Coming together for a global goal: How the private and public sectors in Australia are uniting to save the Great Barrier Reef

The beginning of the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz starts off in black and white, but after about 20 minutes, it becomes an explosion of stunning colors. It is arguably one of the most strikingly colorful, brilliant films of all time. But imagine if that switch from black and white to multi-color never happened. Would we still so fondly remember The Wizard of Oz over 80 years later? Now imagine that your television screen stops showing moving, colored images and instead projects only a sterile, black and white freeze frame. Such a dull, lifeless image is far from what we associate with this Academy Award-winning masterpiece. Well, without efforts to protect and save it, the Great Barrier Reef, one of the Earth’s natural masterpieces, will actually face this fate, losing all of its vibrancy, both in color and of life.

However, with the actions of many private and public entities, Australia is fighting to protect the Great Barrier Reef and its one-of-a-kind marine ecosystem. The joint and individual efforts of these entities in Australia are a global model for environmental conservation.

The situation

The Great Barrier Reef is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World and for good reason. The sheer magnitude of the Reef is astounding: the Reef is home to 25% of the world’s marine species, contains 3,000 coral reefs, and includes 1,050 islands (covering an area that is roughly the size of Italy).

Therefore, it is no surprise that hundreds of thousands of tourists flock to the Reef every year in order to witness this incredible ecosystem for themselves. In 2013 alone, the Great Barrier Reef hosted 1.9 million tourists. The Reef has become something of a “cash cow,” as it generates billions of dollars in the Australian economy each year. In 2011–2012 alone, Reef-related activities generated AUS$5.6 billion in revenue.

However, as the Reef has grown in popularity and become a must-see on many travelers’ bucket lists, it has also faced a slew of multiplying threats: global climate change, coal mining, overfishing of Reef species, agriculture in neighboring areas, coastal development, and tourism. Since the 1980’s, over 50% of corals part of the Great Barrier Reef have been destroyed.

However, these problems have not appeared overnight. Since the late 1800s, on average, global warming has had a severe, negative impact on the Great Barrier Reef, as it has caused Reef sea surface temperatures to increase by 0.8 degrees Celsius, leading to coral bleaching and death.

The Telegraph [Photo] A diver observing bleached corals of the Great Barrier Reef near Heron Island

Within the past decade, the Reef has become an especially huge part of the global discussion of habitat preservation and the impacts of human development on hurting the environment and causing global warming. In 2016 alone, roughly 1/3 of the Great Barrier Reef coral died due to an increase in ocean temperatures that were a result of global warming.

While more people have become aware of damaged Reef conditions in recent years, the multitude of threats to corals have been a topic of concern since the mid-20th century.

Beginning in the 1960s, protection efforts due to oil and coal mining threats began, such as the ‘Save the Great Barrier Reef’ Campaign of 1967. In addition to oil and mining threats, overfishing of sea cucumbers has hurt the Reef because sea cucumbers help to lower the negative effects of ocean acidification. Acidification is harmful because it can stunt coral growth.

Additional threats include the presence of fine sediments, from agricultural run-off or pollution, in the Reef, which lower water clarity and hurt seagrass and coral growth by blocking sunlight from reaching these organisms at the ocean’s bottom. Other threats include coastal development and tourism: 27 islands part of the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem have tourism resorts, and many other coastal and island areas are home to residences and businesses. These developments not only destroy habitats in order to make room for infrastructure, but they also add additional pollution to the environment, which hurts neighboring habitats.

While these many threats are indeed daunting, they can be addressed. From the public sector (on both a local and national level) to the private sector (from businesses to non-profit organizations), many people are trying to save the Great Barrier Reef.

Private enterprises: from tourism to non-profits

Ecotourism has become increasingly popular in Australia in the last decade, as more tourists from around the world are seeking a more sustainable way to travel. Locals, and even tourists, can become involved with countless non-profit organizations that provide resources and events for Reef and environmental conservation.

Nature-based tourism encourages tourists to be more eco-conscious when visiting the Great Barrier Reef, boosts the Australian and local economies, directs tourists to other conservation projects (such as national parks), spreads awareness about environmental threats, directly takes part in conservation efforts, and encourages tourists to be more eco-conscious in the future. Eco-hotels, such as Pumpkin and Lizard Islands are just two such examples.

Pumpkin Island, located in The Keppels, Yeppoon, Australia in the southern part of the Great Barrier Reef, is solar and wind-powered and has its own solar-powered gas, hot water, and rainwater filtration systems. Not to mention, it is Australia’s first and only carbon positive developed island: It offsets 150% of its annual carbon emissions!

Lizard Island, located in Cairns, Australia, is home to a research facility that gives tours twice a week that educates visitors on the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem.

Luxury Lodges Australia [Photo] Tourists on a Lizard Island Research Station Tour

Both Pumpkin and Lizard Islands are prime examples of taking action themselves to operate more sustainably and help others do the same not only during their stay but also after they leave.

Foundations and non-profits play a vital role in spreading reef awareness, raising money, and doing hands-on activities to help the Reef. The Great Barrier Reef Foundation, which is a registered Australian Environmental Organization, tracks coral bleaching and water quality, restores reef habitats (such as with their Rain Island Recovery Project), and offers grants through its Reef Trust Partnership.

While the private sector, consisting of ecotourism, foundations, and non-profits, is a huge contributor to Reef protection efforts, they are not the only source of funding, services, and resources for environmental awareness. The public sector, including the Australian and Queensland governments, is also a vital part of the cause.

Public service: government action at local and national levels

Australia is one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet, and it contains a variety of ecosystems, from rainforests to deserts. The Australian government monitors and protects all of these habitats and the animals that live in them, while the Queensland government is more focused on its region-specific wildlife, such as the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem.

In 1975, the Australian government enacted the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act. This act joined the Whitlam Labor Party and the Bjelke-Peterson National Party, competing government parties from the Australian Commonwealth and Queensland, respectively. The major components of the act included that it restricted coral removal and oil dredging and led to more parks being designated on national and state levels. 33% of the park is a no-take or “green zone” meaning that fishing and additional potentially disruptive activities are off-limits.

Years since the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act, designated parks still make up vast areas of Australia. In 1981, the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area was 348,000 km², almost the size of Germany. The total designated park area for the whole of Australia is even greater. In 2014, the area of territorial waters part of marine parks in Australia was 3,244,100 km².

The Australian and Queensland governments have also put money towards preservation efforts and passed legislation to protect these ecosystems. Financially, both of these governments have collectively pledged to put a total of roughly $200 million/year towards reef preservation. In regards to legislation, one such law, passed on June 2, 2015, prohibited the disposal of “capital dredge materials” originating from ports within the World Heritage Area.

Collaboration is key

In addition to their separate green initiatives, private and public interests are also constantly collaborating to fund and run programs to help the Reef.

Adrenalin Snorkel & Dive, located in Townsville, Australia is a private tourism company that works with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (the government) and other conservation organizations (private groups) to educate tourists about Reef preservation.

Reef HQ Great Barrier Reef Aquarium, located in Townsville, Australia is a national research and education center whose goal is to inform visitors about topics such as coral bleaching and harmful species. It also serves as a resource for people to report reef incidents so that the facility can monitor them. It further gives advice to tourists regarding eco-tours in the northern part of the Great Barrier Reef. It is the largest living coral reef aquarium in the world and is also home to the Australian Government’s education center as well as a Turtle Hospital.

Many long-term programs are also funded by both the private and public sectors.

One of the largest of these long-term programs is Reef Trust. Reef Trust is both privately and publicly funded with the goal of improving Great Barrier Reef water quality, protect habitats, and control crown-of-thorns starfish. Fertilizers containing nitrogen can get into the Great Barrier Reef via waterways, lowering water quality and promoting abundant algae growth, one of the food sources of crown-of-thorns starfish. These starfish hurt coral and are thus detrimental to the entirety of the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem.

As of 2019, the Australian Government’s has given over $700 million to Reef Trust. $500 million of this came from an investment by the Australian Government that was passed on April 29, 2018 as a part of the Reef 2050 plan. $444 million out of this investment went into the partnership between Reef Trust and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation. This sum was divided to target various Reef threats, with the biggest portions going towards improving water quality in the agricultural industry ($201 million) and additional research and scientific funding ($100 million), and the rest being divided amongst efforts to better regulate crown-of-thorns starfish, fund local communities and individuals, track changes in the Reef, and monitor the waters of the World Heritage Area.

Australian Government: Department of Agriculture, Water, and the Environment [Video] $500 million boost for Reef Protection, 28 Apr. 2018

Some other programs, funded by the government, private groups, or both, include the Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program (RRAP) and the Great Barrier Reef Gully and Streambank Joint Program.

Government officials, such as Minister Ley and Special Envoy for the Great Barrier Reef Warren Entsch MP, are working with the Australian Institute of Marine Science as well as private groups to run The Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program (RRAP). The program is funded both privately and publicly, with $100 million from $444 million partnership between Reef Trust and Great Barrier Reef Foundation going towards funding RRAP.

Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program [Photo] Researcher studying corals

The Great Barrier Reef Gully and Streambank Joint Program, started in 2016, through the collaboration between the Australian and Queensland governments, with the goal of combatting gully and streambank erosion. Erosion leads to sediment in the Reef, which leads to water quality degradation and lack of sunlight, which can hurt organisms and prevent their growth. Over 6 years, through government and private funding, the Great Barrier Reef Gully and Streambank Joint Program plans to put over $45 million towards this cause.

Many of these programs, investments, and plans fall under the larger Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan, a plan lasting from 2015 to 2050 in which the Australian and Queensland governments are working with non-government organizations to help the Reef. As of 2015, this plan is projected to put over $2 billion into Reef protection efforts by 2025.

Part of this plan includes the Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan, which was officially announced in July 2018, with the goal of monitoring and improving water quality in the Reef and performing yearly water quality report cards to track sediment and other pollutant levels from 2017 to 2022. This plan includes $600 million total from the Australian and Queensland governments.

One of the main reasons this collaboration between the public and private sectors works so well is because both sectors understand that they have a common goal, and by helping the other sector, they will also receive help.

The private sector, such as the ecotourism industry, understand that their source of revenue comes from the environmental appeal of Australia, and if that is destroyed, their industry will collapse. It is in the ecotourism businesses’ best interests to preserve the very thing that is making them successful. The efforts of these businesses to be more sustainable appeases the public sector.

The public sector, such as the national and local Australian governments, wants to preserve the environment because tourism is such a huge part of Australia’s economy. The Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade lists international tourism as one of its five major, global industries, and is the 11th largest country on the planet for international tourism. Without the source of said tourism — the unique, beautiful environment—the tourism industry, and the Australian economy as a whole, will suffer.

Thus, it is in the government’s best interest to promote ecotourism through an environmental business certification system and by creating incentives, such as tax benefits, to promote ecotourism as well as encourage involvement of individuals and other organizations in conservation and sustainability. On its official website, the Australian Taxation Office of the Australian Government outlines the major points of the Taxation Ruling TR 2020/2, an income tax deduction for spending related to proven environmental protection and conservation efforts by applicable parties. These governmental efforts to provide incentives for non-governmental groups or individuals to take part in conservaton appease the private sector.

A model for others

Australia is a paradigm when it comes to environmental conservation efforts, both foreign and domestic.

Domestically, the Australian government is all about transparency. Their official government website, specifically in the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade sections, provides many resources and articles relating to conservation efforts in Australia.

The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment has a user-friendly, categorical topics section, with pages relating to biodiversity, environment protection, marine topics, national parks, and more. They also provide contact information to get more information about specific subjects, such as conservation-related tax incentives.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has an “About Australia” section with the sub-section the “land and its people” that gives additional details about the environment, economy, and government.

By being transparent about their conservation efforts, the government seems more relatable and trustworthy to other people and organizations, which encourages these private entities to also get involved in sustainability projects because they understand that they will have government support.

Not only is Australia involved in domestic marine conservation, but the country is also a contributor to foreign conservation efforts. The Australian Government has promised to give a total of $16 million to the Pacific Ocean Littler Project over the course of 2019 to 2025, is an official partner of the Coral Triangle Initiative for Coral Reefs, Fisheries and Food Security (CTI-CFF), and is pushing for more sustainability and conservation efforts in areas of the ocean that are beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ).

According to the 2020 Environmental Performance Index (EPI), Australia was the 13th best country in regards to various environmental and sustainability factors. The United States was ranked 24th, following the term of President Donald Trump.

Australia also ranks highly on many lists of countries that care the most about environmental conservation. In U.S. News and World Report’s 2021 “Best Countries that Care the Most for the Environment” ranking, Australia ranked #9 out of 78 countries, and the United States was ranked in the bottom 10 at #71.

A common theme amongst the countries in the top 10 was the fact that their tourism industries heavily rely on their environmental sight-seeing opportunities. Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark, ranked #2, 3, 4, and 5 on the list respectively, all have many natural attractions that draw tourists: Jostedalsbreen Glacier (Sognefjord, Norway), Cliff of Mon (Denmark), and Geirangerfjord (Norway), to name a few. Topping the list was New Zealand, home to some of the most stunning natural landscapes in the world and Australia’s neighbor. Some of its most famous natural sites include Milford Sound, Lake Taupo, and Punakaiki Pancake Rocks. With most of their tourism industries, and by extension their economies, reliant on the preservation of the environment, these countries, as well as Australia, make environmental preservation a priority.

Countries who are not as environmentally conscious could lack natural tourist attractions and thus be less concerned with conservation, or their lack of environmental protection could have been what caused their natural landmarks to be destroyed. Regardless, sustainability and conservation are both vital for human physical health as well as essential parts of the global economy, meaning it is in all parties’ best interests to protect the natural world.

With the United States and President Joe Biden officially rejoining the Paris Agreement on Climate Change in February 2021, there is hope for the future of the environment, as more global leaders (such as the United States) are becoming more conscious of dire environmental threats, which can only hope to be remedied through collaboration, of countries around the world, and of public and private sectors.

By following Australia’s precedent of governmental transparency, countries can build a relationship on the foundation of trust and collaboration between the government and private individuals and groups to mutually combat climate change, preventing the loss of vital ecosystems, such as the multi-colored, natural masterpiece — the Great Barrier Reef — before they become lifeless, colorless wastelands.