of coral bleaching.

“This new plan has an expanded scope and addresses all land-based sources of water pollution including run-off from urban, industrial and public lands, as well as from agricultural activities.”

The Queensland minister for the environment, Steven Miles, said the plan recognised the importance of people in creating change and included social, cultural and economic values for the first time.

“The new plan sets water quality targets for each of the 35 catchments flowing to the reef using scientific modelling and other technical information to work out the pollution reduction targets based on what the Reef needs to be healthy,” Miles said.

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