Great Barrier Reef Under Threat

Plans to create new ports could harm the world’s largest living structure. A look at Australia’s underwater treasure as its fate hangs in the balance.

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Next month, Australia’s Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Water, Mark Butler will decide whether to allow the expansion of a new port within the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, home to the world’s largest living structure, which supports 6 species of marine turtle, 30 species of dolphins and whales, and is an important habitat for the endangered dugong.

The reef lies along the coast of Queensland, a state rich in mineral resources, and the government is proposing new construction in order to enable the transportation of coal at places like Abbot Point. Constructing the coal terminals at Abbot Point involves the dredging of up to 3 million cubic meters of material from the ocean floor to allow access for large ships.

The Great Barrier Reef, the largest living structure in the world, is protected by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. However, the reef lies along the coast of Queensland, a state rich in mineral resources, and in order to ship these minerals to the world, the government is proposing an expansion of ports along the coast, in places such as Abbot Point, which falls within the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. In May, Professor Terry Hughes, an expert on reef science, told an Australian Senate Committee, “It is my opinion, based on the science, that large amounts of dredging will simply hasten the ongoing decline of the Great Barrier Reef.”

Dredging and development could harm a reef that is already ailing. The Great Barrier Reef Report Card 2011, a recently released joint report on the water quality of the reef by the Australian and Queensland state governments downgraded the status of the reef to poor, due to a decline in water quality. Meanwhile, UNESCO, released a report criticizing the Queensland government, which they say has made limited progress when it comes to preventing coastal development that could “negatively impact” the reef.  If UNESCO’s concerns are not addressed by 2014, then the reef could be placed on the list of World Heritage Sites in Danger.

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