World Heritage Committee delays decision on Great Barrier Reef "danger list" status to 2015

MPA News

At its annual meeting in June 2014, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee decided to delay a decision on whether to add the Great Barrier Reef to its list of World Heritage in Danger, opting instead to have Australia submit an updated report on the state of the site's conservation by February 2015.

A year ago, the committee expressed continued concern to the Australian and Queensland governments over the level of coastal development adjacent to the reef (MPA News 15:1). Amid this development is a government plan - approved by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority but questioned by the World Heritage Committee - to dump three million cubic meters of dredge spoils inside the marine park area (http://bit.ly/abbotpointdecision).

The dredge spoils would be produced during the significant expansion of a coal export terminal at Abbot Point, next to the park. The World Heritage Committee has said the government's dredge plan disregards less harmful disposal options. In effect, with the delay of a decision by the World Heritage Committee, the Australian and Queensland governments have one more year to show they are not proceeding with the dredge disposal plan as offered.

Meanwhile, new studies from John Cook University in Queensland indicate that dredging - and particularly its associated sedimentation and turbidity - leads to increased disease in corals (www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0102498), and that hydrocarbons from coal in Great Barrier Reef waters are already approaching international benchmarks for toxicity to marine life (http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ecss.2014.04.001).

World Heritage showing its influence

The prestige associated with having a World Heritage site provides an incentive for governments to ensure their sites do not become degraded. In cases where threats to a site's heritage values begin to overwhelm management, the World Heritage Committee can place the site on its World Heritage in Danger list, which helps attract international and national support for the site's conservation. The list can also be used as a way to encourage governments to take action against threats that are under their control.

"The World Heritage Committee holds nations accountable for their conservation actions," says Fanny Douvere, coordinator of the Marine World Heritage Programme. "We are unique in that we apply real science-based monitoring and evaluation systems, embedded in a nearly universally ratified international legal mechanism."

An indication of the World Heritage Committee's influence was apparent earlier this year. Deutsche Bank, a global financial services firm, was considered a likely funder of the coal terminal expansion next to the Great Barrier Reef. But in May, the bank backed away from the project, citing the lack of consensus between the Australian Government and the World Heritage Committee on whether the expansion plan would harm the reef. HSBC, another global bank, has also announced it will hold off on involvement in the port expansion until there is World Heritage support.

For more information:

Fanny Douvere, World Heritage Centre, Paris, France. Email: F.Douvere [at] unesco.org