by Jeni Bone
Australia will carry out a comprehensive assessment of development pressure on the Great Barrier Reef to help preserve the world's largest coral reef system, the federal Environment Minister Tony Burke said in a joint statement with the Queensland state government last week.
The GBR streaches over 1500km along the Queensland coast. Photo courtesy of The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority
The assessment will take into account how development along Australia's northeast coast is affecting the reef and would be the largest of its type ever conducted in Australia.
The state is an important exporter of commodities as well as a major tourist destination, particularly with the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest World Heritage listed site.
'Rather than always dealing with one application at a time this allows an assessment of the region as a whole,' Burke said in the statement. 'That gives us an opportunity to take into account the cumulative impacts and any indirect impacts such as increased shipping movement.'
Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority chairman Russell Reichelt said it was a chance to take a long-term view of how best to manage the reef.
'It is up to us to protect this extraordinary place for generations to come,' he said.
Queensland state environment minister Vicky Darling said the assessment would 'ensure development is well-planned and systems are in place to protect the area's World Heritage values'.
The assessment will be discussed next month with a delegation from UN body Unesco, said Darling.
Shipping through the Great Barrier Reef is forecast to grow exponentially in the next 20 years.
Conservation organisation, Greenpeace said it welcomes the announcement of a comprehensive strategic assessment of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, but warns that it will be an empty gesture without an immediate halt to new approvals of major infrastructure while the assessment is being done.
'It would make a mockery of the strategic assessment if the government green lights more large-scale industrial infrastructure in the Great Barrier Reef coastal zone before the evaluation period has concluded,' said Greenpeace Spokesperson John Hepburn.
'We are facing imminent approval of a massive expansion of coal ports all up the Queensland coast that would involve tens of millions of tonnes of dredging and thousands more dirty coal ships passing through the reef.
'Many of these massive projects are likely to approved before the Strategic Assessment is completed – including the hugely destructive coal development at Abbot Point, near Bowen. It flies in the face of common sense to announce the strategic assessment without putting a hold on approvals for such massive projects.'
UNESCO has already issued strong concerns about the management of the World heritage Area and the threat posed by major fossil fuel export facilities. The upcoming inspection tour in March by the UN body could result in a further rebuke of the Australian Government.
'2012 is a critical year for the Great Barrier Reef,' said Hepburn. 'The approval of these massive new coal ports could tip the balance against safeguarding a thriving reef for future generations. The government must ensure its chance of survival is not sabotaged while their assessment is taking place.'