Great Barrier Reef in ‘recovery’ but experts say progress will be threatened by climate-related disturbances

The Great Barrier Reef is experiencing a rare window of recovery due to a break in weather and bleaching events according to the latest observations from marine scientists.

According to the Australian Institute of Marine Science’s Annual Summary Report on Coral Reef Condition, which was released today, conditions have been relatively good for coral recovery during 2020-21. 

Researchers surveyed 127 reefs and found that at least 69 had seen an increase in hard coral cover since they were last surveyed.

“This indicates that recovery is well underway, after a particularly intense decade of disturbances prior to this,” monitoring team leader Mike Emslie said.

“We’ve had very few acute disturbances this year,” Dr Emslie said.

“There were no sustained heatwaves leading to coral bleaching, there were no large tropical cyclones.

“Essentially the Great Barrier Reef has had a bit of a breather.”

Person snorkeling looks down towards corals while holding onto a line from a boat.
AIMS researchers are towed over the Great Barrier Reef to conduct surveys.(Supplied: Australian Institute of Marine Science)

The improvements come after the Great Barrier Reef experienced its most widespread bleaching event on record early last year.

Dr Emslie said the majority of the coral cover growth was driven by common, fast-growing table and branching corals.

However, he said these corals were the most vulnerable.

“Their fast growth comes at a bit of a cost, their skeletons aren’t as dense as other corals,” Dr Emslie said.

AIMS has warned that the recovery the Great Barrier Reef is currently experiencing is likely to be short-lived with the “increasing prominence” of climate-related disturbances.

“The biggest risk to the reef going forward is climate change,” AIMS chief executive Paul Hardisty said.

“We must reduce emissions if the Great Barrier Reef and frankly other reefs around the world are going to continue to exist in the state in which we recognise them today,” Dr Hardisty said.

AIMS CEO Dr Paul Hardisty delivering annual report in Townsville
Dr Paul Hardisty delivered an update on the reef’s condition in Townsville. (ABC North Qld: Chloe Chomicki)

The World Heritage Committee, which sits under UNESCO, made a draft recommendation to list the Great Barrier Reef as “in danger” in June.

The decision is expected to be finalised at a meeting in China in the coming days.

AIMS declined to comment on the World Heritage Committee recommendation.

However, research program leader Britta Schaffelke said the latest observations of the Great Barrier Reef did not change a grim outlook which was delivered by the institute in 2019.

“The outlook report assessed the future outlook for the reef to be very poor,” Dr Schaffelke said.

“The reef outlook into the future is still very poor because of the dangers of climate change and other factors.”

‘Incredibly rare moment’

The World Wildlife Fund’s  Richard Leck said the report told a story of hope and one of a warning. 

“It’s great to see the reef still has resilience and we have seen some significant bounce back in coral species,” he said.

“But this is an incredibly rare moment in time where we haven’t had extreme heat events or crown of thorns outbreaks.

“Those events are more likely to continue into the future.”

Mr Leck said the report strengthened arguments to list the Great Barrier Reef as “in danger”.

“This report reinforces the importance of the decision faced by the World Heritage Committee this week,” he said.

Government commits almost $330 million to Great Barrier Reef in state budget

A $270 million funding injection is set to bolster the efforts of farmers from the Far North to the Wide Bay, who are working to reduce runoff and improve water quality.

Announced as part of the 2021-22 state budget, the funding forms part of the almost $330 million the Palaszczuk government has committed to protecting the Great Barrier Reef, regenerating land, and supporting tourism.

The investment in the Queensland Reef Water Quality Program will go towards a number of initiatives, including best management practice programs.

NQ Dry Tropics CEO Scott Crawford said improving water quality was one of the most important ways to support the Great Barrier Reef’s outstanding World Heritage values, while looking after local farming industries and their communities.

“In recent years the Queensland government has invested significantly to address the threats to the long-term health and resilience of the reef, including improving water quality runoff,” Dr Crawford said.

“This announcement means the momentum gained through the last few years of investment can continue.”

The investment has been welcomed by Canegrowers, who are also calling for greater support for the role agriculture can play in reducing carbon emissions.

“Importantly for the sugar cane industry, continued support and recognition of growers working through best management practice farming programs such as Smartcane BMP, is needed,” Canegrowers CEO Dan Galligan said.

“We know that voluntary programs which take a whole-of-farm and individual approach, encouraging innovation, are much more successful than regulations will ever be in ensuring sugar cane businesses are sustainable, profitable and productive into the future.”

Mr Galligan said Smartcane BMP had momentum, with more than 35 per cent of cane farms now fully accredited.

“Now industry research is indicating it is proving to be successful in reducing carbon emissions and this role that farms can play to address climate change should be recognised and rewarded,” he said.

The reef credits scheme also received a $10 million top-up as part of the commitment. The scheme was developed by GreenCollar and launched in 2020.

GreenCollar water quality general manager Carole Sweatman said it was great to see the government assisting in creating jobs and improving agricultural prosperity.

“When it comes to the future health of the Great Barrier Reef there are local solutions that can improve its ecology, while creating jobs and improving agricultural prosperity too, so it’s great to see the government putting further and significant funding into this,” Ms Sweatman said.

The state government is also investing $60 million in round two of the Land Restoration Fund.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said the 18 projects involved in round one of the LRF had restored thousands of hectares of land and stopped 1.9 million tonnes of CO2 from entering the atmosphere.

Ms Palaszczuk said her government backed the reef, backed the land and backed the thousands of jobs and industries that rely on a healthy environment.

Terrain NRM CEO Stewart Christie said they welcomed the new investment for the reef and land regeneration.

“This is good news, not only for our environment but also for jobs and our local economy,” Mr Christie said.

Public submissions on reef regulation reversal bill due by Wednesday 30 June

Submissions are being sought on the Environmental and Other Legislation (Reversal of Great Barrier Reef Protection Measures) Amendment Bill 2021 put forward by Katter’s Australian Party in April.

Agricultural industry representatives attended a public hearing into the bill in Brisbane last Friday, criticising the Palaszczuk government’s Environmental Protection (Great Barrier Reef Protection Measures) and Other Legislation Amendment Act introduced in 2019.

The KAP’s bill has been referred to the Health and Environment committee for detailed consideration and a report is to be prepared by October 21.

The bill before the committee seeks to repeal amendments made in 2019 to the Environmental Protection Act 1994 and Chemical Usage (Agricultural and Veterinary) Control Act 1988.

Hinchinbrook MP Nick Dametto said the measures in Labor’s legislation were based on “questionable science”.

“This is unfair legislation we are trying to reverse, on behalf of affected Queensland farmers, who are impacted by the state government’s draconian legislation that controls farming practices in the six reef catchment areas of Queensland,” Mr Dametto said.

“Until this science is independently audited, replicated and checked – the 2019 ALP legislation must be reversed.”

AgForce Reef Taskforce chair Alex Stubbs said the reef regulation reversal bill was a chance to go back to the future on reef regulations.

“This bill, if passed, will take us back to the level of regulation and penalties units we had in 2009,” Mr Stubbs said.

A public hearing will be held in Brisbane on Friday, September 3. The Health and Environment committee is inviting submissions addressing any aspect of the bill from all interested parties.

Written submissions can be sent via email to before June 30.

Qld ag industry to support Katter’s Reef Regulation Reversal Bill

Agricultural industry representatives are preparing to give witness statements at a public hearing this Friday, in support of a Reef Regulation Reversal Bill put forward by Katter’s Australian Party.

The Palaszczuk government introduced the Environmental Protection (Great Barrier Reef Protection Measures) and Other Legislation Amendment Act back in 2019, drawing strong criticism from farmers and industry leaders.

Impacted farmers argue the act undermines existing efforts by growers to improve water quality and imposes ‘big brother’ style supervision over farming decisions.

Hinchinbrook MP Nick Dametto said the measures in Labor’s legislation are “a complete assault on farmers”.

“This legislation has been met with strong opposition by Queensland’s agricultural industry and Katter’s Australian Party has taken up the fight on their behalf,” Mr Dametto said.

“The KAP would like the members of the Health and Environment Committee to gain an appreciation of the importance of our bill and why it is necessary given the bureaucratic nightmare that farmers now have to deal with under Labor’s reef laws.”

AgForce CEO Michael Guerin, reef taskforce chairman Alex Stubbs, and senior policy officer Marie Vitelli will give evidence in support of the reversal bill at Friday’s hearing.

Mr Guerin said an independent office was the only way to protect hundreds of farming families and regional communities from unfair regulations.

“An independently run Office of Science Quality Assurance isn’t only for the reef. Once established, it would be able to oversee every aspect of policy-setting science related to vegetation management, the environment, air quality, and much more,” Mr Guerin said.

Mr Stubbs said if the bill is successful, it would be a return to the level of regulation and penalty units farmers had in 2009.

“It would still require producers in certain situations and locations to operate within an accredited Environmental Risk Management Plan, but one with many more practical farm plan options,” Mr Stubbs said.

“Importantly, the bill proposes that all producers have a duty of care to notify authorities of any environmental harm to water quality while carrying out activities under their Environmental Risk Management Plan, as well as to appoint an independent regulator to oversee enforceable actions and development of ERA standards.”

Canegrowers will also be attending Friday’s hearing. Chairman and Mackay grower Paul Schembri said his organisation will be urging the parliamentary committee to commit to greater investigation into the social and economic cost of current reef regulations on regional economies.

“We believe the current legislation is a bureaucratic nightmare. It’s very prescriptive to cane farmers in terms of the use and permissible rates of application of fertiliser and chemicals, and backed up by infringements that we think are unacceptable,” Mr Schembri said.

Queensland Farmers’ Federation has called on the state government to reconsider the regulatory burden reef regulations place on farmers.

CEO Dr Georgina Davis said the agricultural industry remains committed to doing its bit for the reef, with an exponential increase of farmer participation in BMP and other voluntary practice improvement programs.

“These programs have made and continue to make improvements to a range of environmental objectives, and have significantly contributed to the health of the Reef despite the water quality targets being grossly underfunded,” Dr Davis said.

“We remain firmly of the view that applying a blanket approach to regulating agricultural activities across all six Reef regions at the expense of true practice change will not realise the best environmental, social and economic outcomes for the Reef, farmers or Reef catchment communities.”

The public hearing is this Friday at the Parliamentary Annexe in Brisbane.

Calls to cut red tape around sugarcane industry

Government red tape needs to be slashed to increase Australia’s sugar production, with canegrowers and millers alike calling for a reduction of regulations.

The Australian Sugar Milling Council and Canegrowers have both taken aim at Queensland government red tape in recent days, with ASMC focusing on an industry revitalisatation strategy while Canegrowers continues to home in on reef regulations.

The ASMC has presented a comprehensive case to the Queensland government for

reducing regulatory overload to support the sugar industry’s revitalisation.

The push comes off the back of government red tape reduction plans, including the establishment of the Office of Productivity and Red Tape reduction within Queensland Treasury, and the release of the Queensland Productivity Commission’s Improving Regulation research paper.

ASMC Director, Economics, Policy and Trade David Rynne said the revitalisation agenda was based on three key pillars – increasing sugarcane and sugar yields while decreasing operational costs, increasing or at least maintaining canegrowing area and increasing revenue from complementary, diversified, value-added products.

“ASMC’s analysis of government regulatory interventions and cost impositions on the sugar industry make a compelling argument that cumulatively, domestic regulation is stalling industry revitalisation and a more sustainable future for the regional communities it supports,” he said.

Meanwhile Canegrowers has created an animation, available on YouTube, to explain the sugarcane industry battle against reef regulations.

“We have 80 per cent of sugarcane growers voluntarily engaged in a program, that is recognised internationally, to improve sustainability as well as cane farm productivity and profitability,” Canegrowers CEO Dan Galligan said.

“But government reef-focused reporting ignores that effort and tells the industry it’s failing – it’s no wonder growers are up in arms. It would appear growers are being set up to fail no matter what they do and how hard they work.”

Home Hill canegrower Owen Menkens said reef regulations were probably the biggest concern for most growers, with water and electricity prices also key issues.

“The reef regulations have definitely made it hard for a lot of growers to produce the best crops, especially where they are cracking down on nitrogen use whereby growers are reducing rates below what is profitable and productive,” he said.

“We’ve been calling on the government to look at reef regulations and electricity for a long time, so I hope they do and they take it seriously.”

Reef regulations must be fair for all

There’s a common phrase, originating in the military, that suggests manure moves downhill.

It gets across the idea that bad decisions made by those further up the chain of command often have the greatest impact on people below them, with little opportunity for recourse.

This is a principle with which farmers are unfortunately all too familiar. It often applies to our relationship with state and federal governments and their attempts at regulating agricultural industry for public benefit.

On June 1 this year the principle will apply again, when those expanding their cropping or horticulture operations in Great Barrier Reef catchments will be living downstream of new Queensland government regulations intended to improve the quality of water flowing into the reef.

The Department of Environment and Science have been consulting with farmers and industry bodies on the set of standards they propose applying to any new or expanded cropping or horticulture in reef catchments over five hectares.

When originally proposed, the standards were meant to apply only to how new production areas would be designed, ensuring that features were put in place from the get-go to minimise volume and velocity of runoff.

Since then, however, there’s been an amount of scope creep in the proposed standards, which now require farmers to meet annual and ongoing conditions.

This not only represents an unwanted additional burden, but also in many cases are an unfair impost on those expanding their operations that could just as easily be justified for everyone else.

Growcom has submitted recommended changes on behalf of the horticulture industry that we believe will create fairness and remove red tape while still achieving better reef outcomes.

The department deserves credit for having made improvements to previous versions of the standard conditions in response to industry input. We hope this continues.