3 Apr 2016


A major new study by the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) says it’s “unlikely” pollution-reduction targets for the Great Barrier Reef will be met.

With the northern half of the Reef now gripped by coral bleaching, the predicted failure is a double blow.

That’s because fertiliser and sediment pollution already harms coral in normal water temperatures and then makes it more susceptible to bleaching when temperatures warm.

“Clean water for the Reef helps it fight climate change. Research shows that reducing nitrogen run off could raise the temperature at which coral starts to bleach by as much as 2-2.5°C,” said WWF-Australia spokesperson Sean Hoobin.

Ambitious targets to reduce pollution were also a key factor in Australia convincing UNESCO not to list the Reef as “World Heritage in danger” last year.

The AIMS study states: “We conclude that recent efforts in the GBR catchments to reduce land-based pollution are unlikely to be sufficient to protect the GBR ecosystems from declining water quality within the aspired timeframes.”

According to the publication, the main strategy in Australia’s Reef Plan - encouraging farmers to voluntarily take up Best Management Practice (BMP) programs - is “insufficient to achieve Reef Plan’s targets.”

The study also warn “the threat of land-based pollution is likely to be exacerbated” by the current policy of allowing an increase in pressures such as proposed dams to increase farm production in the Reef catchments.

“But the good news is the study suggests new ways, and looks to overseas examples, to show how Australia could turbo charge our Reef Plan to achieve big reductions in farm pollution,” Mr Hoobin said.

“For example the study points out that the Federal Government has the power under existing Acts to control land-based pollution into the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area but has failed to do so."

“This is a critical point because the scientists say that globally, the only way significant reductions in agricultural pollution have ever been achieved is through legislation and regulation supported by long-term political commitment."

“WWF strongly believes the Federal Government should step up and use its powers to introduce a cap on pollution to give the Reef the clean water it needs to restore its health,” Mr Hoobin said.

Other solutions suggested by the study, Towards protecting the Great Barrier Reef from land-based pollution, include:

  • Retiring some farmland to restore wetlands and replant vegetation along waterway edges to naturally filter water 
  • Replacing some sugar cane with crops requiring lower amounts of fertiliser such as grains, cereals, and low input tree crops (e.g. macadamias)
  • Emissions Reduction Payments for graziers who increase carbon stocks in soils by increasing native ground cover and replanting waterway edges 

Examples from overseas include:

  • In Denmark, five national action plans were implemented and enforced to regulate nitrogen fertilizer use over two decades
  • In the U.S.A., 13 million hectares of croplands was taken out of production between 1985 and 2004. Retiring agricultural land for conservation purposes significantly reduced surface water pollution
  • China’s US$40 billion Sloping Land Conversion Program, the largest land retirement/reforestation program in the developing world, aimed to convert 14.67 million hectares of cropland to forests by 2010. 

The paper, Towards protecting the Great Barrier Reef from land-based pollution, was published today (3 April 2016) in the journal, Global Change Biology. It can be read in full here.

WWF-Australia Media Contact: Mark Symons, Senior Media Officer, 0400 985 571