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The Great Barrier Reef - pristine one day, perishing the next?

05, June 2012

UNESCO’s draft report on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef doesn’t pass the smell test, according to Executive Director of the Australian Environment Foundation Max Rheese.

“On Friday I, like most Australians, had good grounds for thinking that the Great Barrier Reef was the best managed coral reef on the globe.

“Now we are asked to believe that the reef is at risk of being listed as a ‘World Heritage Site in danger’ if development in an existing port area which has been planned for some time goes ahead.

“This beggars belief.”

Mr Rheese said the best recent assessment of reef health had been prepared in 2011 by the World Resource Institute, an organisation funded by a number of organisations including the United Nations, the World Bank, the African Development Bank, and the UK, US and German governments.

It finds that “Australia’s reefs are the world’s least threatened, with an estimated 14 percent threatened by local activities and just over 1 percent at high or very high threat. Our analysis identifies both marine-based pollution and watershed-based pollution as the dominant threats, but vast areas of reef are remote from such impacts.”

“A less formal statement of how well the reef is travelling can be found on UNESCO’s own website. In particular its “Threat Intensity Coefficient” shows that in 2001, while low, the threat was 77% higher than it is today.

“Australia has 50,000 square kilometres of coral reef – approximately the same size as England – it is hard to see one port making a catastrophic difference to something of that size.”

Mr Rheese noted the 21 members of the UNESCO committee don’t include Australia, but do include Mexico, Thailand, Cambodia, South Africa, Colombia, Senegal, United Arab Emirates, and Japan who all have their own coral reefs with a higher risk attached to them than Australia’s.

“One might also ask why their priorities aren’t closer to home.”

Mr Rheese said that there were also issues of transparency as the report was not available on the UNESCO website, despite forming the basis of a media release, and most of the public comment did not appear to be based on the original document.

“We will release a critique of the UNESCO report once we have had time to study it in depth.”

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