Defining, assessing and monitoring Great Barrier Reef aesthetics

Nadine Marshall

Led by: Dr Nadine Marshall, CSIRO


Project Summary

A key criteria for inscription of the Great Barrier Reef as a World Heritage Area is Criteria (VII) – exceptional natural beauty & aesthetic importance. Our project will work across social and ecological disciplines to identify, for the first time, indicators that will enable managers to measure and monitor aesthetic values for the GBRWHA. The outcomes will enable managers to predict and minimize aesthetic impacts below, at and above the water within the World Heritage Area, support implementation of the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan and improve decision processes relating to approvals, impact assessment, strategic planning, incident response and policy development. The indicators will be additionally tested using Artificial Intelligence via project 3.2.3.


Project Publications
Final Report
Media Release
Journal Article


Project Video


Problem Statements


The research will address the need to develop robust and practical indicators of Reef aesthetics so that Reef managers and decision makers can assess and report on the condition and trend in key values that underpin World Heritage listing and community benefits.

In this project we will develop indicators to enable Reef managers to report on condition and trend of aesthetic values within the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. This will be done through the following key steps:

(i) Through a review of the literature we will describe the factors that typically describe aesthetic qualities and their importance in the lives of people. We will determine how these relate to the ecological health of the Great Barrier Reef environment. Building on insights from the Reef Socio-Economic Long Term Monitoring Program, we will evaluate the role of Reef aesthetics among Reef residents and visitors and its influence in providing well-being (literature review).

(ii) In collaboration with Reef managers and monitoring experts, and researchers in Project 3.2.3 and through a series of focus groups targeting members of the public, we will develop a list of priority indicators distinctively describing Reef aesthetics that are suitable for incorporation into existing Reef monitoring programs (qualitative study).

(iii) An experiential quantitative survey of around 250 residents and visitors using photographs below, at and above the waterline will enable us to test and rank the factors most heavily conferring aesthetic qualities within the Great Barrier Reef (identified through the qualitative study) and establish the link between aesthetic qualities and Reef health (quantitative study). Photos from the survey will link with Project 3.2.3 for maximum benefit.

(iv) Through integrative social-ecological research, research synthesis and expert workshops, we will develop a conceptual model linking biophysical attributes of the Reef to aesthetic values to inform advice on adaptation of expert and citizen science monitoring programs (expert workshop).

(v) We will produce guidance to assist Reef managers to interpret indicators of Reef aesthetics, and to report on condition and trend in Reef aesthetics. We will work with partners in state and federal government agencies to increase the capacity of Reef managers to integrate information on Reef aesthetics into decision processes relating to approvals, impact assessment, strategic planning, incident response and policy development (powerful engagement).

The Great Barrier Reef was inscribed on the World Heritage list 1975 for its Outstanding Universal Value. One of the key criteria for listing was Criteria (VII) – exceptional natural beauty & aesthetic importance. In 2012, a World Heritage Centre/IUCN monitoring mission reported that the property’s aesthetic values were less well understood than other aspects. The Committee recommended that ‘further work is needed in relation to identifying and documenting the attributes related to the aesthetic values of the property’. A subsequent review by the Department of the Environment recommended development of a set of guidelines for Reef managers and development proponents to assess and monitor the aesthetic quality of the Reef.

Identifying the factors that best describe Reef aesthetics is not only critical to Australia’s international obligations; it is also important for protecting some of the values most important to Reef stakeholders. Results from 9,000 SELTMP surveys in 2013 found that “beautiful” was one of the top three words that came to mind when thinking of the Great Barrier Reef. Indeed, the aesthetic appeal of the Great Barrier Reef was rated above all other values, even higher than economic values. Nearly all tourists visiting the Reef (95%) believed that the aesthetic beauty of the Reef was outstanding. Yet, despite the importance of natural beauty and aesthetic importance to the management of the Reef, and to Australia’s ability to report on its obligations as managers of the Reef World Heritage property, there is currently no method for measuring and reporting on condition and trend in these values. Understanding the aesthetics is critical to delivery of key actions under the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan (such as those that address community benefits derived from the Reef (CBA5).

Beauty and aesthetics are subjective, but can be quantified using standard social science techniques. We can quantify the biophysical attributes of a place and the knowledge, experience and values of the observer. That is, aesthetic assessments essentially represent human responses to visual cues about Reef health (e.g. a preference for diversity in shape, colour and sizes, combined with water clarity, may equate with Reef biodiversity). Understanding the factors that indicate aesthetic quality and Reef health, and how they interact, are key to developing effective and efficient indicators of aesthetic value that can be assessed and monitored through time. That is, establishing the link between Reef health and Reef aesthetics will enable us to identify potential efficiencies in the coordinated approach to Reef monitoring (within the RIMReP framework), and will enable synergies between expert and citizen science monitoring programs to be captured.

While there have been attempts to develop aesthetic indicators in other contexts, we suggest that our unique team comprising social scientists with expertise in the Reef, ecologists and earth scientists with specialized experience in Reef mapping, health and monitoring program development and experts familiar with coral reef management will enable us to develop an innovative and practical approach to measuring aesthetic properties of coral reefs. Our experience with Reef monitoring (social and ecological) will enable us to develop indicators that can be readily incorporated into existing monitoring programs, and built into the Reef 2050 Integrated Monitoring and Reporting Program (RIMReP), which is currently under development.

How Research Addresses Problem
Through providing a clear definition, description and packaging of the attributes that determine aesthetic quality in the Great Barrier Reef, and how they relate to Reef health, we will help Reef managers to:

– Monitor and manage the values of the Reef that underpin Criterion VII;

– Meet World Heritage reporting requirements;

– Achieve key objectives in the Reef 2050 LTSP, and;

– Incorporate aesthetic values and related social values into RIMReP to inform decisions relating to Reef management, including approvals, impact assessment, policy development and strategic planning.

Alignment with NESP Research Priorities
The project will address priority 2b): Development of a method to be adopted by the Reef 2050 Integrated Monitoring and Reporting Program (RIMReP) to monitor and assess aesthetics in the GBRWHA. Define/determine how these relate to the ecological health of the Great Barrier Reef environment.


Project Keywords

Community benefits; Sense of place; Aesthetics; Culture; Recreation; Tourism.


Project Funding

This project is jointly funded through CSIRO, Reef Ecologic, GBRMPA and the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Programme.


Project Map

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