The unique qualities of this property were recognised in 1981 when it was inscribed on the World Heritage List.
The Great Barrier Reef was one of 15 Australian World Heritage places included in the National Heritage List on 21 May 2007.
The Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef ecosystem on earth and one of the best managed marine areas in the world.
At 348,000 square kilometres, the reef is one of the richest and most diverse natural ecosystems on Earth. It attracts more than 1.6 million visitors each year, contributes more than $5 billion to the Australian economy, and generates about 63,000 jobs.
The latest State Party Report on the state of conservation of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area is now available.
World Heritage Committee consideration of the state of conservation of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area
The World Heritage Committee has considered the state of conservation of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area at recent sessions.
The full text of the decisions of the World Heritage Committee are available on the UNESCO web site.
- 2021 Committee decision 44 COM 7B.90 Great Barrier Reef (Australia) (N154)
- 2017 Committee decision 39 COM 7B.7 Great Barrier Reef (Australia) (N154)
- 2015 Committee decision 39 COM 7B.7 Great Barrier Reef (Australia) (N154)
- 2014 Committee decision 38 COM 7B.63 Great Barrier Reef (Australia) (N154)
- 2013 Committee decision 37 COM 7B.10 Great Barrier Reef (Australia) (N154)
- 2012 Committee decision 36 COM 7B.8 Great Barrier Reef (Australia) (N154)
- 2011 Committee decision 35 COM 7B.10 Great Barrier Reef (Australia) (N154)
Australia provided updated reports on the state of conservation of the property, and also on the implementation of the Committee's decisions in February 2012, February 2013, January 2014, January 2015 and December 2019. Links to these reports are provided under More Information.
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The Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef ecosystem on earth and one of the best managed marine areas in the world. At 348 000 square kilometres, the reef is one of the richest and most diverse natural ecosystems on Earth. The unique qualities of this property were recognised in 1981 when it was inscribed on the World Heritage List.
On 1 February 2012, 1 February 2013, 31 January 2014, 30 January 2015, 1 December 2019 and 1 February 2022 Australia submitted detailed State Party Reports to the Committee outlining:
- the nature of the threats to the reef
- what the Australian Government is doing to improve the resilience of the reef, and
- how the Outstanding Universal Value of the property is being managed and protected.
The reports outline how we are addressing the pressures facing the Great Barrier Reef through sound policy and cutting edge science, substantial direct investment and world class marine park management.
- State Party Report on the state of conservation of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area (Australia) 2022
- State Party Report on the state of conservation of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area (Australia) 2019
- State Party Report on the state of conservation of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area (Australia) 2015
- State Party Report on the state of conservation of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area (Australia) 2014
- State Party Report on the state of conservation of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area (Australia) 2013
- State Party Report on the state of conservation of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area (Australia) 2012
Independent Review of the Port of Gladstone
As part of the Australian Government's response to the 2012 decision of the World Heritage Committee regarding the ongoing protection and management of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage property, the Australian Government commissioned an Independent Review of the Port of Gladstone.
Comprehensive strategic assessment
The Australian Government and the Queensland Government have completed a comprehensive strategic assessment of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area and adjacent coastal zone in accordance with section 146 of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act).
The comprehensive strategic assessment has helped to identify, plan for and manage existing and emerging risks to ensure ongoing protection and management of the unique environmental values of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area and and also ensure that development within and adjacent to the World Heritage Area is sustainable.
- Comprehensive strategic assessment of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area
- EPBC Act referral guidelines for the Outstanding Universal Value of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area
Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan
In December 2021 an updated Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan was released following the first five yearly comprehensive review.
Joint monitoring mission
In March 2012 a joint monitoring mission made up of representatives from the UNESCO World Heritage Centre (WHC) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) visited a number of locations within the Great Barrier Reef. They met with a broad range of stakeholders including government, industry and non-government organisation representatives and Traditional Owners. The brief was to assess the state of conservation of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.
Reporting to the World Heritage Centre
On 31 October 2011, the department notified the World Heritage Centre of all proposed developments being assessed as Controlled Actions for potential impacts on the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (1999) (EPBC Act):
The department has since developed an agreed administrative procedure to notify the World Heritage Centre on a regular basis of proposed developments in all of Australia's world heritage areas:
The Australian and Queensland governments have a cooperative and integrated approach to managing the Great Barrier Reef.
Great Barrier Reef Intergovernmental Agreement
An agreement between the Australian and Queensland governments relating to the Great Barrier Reef has been in place for over 40 years, beginning with the 1979 Emerald Agreement. In 2009 and 2015, the Great Barrier Reef Intergovernmental Agreement was updated to reflect the shared vision for the future of the Reef and address contemporary challenges. The Agreement is currently being reviewed and a revised Agreement is expected in 2021.
The Australian Government, including the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, and the Queensland Government, completed a comprehensive strategic assessment of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area and adjacent coastal zone in 2014.
Strategic assessments enable a 'big-picture' approach to environment and heritage protection that provides certainty in the long term, by determining areas where no development will be allowed as well as those areas where sustainable development can go, the type of development that will be allowed and the conditions under which such development may proceed.
The strategic assessment of the Great Barrier Reef fed into the development of the Australian and Queensland governments’ Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan, the overarching framework for improving the Reef’s resilience.
Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan
In 2015, the Australian and Queensland governments released the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan (Reef 2050 Plan) in response to the World Heritage Committee’s recommendation that Australia develop a long-term plan for sustainable development to protect the Outstanding Universal Value of the Reef.
The Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment; the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, and the Queensland Government Department of Environment and Science jointly lead implementation of the Reef 2050 Plan to protect the Outstanding Universal Value of the Reef. The Plan builds upon, and does not replace, the existing statutory and management arrangements for the World Heritage Area.
The Australian and Queensland governments are investing more than $3 billion to implement the Reef 2050 Plan and have made significant progress to reduce pressure on the Reef and build Reef resilience since the Plan's release. This includes delivering the Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan to address all land-based sources of water pollution entering the Reef; legislative and regulatory reforms to reduce land clearing and run-off from agricultural land and industrial activities; ending the disposal of capital dredge spoil in the World Heritage Area, and limiting port development to existing priority ports; releasing the Reef Knowledge System; developing and implementing the Great Barrier Reef Blueprint for Resilience; and investing in the Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program, a collaborative effort to help the Reef survive climate change. Further achievements are provided in Reef 2050 Plan annual reports.
The Plan is comprehensively reviewed and updated every 5 years - informed by expert advice and a public consultation process to ensure that it continues to address the right priorities and actions to support the health and resilience of the Great Barrier Reef.
As the world’s most extensive coral reef ecosystem, the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is a globally outstanding and significant entity. Practically the entire ecosystem was inscribed as World Heritage in 1981, covering an area of 348,000 square kilometres and extending across a contiguous latitudinal range of 14° (10°S to 24°S). The Great Barrier Reef (hereafter referred to as GBR) includes extensive cross-shelf diversity, stretching from the low water mark along the mainland coast up to 250 kilometres offshore. This wide depth range includes vast shallow inshore areas, mid-shelf and outer reefs, and beyond the continental shelf to oceanic waters over 2,000 metres deep.
Within the GBR there are some 2,500 individual reefs of varying sizes and shapes, and over 900 islands, ranging from small sandy cays and larger vegetated cays, to large rugged continental islands rising, in one instance, over 1,100 metres above sea level. Collectively these landscapes and seascapes provide some of the most spectacular maritime scenery in the world.
The latitudinal and cross-shelf diversity, combined with diversity through the depths of the water column, encompasses a globally unique array of ecological communities, habitats and species. This diversity of species and habitats, and their interconnectivity, make the GBR one of the richest and most complex natural ecosystems on earth. There are over 1,500 species of fish, about 400 species of coral, 4,000 species of mollusk, and some 240 species of birds, plus a great diversity of sponges, anemones, marine worms, crustaceans, and other species. No other World Heritage property contains such biodiversity. This diversity, especially the endemic species, means the GBR is of enormous scientific and intrinsic importance, and it also contains a significant number of threatened species. At time of inscription, the IUCN evaluation stated "...if only one coral reef site in the world were to be chosen for the World Heritage List, the Great Barrier Reef is the site to be chosen".
Criterion (vii): The GBR is of superlative natural beauty above and below the water, and provides some of the most spectacular scenery on earth. It is one of a few living structures visible from space, appearing as a complex string of reefal structures along Australia's northeast coast.
From the air, the vast mosaic patterns of reefs, islands and coral cays produce an unparalleled aerial panorama of seascapes comprising diverse shapes and sizes. The Whitsunday Islands provide a magnificent vista of green vegetated islands and spectacular sandy beaches spread over azure waters. This contrasts with the vast mangrove forests in Hinchinbrook Channel, and the rugged vegetated mountains and lush rainforest gullies that are periodically cloud-covered on Hinchinbrook Island.
On many of the cays there are spectacular and globally important breeding colonies of seabirds and marine turtles, and Raine Island is the world’s largest green turtle breeding area. On some continental islands, large aggregations of over-wintering butterflies periodically occur.
Beneath the ocean surface, there is an abundance and diversity of shapes, sizes and colours; for example, spectacular coral assemblages of hard and soft corals, and thousands of species of reef fish provide a myriad of brilliant colours, shapes and sizes. The internationally renowned Cod Hole near Lizard Island is one of many significant tourist attractions. Other superlative natural phenomena include the annual coral spawning, migrating whales, nesting turtles, and significant spawning aggregations of many fish species.
Criterion (viii): The GBR, extending 2,000 kilometres along Queensland's coast, is a globally outstanding example of an ecosystem that has evolved over millennia. The area has been exposed and flooded by at least four glacial and interglacial cycles, and over the past 15,000 years reefs have grown on the continental shelf.
During glacial periods, sea levels dropped, exposing the reefs as flat-topped hills of eroded limestone. Large rivers meandered between these hills and the coastline extended further east. During interglacial periods, rising sea levels caused the formation of continental islands, coral cays and new phases of coral growth. This environmental history can be seen in cores of old massive corals.
Today the GBR forms the world’s largest coral reef ecosystem, ranging from inshore fringing reefs to mid-shelf reefs, and exposed outer reefs, including examples of all stages of reef development. The processes of geological and geomorphological evolution are well represented, linking continental islands, coral cays and reefs. The varied seascapes and landscapes that occur today have been moulded by changing climates and sea levels, and the erosive power of wind and water, over long time periods.
One-third of the GBR lies beyond the seaward edge of the shallower reefs; this area comprises continental slope and deep oceanic waters and abyssal plains.
Criterion (ix): The globally significant diversity of reef and island morphologies reflects ongoing geomorphic, oceanographic and environmental processes. The complex cross-shelf, longshore and vertical connectivity is influenced by dynamic oceanic currents and ongoing ecological processes such as upwellings, larval dispersal and migration.
Ongoing erosion and accretion of coral reefs, sand banks and coral cays combine with similar processes along the coast and around continental islands. Extensive beds of Halimeda algae represent active calcification and accretion over thousands of years.
Biologically the unique diversity of the GBR reflects the maturity of an ecosystem that has evolved over millennia; evidence exists for the evolution of hard corals and other fauna. Globally significant marine faunal groups include over 4,000 species of molluscs, over 1,500 species of fish, plus a great diversity of sponges, anemones, marine worms, crustaceans, and many others. The establishment of vegetation on the cays and continental islands exemplifies the important role of birds, such as the Pied Imperial Pigeon, in processes such as seed dispersal and plant colonisation.
Human interaction with the natural environment is illustrated by strong ongoing links between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and their sea-country, and includes numerous shell deposits (middens) and fish traps, plus the application of story places and marine totems.
Criterion (x): The enormous size and diversity of the GBR means it is one of the richest and most complex natural ecosystems on earth, and one of the most significant for biodiversity conservation. The amazing diversity supports tens of thousands of marine and terrestrial species, many of which are of global conservation significance.
As the world's most complex expanse of coral reefs, the reefs contain some 400 species of corals in 60 genera. There are also large ecologically important inter-reefal areas. The shallower marine areas support half the world's diversity of mangroves and many seagrass species. The waters also provide major feeding grounds for one of the world's largest populations of the threatened dugong. At least 30 species of whales and dolphins occur here, and it is a significant area for humpback whale calving.
Six of the world’s seven species of marine turtle occur in the GBR. As well as the world’s largest green turtle breeding site at Raine Island, the GBR also includes many regionally important marine turtle rookeries.
Some 242 species of birds have been recorded in the GBR. Twenty-two seabird species breed on cays and some continental islands, and some of these breeding sites are globally significant; other seabird species also utilize the area. The continental islands support thousands of plant species, while the coral cays also have their own distinct flora and fauna.
The ecological integrity of the GBR is enhanced by the unparalleled size and current good state of conservation across the property. At the time of inscription it was felt that to include virtually the entire Great Barrier Reef within the property was the only way to ensure the integrity of the coral reef ecosystems in all their diversity.
A number of natural pressures occur, including cyclones, crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks, and sudden large influxes of freshwater from extreme weather events. As well there is a range of human uses such as tourism, shipping and coastal developments including ports. There are also some disturbances facing the GBR that are legacies of past actions prior to the inscription of the property on the World Heritage list.
At the scale of the GBR ecosystem, most habitats or species groups have the capacity to recover from disturbance or withstand ongoing pressures. The property is largely intact and includes the fullest possible representation of marine ecological, physical and chemical processes from the coast to the deep abyssal waters enabling the key interdependent elements to exist in their natural relationships.
Some of the key ecological, physical and chemical processes that are essential for the long-term conservation of the marine and island ecosystems and their associated biodiversity occur outside the boundaries of the property and thus effective conservation programs are essential across the adjoining catchments, marine and coastal zones.
Protection and management requirements
The GBR covers approximately 348,000 square kilometres. Most of the property lies within the GBR Marine Park: at 344,400 square kilometres, this Federal Marine Park comprises approximately 99% of the property. The GBR Marine Park's legal jurisdiction ends at low water mark along the mainland (with the exception of port areas) and around islands (with the exception of 70 Commonwealth managed islands which are part of the Marine Park). In addition the GBR also includes over 900 islands within the jurisdiction of Queensland, about half of which are declared as 'national parks', and the internal waters of Queensland that occur within the World Heritage boundary (including a number of long-established port areas).
The World Heritage property is and has always been managed as a multiple-use area. Uses include a range of commercial and recreational activities. The management of such a large and iconic world heritage property is made more complex due to the overlapping State and Federal jurisdictions. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, an independent Australian Government agency, is responsible for protection and management of the GBR Marine Park. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 was amended in 2007 and 2008, and now provides for “the long term protection and conservation ... of the Great Barrier Reef Region” with specific mention of meeting "... Australia's responsibilities under the World Heritage Convention."
Queensland is responsible for management of the Great Barrier Reef Coast Marine Park, established under the Marine Parks Act 2004 (Qld). This is contiguous with the GBR Marine Park and covers the area between low and high water marks and many of the waters within the jurisdictional limits of Queensland. Queensland is also responsible for management of most of the islands.
The overlapping jurisdictional arrangements mean that the importance of complementary legislation and complementary management of islands and the surrounding waters is well recognised by both governments. Strong cooperative partnerships and formal agreements exist between the Australian Government and the Queensland Government. In addition, strong relationships have been built between governments and commercial and recreational industries, research institutions and universities. Collectively this provides a comprehensive management influence over a much wider context than just the marine areas and islands.
Development and land use activities in coastal and water catchments adjacent to the property also have a fundamental and critical influence on the values within the property. The Queensland Government is responsible for natural resource management and land use planning for the islands, coast and hinterland adjacent to the GBR. Other Queensland and Federal legislation also protects the property’s Outstanding Universal Value addressing such matters as water quality, shipping management, sea dumping, fisheries management and environmental protection.
The Federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) provides an overarching mechanism for protecting the World Heritage values from inappropriate development, including actions taken inside or outside which could impact on its heritage values. This requires any development proposals to undergo rigorous environmental impact assessment processes, often including public consultation, after which the Federal Minister may decide, to approve, reject or approve under conditions designed to mitigate any significant impacts. A recent amendment to the EPBC Act makes the GBR Marine Park an additional 'trigger' for a matter of National Environmental Significance which provides additional protection for the values within the GBR.
The GBR Marine Park and the adjoining GBR Coast Marine Park are zoned to allow for a wide range of reasonable uses while ensuring overall protection, with conservation being the primary aim. The zoning spectrum provides for increasing levels of protection for the 'core conservation areas' which comprise the 115,000 square kilometres of ‘no-take’ and ‘no-entry’ zones within the GBR.
While the Zoning Plan is the 'cornerstone' of management and provides a spatial basis for determining where many activities can occur, zoning is only one of many spatial management tools and policies applied to collectively protect the GBR. Some activities are better managed using other spatial and temporal management tools like Plans of Management, Special Management Areas, Agreements with Traditional Owners and permits (often tied to specific zones or smaller areas within zones, but providing a detailed level of management not possible by zoning alone). These statutory instruments also protect the Outstanding Universal Value of the property.
Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples undertake traditional use of marine resource activities to provide traditional food, practice their living maritime culture, and to educate younger generations about traditional and cultural rules and protocols. In the GBR these activities are managed under both Federal and Queensland legislation and policies including Traditional Use of Marine Resource Agreements (TUMRAs) and Indigenous Land Use Agreements (ILUAs). These currently cover some 30 per cent of the GBR inshore area, and support Traditional Owners to maintain cultural connections with their sea country.
Similarly non-statutory tools like site management and Industry Codes of Practice contribute to the protection of World Heritage values. Some spatial management tools are not permanently in place nor appear as part of the zoning, yet achieve effective protection for elements of biodiversity (e.g. the temporal closures that are legislated across the GBR prohibit all reef fishing during specific moon phases when reef fish are spawning).
Other key initiatives providing increased protection for the GBR include the comprehensive Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report, (and its resulting 5-yearly reporting process); the Reef Water Quality Protection Plan; the GBR Climate Change Action Plan; and the Reef Guardians Stewardship Programs which involve building relationships and working closely with those who use and rely on the GBR or its catchment for their recreation or their business.
The 2009 Outlook Report identified the long-term challenges facing the GBR; these are dominated by climate change over the next few decades. The extent and persistence of damage to the GBR ecosystem will depend to a large degree on the amount of change in the world’s climate and on the resilience of the GBR ecosystem to such change. This report also identified continued declining water quality from land-based sources, loss of coastal habitats from coastal development, and some impacts from fishing, illegal fishing and poaching as the other priority issues requiring management attention for the long-term protection of the GBR.
Emerging issues since the 2009 Outlook Report include proposed port expansions, increases in shipping activity, coastal development and intensification and changes in land use within the GBR catchment; population growth; the impacts from marine debris; illegal activities; and extreme weather events including floods and cyclones.
Further building the resilience of the GBR by improving water quality, reducing the loss of coastal habitats and increasing knowledge about fishing and its effects and encouraging modified practices, will give the GBR its best chance of adapting to and recovering from the threats ahead, including the impacts of a changing climate.
- What Australia is doing to manage the Great Barrier Reef - June 2015
- World Heritage Committee notification reports
- Defining the aesthetic values of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area - February 2013
- EPBC Act referral guidelines for the Outstanding Universal Value of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area
- Geological and geomorphological features of Outstanding Universal Value in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area - February 2013
- Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area location/Boundary plan (PDF - 488.71 KB)
- Interim report on current Great Barrier Reef development proposals
- Managing the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area
World Heritage Committee documents
A list of documents concerning the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area is available on the UNESCO web site.
- Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority
- World Heritage Committee information for Great Barrier Reef
- Map (PDF - 494 KB)
- Driml, S., 1999, Dollar Values and Trends of Major Direct Uses of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Townsville, Qld.
- Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, 1994, The Great Barrier Reef, Keeping it Great: a 25 year Strategic Plan for the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.
- Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Townsville, January 1981 Nomination of The Great Barrier Reef by the Commonwealth of Australia for inclusion in the World Heritage List
- Lucas, P. H., Webb, T., Valentine, P. S. and Marsh, H. 1997, The Outstanding Universal Value of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Townsville, Qld.
- Wachenfeld, D. R., Oliver, J. K. and Morrissey, J. I. 1998, State of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Townsville, Qld.
Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority
PO Box 1379
Townsville QLD 4810