Australia Authorizing Destruction of Great Barrier Reef

By Carl Safina and Elizabeth Brown

When Captain Cook almost literally stumbled upon Australia’s Great Barrier Reef—it reached upward and clenched his ship—its size awed him. When the first orbiting astronauts looked down on their home planet, the Great Barrier Reef’s size awed them too. Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest structure made by living things. How big? It is roughly the size of Montana. Among the world’s most biologically rich places, it contains over 2,500 individual coral reefs and around 400 different coral species. (The entire Caribbean has about 60 coral species!) It is home to more than 1,500 fish, 4,000 mollusks, 240 birds, and a diversity of other species. A truly magnificent site of global importance!

Photo from space of the nearly 1800 km long Great Barrier Reef.The white calcium carbonate that coats the coral reflects light, making the water above the reef appear bright blue from space. Credit: Provided by the SeaWiFS Project, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, and ORBIMAGE.
Photo from space of the nearly 1800 km long Great Barrier Reef.The white calcium carbonate that coats the coral reflects light, making the water above the reef appear bright blue from space. Credit: Provided by the SeaWiFS Project, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, and ORBIMAGE.

In 1981, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s World Heritage Committee declared Australia’s Great Barrier Reef a “World Heritage Site” because of its outstanding universal value.1The ‘World Heritage Site’ designation is supposed to result in management that minimizes the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef. But, in recent years, Australia’s desire to expand its commodity ports, for the exports of coal and natural gas, seems to have become more important than protecting the health of the reef. Over the last few years, the Australian government has rapidly approved numerous developments of coal and gas port terminals within the reef; despite concerns that it is degrading the reef and harming the ecosystem.

When new ports are developed or ports are expanded, it requires the dredging [or removal] of bottom sediments to make room for large vessels to operate. This makes the waters very turbid or muddy. Highly turbid waters can limit the amount of light corals receive, and since light is needed for the corals’ symbiotic algae to generate food for them, this can cause corals to starve. As well, since dredging churns up the sediments, it can release toxic materials. There is evidence that this has stressed many of the native animals, leading to disease outbreaks seen in fish, shellfish, and crustaceans in recent years.2The critically endangered dugong (sea cow), as well as sea turtles and in-shore dolphins have also declined within the reef.

Because of the new ports terminals, there has been an expansive increase in shipping activity within the Great Barrier Reef. This is of concern because ships generate a lot of underwater noise, which is now recognized as a serious threat for many marine species3. Many species, like dolphins and whales, use sound to navigate, feed, and communicate. Human-made noise from ships can disrupt these activities or cause them extreme stress, sometimes leading to stranding events.

Great Barrier Reef, Australia.Left: Blueish Soft Coral. Credit: LCDR Eric Johnson, NOAA Corps.
Great Barrier Reef, Australia. Blueish Soft Coral. Credit: LCDR Eric Johnson, NOAA Corps.
Great Barrier Reef, Australia.Various Coral species.Credit: LCDR Eric Johnson, NOAA Corps.

The Australian Government is supposed to thoroughly assess all these threats through their environmental impact process before any developments within or around the Great Barrier Reef are approved. However, Australia has downplayed many of the threats, not adequately assessed them, and completely ignored some [like shipping noise].

Australia’s management [or lack thereof] of port developments has caused great concern among environmentalists, the international community, and users of the Great Barrier Reef. Because of these concerns, in 2012, the World Heritage Committee called on Australia to have an independent review conducted of their management of the Port of Gladstone – a major multi-use port in the southern area of the Great Barrier Reef that has been greatly expanded. They also recommended Australia halt all new development plans that could affect the outstanding universal values of the Great Barrier Reef.

Great Barrier Reef wildlife. Pacific Double-saddle Butterflyfish. Credit: Dr. Dwayne Meadows, NOAA/NMFS/OPR
Great Barrier Reef wildlife. Pacific Double-saddle Butterflyfish. Credit: Dr. Dwayne Meadows, NOAA/NMFS/OPR
Great Barrier Reef wildlife. Giant Clam. Credit: Dr. Dwayne Meadows, NOAA/NMFS/OPR
Great Barrier Reef wildlife. Giant Clam. Credit: Dr. Dwayne Meadows, NOAA/NMFS/OPR

As asked, Australia did commission a review panel to look into concerns over the management of the Gladstone Port early this year. But, the so-called “independent” panel experts all had conflicts of interests with the current Gladstone port development projects…

So as one might guess, the review panel basically concluded management of the Gladstone port had been adequate. They failed to address many of the concerns raised by the World Heritage Committee. And on top of that, they senselessly recommended giving management responsibilities of the port to the Gladstone Healthy Harbor Partnership – a group that is not yet funded or actually functioning4.

Australia continues to give the go-ahead for the development of several new coal and natural gas ports within the Great Barrier Reef, and thus the continued destruction of the reef seems inevitable. Soon, the World Heritage Committee may declare the Great Barrier Reef a ‘World Heritage Site in Danger’.5 Like us, I am sure many of you are asking, how can Australia let this happen?

Please make a personal point to write to the Hon. Greg Hunt, Minister for the Environment at Greg.Hunt.MP@aph.gov.au , calling on the Australian government to respect and protect the Reef which is the unique environmental heritage of all humanity. Tell Minister Hunt that the world is watching as the Australian government allows the destruction of this priceless jewel by the resource industry. Please make a personal point to write to President Obama with letters of protest for allowing the US Export/Import Bank to fund corporations which are actively destroying the Reef.  The most immediate need is for a moratorium on any and all development in the Great Barrier Reef so that internationally recognized, independent scientific experts can undertake a thorough investigation into the damage and potential damage as requested by the World Heritage Committee.


1. Untied Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization World Heritage List: Great Barrier Reef http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/154

2. Report on disease outbreaks in Great Barrier Reef by Dr. Matt Landos. http://www.gladstonefishingresearchfund.org.au/#/reports/4565752703

3. Convention on Biological Diversity Scientific Synthesis on the Impacts of Underwater Noise on Marine and Coastal Biodiversity and Habitats: http://www.cbd.int/doc/meetings/sbstta/sbstta-16/information/sbstta-16-inf-12-en.pdf

4. Independent Review of the Port of Gladstone http://www.environment.gov.au/topics/marine/great-barrier-reef/port-gladstone-review

5. World Heritage Committee Decisions http://whc.unesco.org/en/decisions/4959

Ecologist Carl Safina is author of seven books, including the best-selling “Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel,” and “Song for the Blue Ocean,” which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has won a MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, CNN.com and elsewhere, and he hosted the 10-part “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University.
  • Sisi van Dijk

    I think that Mr. Hunt is very concerned about the reef (I hope), but the main problem is Tony Abott! He does not care what happens to Australia or the planet. As long as his pockets are full of money and gays are not allowed to marry. He is the number one leader in ignorance, but we need to shout with our voices and express that Australia is going backwards in every way possible. 🙁 It makes me sad that people like him exist in this world. They have no hearts, just pockets full with money.

  • Dean O’C

    Mr. Hunt.

    THERE IS NO FUTURE FOR coal.. or US if we keep burning it.
    there is no future for the myriad of species of fish n sea life if we fill the reef beaches with coal ports.

    please stand up to fossil lobbyists… there is MUCH MORE money in eco tourism..than in the short term profits for the select few mining executives.

    How can Abbot point even be contemplated in this era of impending climate doom?



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  • Carolyn Jacobs Wells

    I am planning a diving trip to the GBR in Dec 2013. This article has filler me with a dose of reality. Here I thought the type of tactics employed in the above article were exclusive to “other” countries. You can bet your bottom dollar, I will be writing some letters and, spreading the word to other divers, especially to ones I meet during my 2 week visit. Can you provide me with contact info of some of the local activists in Cairns, Australia?

  • cameron parr

    The reef has taken millions of years to be construted and will be destroyed within years, all because money seems to be more important than anything else.

  • Janene Mulley

    As an Australian I have been shamed by many things.I have been born to this country & am stranger to land.I was born the same year Australia had a referandum to count aboriginal in the cencus.I have watched destruction of history for money.The sorry to aboriginal yet they are not in our constitution as rightful 1st people of Australian land.Tasmania’s forests are going under the axe do the last of the wild Tasmania Devil will go under genocide & you expect this to shock me.We are supposed to be protecting this planet,holding it for future generations but we treat her like a toy of a spoilt child.
    Tell me how to stop them?
    I joined Australian HEMP Party to try to heal the planet,yes sometimes the past has the answers

  • Diane White

    Please help us stop this. We, the people of Australia, do NOT want this to happen. The political forces in our country are being paid big $’s by the mining companies to do this, and they are weak and greedy.

  • Melanie Glico

    Please protect the Great Barrier Reef

  • Anthony Harris

    Its not Australia that is giving away permission to start up all these toxic projects,its the Liberal/National Party Coalition.
    The mining of the Natural Resoucres of Australia in places like the Barrier Reef have been resisted for many,many years by the people that love the Natural Wonders of this beautiful country.But with the help of Vested Interest Groups in the Media,we have ended up with a new government who have stated,”Australia is open for Business”.The floodgates are open now and projects like the ones planned for the Barrier Reef are among many that go against all sense and reason.So please its not the Australians that are doing this,its the Liberal/National Party with the help of its Media Sponsers,its not us,this is a disaster,a step into the abyss.

  • Stevia Liong

    For those who are in power, regardless which party their belong to. I think you all know that once the Great Barrier Reef is destroyed it’ll be gone forever and it can’t be rebuilt overnight, like those giant trees that were chop down by loggers. Please remember this, you and your party members are people who live in this planet too. What good does it do to you or your future generation if you don’t take care of your own mother land. Don’t look just at your nose, look further away beyond your nose.

  • Amanda Starkey

    I agree with all the above. I live in Bowen Nth QLD, we are currently waiting on Greg Hunt to make his decision on the dredging and dumping of over 3 000 000 tonnes of spoil back into our marine parks. We have a couple of activist groups against this potential environmental vandalism, feel free to join us and share any information you may have or simply join to keep a heads up on what is happening right now. Bowen’s Abbot Point is poised to be the largest coal terminal in the world and Dungeon Point the second largest, The iconic Whitsundays will be sandwiched between the largest coal ports in the world! This is a disaster waiting to happen, our reefs,beaches, ocean water quality and marine life are all at risk! https://www.facebook.com/groups/209800112512464/?fref=ts

  • Janet Glatz

    As an eco artist/activist, I strongly urge Australian politicians to get behind the protection of the Great Barrier Reef. Don’t destroy millions of beneficial life forms! janetglatz.com

  • lu videan

    what the helllll????????just leave that beautiful place alone.i say BRING BACK KEVIN RUDD…hes a peoples man….come on aussies get behing saving Barrier Reef

  • NoMoreLies

    Oh Anthony get your facts straight! They are not mining the GBR…more alarmist crap from people who have no idea of the real world.

  • Beverly

    When will destruction of the environment stop? All of our natural assets are slowly being destroyed and taken away. What are we going to be left with? A cold barren land and it’s all because of money. Don’t know why abbot was voted into government.

  • Kerry Johnson

    In support of Anthony et al,
    The alternative major party in Australian politics may state that they support the environment but in fact during their terms in office have proved even more dismissive of meaningful environmental objectives as those at present in office.
    Therefore, if we have the environment at heart it is incumbent on each and everyone of us to work towards the strengthening of minor parties to loosen the stranglehold that this oligarchy consisting of two parties and big business interests has on Australia and its people.

  • Rebecca

    Carolyn Jacobs Wells Google save the reef and you should find a lot of info. GetUp!, Australian Marine Conservation Society & Greenpeace to name a few. Glad to see people from outside Australia. Willing to take a stand- the government sure isn’t listening to it’s own people so here’s hoping international pressure might help 🙂

  • Sean Madden

    The development refered to in the story is the work going on at Gladstone. This development was approved and construction started years ago. How can people be stupid enough to blame this on Abbot or his government?

  • Cheryl Wyllie

    WHY? Is this world so obsessed about money, it is at the root of every problem. Will man be forced back into the recess of the Dark Ages once we have finished the job on the Planet. The destruction of our old growth forests, rivers and oceans. This Government needs to heed the warning signs as the earth spews fourth its venom. The Great Barrier reef is an integral part of our echo systems, wonderous and beautiful to behold and should be left in its pristine state. ABBOTT I am appalled by your ignorance and blatant disregard for this Heritage Site..
    We must protect our waterways and be the guardians of our heritage. AUSTRALIA rise up and let your voice be heard, as the Great Barrier Reef is under threat.

  • Lorraine Stern

    I agree that Tony Abbott has blood on his hands, and if he had any decency or humanity he would put a stop to the complete industrialization of Australia, however let us not forget that it was the Labour Party that instigated and approved all the coal and coal seam gas industries.

  • Benedict Lach

    @Anthony Harris
    it is the Australian people who allow the liberal party to do these project, because we the people voted him in by the way, they are our representatives we should tell them this is not okay.

  • Luke S

    It’s not ‘Australia’ and it’s not the people that are opeing up our country to environmental vandalism on an unprecedented scale, it’s our new Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his political party, the Queensland state leader Campbell Newman, the deputy leader Jeff Seeney and their political party called the Liberal National Party that is based on bullying, greed and environmental ignorance. Did they mention any of this before being elected? Of course not.

  • oneman

    Foreign owned mining corporations want to triple coal exports out of queensland in the next 5 to 7 years. This will result in not just 43 million tonnes of dredge spoil being dumped in the ocean inside the reef but 7000 ships per year navigating through the reef. Each ship will be dumping hundreds of thousands of tonnes of ballast water sourced from some of the most polluted harbours in the world. There are no controls or monitoring on this. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has been compromised with 2 of its directors found to have interests in mining companies.

  • Melissa Jones

    Dear Mr Hunt,
    I like so many other concerned Australians totally oppose the development of the reef for gas and coal Ports. The dredging and and exploitation of one of the wonders of the world is a sad loss for our country for obvious reasons. What gives you and the government the right to not listen to the people and their wishes to protect or Great Barrier Reef…. Where do you draw the line? when there is nothing left?
    MELISSA Jones

  • Greg Andrew

    The people of Australia are not the ones doing this , though they have given a mandate to the Liberal/Nation party (ultra right wing party) to do so. It needs to be stopped, but as the Prime Minister Tony Abbott denies categorically the existence of global warming or any ecological problems, this won’t happen. Tony abbott is like a stupid version of George W Bush..

  • Eric

    Tony believes in God and Pell so everything will be fine.


  • Barbara Lawlor

    Surely deepening the channel for the Port of Melbourne has taught us something of the damage interfering with nature can do. Greg Hiunt was a MP for the Mornington Peninsula at this time so what can we expect from him now.

  • Roger Corben

    As has been stated above, the Australian people DO NOT want mining any where near our reef, big business, mining and the federal Government ( and also the Queensland Govt.) want this to happen, they ignored UNESCO, they ignore our protests, the almighty $$ is the most important thing, above people, health, environment and social license. I wish sanctions could be applied and world heritage status threatened, oh that already happened and the powers that be in Australia DID NOT CARE. HELP

  • GML

    blaming a govt that has been in office for 2 months. pathetic. we sent many emails to Tony Burke and he did nothing but create this mess.

  • Mario Medrano

    For years, the world’s governments have tried to protect the Earth and it’s ecological jewels. To hear that the Australian government is taking an active part in the devastation of the Great Barrier Reef leads me to believe that the era of conservation and protection has ended. If our own governments don’t take the responsibility of protecting the land, who will. The Masses? With our limited power, I fear that even if we try, we will fail. In order for the treasures of nature to survive for future generation, the governments have to step up and and stop being governed by greed.

  • J. Tattoo

    Maybe once they finish dessimatting the reef, they can go move on to bigger things, like maybe topple the himalyas while they are at it. Not sure what it will take for governments to see their greed is destroying our planet bit by bit. How many cataclysmic events is mother nature going to have to throw at them until they wake up and see that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Our natural disasters are becoming more frequent and more devastating with every one. Keep destroying the planet and eventually, karma will come to bite them all in the ass when our planet suffers the final disaster that will, in all likely hood, remove man from this planet all together so it can start all over again with a species that may get it right finally.

  • Tristan M

    This makes me sad. What is wrong with this country?
    What gets me is gas mining too. Gas that’s mined in Australia gets resold to foreign markets for a pittance while we’re gouged with international market reasons being cited. Pillaging resources and ripping off the people of the country. If only it wasn’t so hard to purge the govt and restart with a clean slate. It’s what’s needed.

  • Sean

    Amanda Starkey.The Dugeon point expansion has been stopped already so the whitsundays wont be sandwiched between the two biggest coal terminals in the world. Not only is Dugeon point not going ahead but it was the mining company that had the rights to build said expansion behind the cancellation of construction. As a keen recreational fisho I want to know why its all good for these huge ships to travel through parts of the reef that I Am locked out of. Tony Burke and Cambell Newman need to be held accountable for this, not just the new government, none of the issues related to the destruction of the reef are new.

  • janama

    I wonder how the US would react if we determined that no one can access and traverse Montana.
    Gladstone habour is NOT the GBR, the fish kill was due to the 2011 flood and the loss of Dugong is due to our indigenous community killing them for food.
    This bedwetting over the GBR is pathetic.

  • Robert Boeninger

    Profit via political decisions only leads to corruption. Those politicians who have profited from their decisions obviously were paid to side with the illogical, immoral vote in which only the politician and the entity making the donation/bribe prosper. All politicians involved in any type of financial gain from their work besides a salary should be imprisoned.

  • Robert Boeninger

    Masons hard at work destroying society with their immoral acts.

  • Jimmy

    Parasites, we’ll consume it all until our home is a dead rock. Too much sediment in Morton Bay as well.

  • Patricia Heron

    Having signed many petitions and written letters to our politicians, without replies, I am fast coming to the conclusion that those in power have ‘other agendas’ and the wonderful movements of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s to save the precious world heritage listed places that we are so blessed to still have in this wonderful country of ours , are no longer active or respected! A lot of people have made huge sacrifices to ensure the reef, the forests, the wetlands and the unique flora and fauna of Australia will forever be protected, but what is happening?!? THIS IS NOT PROGRESS…DESTRUCTION OF REEF AND FORESTS IS UNFORGIVABLE! Australians are saddened and horrified by any suggestion of interference with our precious reef and hold our politicians responsible for permitting any damage to these environments. Stand up and be counted! The fragile nature of the reef must be protected, not just for Australians, but for all who live on this planet.

  • Pat Heron

    Having signed many petitions to our leaders?!?…and personally written them letters of concern (without replies) I fear that our country’s leadership is bent on desecrating all that we hold precious, as far as iconic natural Australian World Heritage sites are concerned. Our ancient reefs and forests are again facing destruction. Selling out our country’s heritage, is unforgivable. Australians are extremely concerned about the environment and find it distressing to be once again ‘banging our heads’ against the proverbial ‘brick wall’. 🙁

  • Bill Fernhill

    The Australian Government does NOT have a mandate of any sort! They won this farcical election on the basis of preferences, not an outright win. The problem is that, as in the US, Murdoch’s media has run a very successful campaign that convinced the Unwashed Masses that Right was right. Now, however, those with double-digit IQ’s are starting to realise that they’ve been conned. The problem for Australia and the creatures that inhabit it is that the rest of the voting cesspool are so incredibly stupid that they believe that the Mad Monk will look after them. Fascism is as Fascism does.

  • Katherine Eaton

    This makes me ashamed to call myself an Australian. All our government cares about is money money money.

  • craig hill

    When there is too much money available for the taking, public institutions are manned by private profiteers and courts are made corrupt to protect the gathering of that money from justice made nonexistent, even the largest grouping of lifeforms on the planet are not safe, including the very species itself that refuses to police its murderers, as they, we, shall see.

  • Jon Hickling

    It’s all ok, Astronomers have discovered earth like planets deep in the universe, when humans have finished destroying their home planet they can move on to the next one! Maybe Mars was one of our old haunts! Last one to leave turn the lights out please!

  • Tony Lynch

    I’m guessing the only thing that will work is a Franklin river type well organised protest

  • Kerry Young

    It makes no difference if it is the left or right side of politics in power. Tony Burke (Labour) approved the dredging of Gladstone Harbour. The fact is our elected representatives are letting us (and future generations) down by their lack of integrity. Australia needs to wake up and demand a better deal before we end up as a 3rd world poor quarry! Mismanagement on mega scale.

  • devine larasati

    talking about the Great Barrier Reef… inspiring animation movie “Finding Nemo”

  • Terry


  • Gerry McGhee

    It’s 14yrs now since I spent the best 6 months of my life travelling Australia. The awe that the Great Barrier Reef inspired in me was something else. A truly beautiful place that needs to be protected. I still vividly remember how stunning a place it is,please please please protect this natural beauty!!

  • Doesn’t matter

    November 21, 2:56 pm
    It’s all ok, Astronomers have discovered earth like planets deep in the universe, when humans have finished destroying their home planet they can move on to the next one! Maybe Mars was one of our old haunts! Last one to leave turn the lights out please!”

  • H Grier

    I grew up swimming in fresh water lakes. When I moved to the ocean in S Florida I decided to take up scuba diving with the goal of diving the Great Barrier Reef. I achieved that goal and had my breathe taken away when I saw the reef from the plane, was speechless when I saw it in person and dove it. Never witnessed such living beauty. Memory that will last a lifetime, I would like to think the Great Barrier Reef will be there for my 8 month old nephew’s lifetime…and his childrens lifetime and so on.

  • John Hutcheson

    Coal mega ship through the GBR, way to make Aussie shittier!

    Don’t vote for fenceposts, putting one the PM’s office was a stupid move with stupid consequenses. Demand a recall.

  • Him not her

    I went snorkeling on the great barrier reef when I was age 11, close to turning 12. People to People Student Ambassador Program is an incredible thing if you ever have the opportunity. That has nothing to do with the reef, but it’s the reason I got to snorkel there. It was pretty damn awesome. That’s a hyperbolic statement, it was freaking incredible.

  • Tegan

    They are always advertising to bring more tourists to North Queensland…….. How do they expect to do that if they plan on ruining our biggest icon… we are so lucky to have something so beautiful in our backyard and they are just going to ruin it for everybody whether it be locals, tourists or wildlife.

  • Rod .T.

    The great Barrier Reef was once a great pride of Australia which drew admiration from all who visited. Governments from both sides have consistently abused this phenomonem
    by approving shipping and mining corridors, in this area.
    It is time Mr Turnip and his clowns looked deeply into our Reef problem. Now is the only time to salvage this wonder of the our world. I do not have a lot of time left but I hope a savings plan is put into place .These people with more money than thinking in their heads should get out of politics and make openings for people with some go ahead idea’s.

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