Great Barrier Reef D grade rating shows urgent need for action on water quality

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Marine conservationists have urged the Queensland and Federal governments to commit more money to tackling water quality issues in the Great Barrier Reef

Farm runoff packed with polluting chemicals was recognised as the main threats to the health of the inshore Great Barrier Reef, home to iconic wildlife like dugongs, turtles and dolphins

And in addition speed up the enforcement of reef regulations on farms after an official report found that the inshore condition of our Reef is not improving. 

The joint Queensland and Federal government report card for 2019 gives an overall D grade for inshore marine conditions, illustrating that the Reef’s inshore condition has not improved since the most recent 2017 and 2018 report

While some important gains have been made in tackling some pollutants, the Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS) said progress falls far short of what is needed to fix the problem of fertiliser and sediment running into the Reef’s waters. 

Dr Lissa Schindler, AMCS Great Barrier Reef campaign manager said farm runoff packed with polluting chemicals was recognised by scientists, politicians and conservationists as one of the main threats to the health of the inshore Great Barrier Reef, home to iconic wildlife like dugongs, turtles and dolphins.

“This report underlines how important the recently implemented reef regulations will be in addressing water quality in inshore areas,” she said. 

“We hope to see dramatic improvements in water quality in the next report due out in 2022, which will cover the implementation of the regulations.

“As our Reef recovers from three climate change-driven mass coral bleaching events in just five years, it is vital we do all we can to support it, and that means improving water quality as quickly as possible by ensuring compliance and funding for the reef regulations.”

The reef regulations were passed in 2019, after this report was written and began rolling out in Queensland last year. Their roll out will continue across the next two years until the end of 2022.

However, funding commitments from the Queensland government end in July 2022, leaving farmers high and dry without potential government investment to implement the regulation targets.  

“Improving water quality needs the support and dedication of all farmers and graziers in Queensland and they’ll need backing from the Queensland government to adopt the best practices required,” added Dr Schindler.

“That’s why we are calling for more funding to help the agricultural sector comply quickly with the regulations.”

According to the AMCS any progress to clean up the reef falls far short of what is needed to stop fertiliser and sediment running into the Reef’s waters

The report found that across the whole of the Great Barrier Reef, Dissolved Inorganic Nitrogen (DIN, from fertiliser run-off) had been reduced by 4.3%, which is an improvement of 4% from the last report.

Sediment reduction however was only improved by 0.2% , down from 0.5% in 2017 and 2018. 

“We are heartened to see a decrease in the amount of DIN entering the Reef. However these are small gains when considering the government has committed to reducing DIN by 60% by 2025.

A 4.3% reduction takes us to 25%, which is still 35% short of the target. We are also falling short of the sediment reduction target of 25% by 2025, with progress so far at 14.6%,” said Dr Schindler. 

The report showed the sugarcane farming industry scored a grade E for its contribution to improving water quality, with only 2.9% adopting best farming practices in 2019, bringing the overall total up to 12.7%. The 2025 target requires 90% of sugarcane farms to adopt best practices.

In 2017, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee called on the governments to accelerate efforts to meet water quality targets set in the Reef 2050 Plan.

The World Heritage Committee will meet again later in 2021 to assess Australia’s performance in protecting our Reef and will decide whether it should be listed as ‘in danger’ due to water quality and climate change threats to its world heritage values.

Fingers will be crossed when the World Heritage Committee meets later in 2021 to decide whether the reef should be listed as ‘in danger’

“With only four years left to meet their own water quality targets, now is the time to ramp up efforts in tackling poor water quality,” added Dr Schindler.

“The Reef is a complex interconnected environment that the tourism industry – another important industry for North Queensland – relies on to be healthy and beautiful.

“Can you imagine Australia – and Queensland – without the Reef? It’s part of what defines us and we have to do all we can to retain it for future generations. While lots of progress is being made, at the moment we are falling short.”

Report findings

Overall grade is D for inshore marine conditions (water quality C, coral D, seagrass D, freshwater wetlands C).

The D grade remains unchanged from the 2017-2018 report however seagrass abundance and coral cover have been declining since 2015/16.

The report card gave a water quality grade of D for the Wet Tropics,  Burdekin and Mackay/Whitsunday regions, saying conditions remain unchanged since the last report. 

In the Fitzroy and the Burnett Mary regions, water quality was given a C grade – the same as the 2017-18 report, but the conditions had improved since the last report.

In the far north region of Cape York, water quality was given a C mark. This grade means conditions have declined since the 2017-18 report.

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