Defining the values of the ecological systems that influence the GBR and lie outside the marine park and world heritage area boundaries

Johanna Johnson

Led by: Johanna Johnson, JCU


Project Summary

The Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area (GBRWHA), globally recognised for its outstanding universal value, is an integrated and highly connected part of a larger northeast Australia marine bioregion, which includes Torres Strait, the Coral Sea and the Great Sandy Marine Park (Hervey Bay). Understanding the values (ecological, cultural, social and economic) of these adjacent systems, and especially the connections and interdependencies between systems, is crucial to effective and efficient protection and management of the globally important natural and cultural values within each system. This project will identify and assess the values of these adjacent systems, and characterise the processes and attributes that influence the values and their connectivity at a regional scale, delivering a resource that can inform cross-jurisdictional planning and management.


Project Publications
Final Report Part 1
Final Report Part 2
Summary Report


Problem Statements

The broader Great Barrier Reef region encompasses much of the Australian north-eastern marine bioregion. The region includes four major marine management areas (GBR, Torres Strait, Coral Sea, and Great Sandy Strait) that are managed under a complex jurisdictional and regulatory framework that includes Australian and Queensland government and international arrangements. However, the north-eastern marine bioregion is a complex of interconnected ecosystems containing a wide range of habitats, species and processes that extend over large distances that span multiple management areas. The values of the ecosystem, and the pressures and impacts that threaten the values are not confined within anthropogenic jurisdictions. Effective protection of biodiversity and maintenance of social, economic and cultural values requires a broader systems view that incorporates these connections and cross-jurisdictional linkages.

The need to understand and manage for connections that span jurisdictional boundaries in the Great Barrier Reef region has been recognised for some time (e.g. Brodie and Pearson 2016). When the IUCN prepared their evaluation in 1981 for the listing of the GBR on the World Heritage list, they concluded:

“The Committee should also note that the Great Barrier Reef extends beyond the northern boundary of the property nominated, and express a willingness to accept the addition of this area should it become available in the future”.

The northern boundary of the GBRWHA excludes the Torres Strait, a relatively pristine environment with an estimated 680 coral reefs (Lawrey et al. 2016), spatially extensive areas of seagrass meadows (possibly the largest in the world), the largest population of dugongs globally and globally significant green turtle feeding habitat. The Torres Strait region has one of the highest proportions of Indigenous people in Australia, who maintain strong cultural affiliations with their land and sea. To the east of the GBRWHA is the Coral Sea that is part of the same north-eastern marine ecosystem and supports seabirds, marine turtles, sharks and unique cold-water corals, including many species not found within the GBRWHA (Beaman et al. 2016, Webster et al. 2008). To the south lies the Queensland Great Sandy Marine Park (which includes Hervey Bay, Great Sandy Strait, Tin Can Bay Inlet and Cooloola to the east). The Great Sandy Marine Park is a diverse area that includes reefs, extensive seagrass meadows, the most important population of dugongs on the east coast of Australia south of Cape York, important marine turtle and seabird nesting sites, sharks and open water habitats that support migrations of marine megafauna en route to the GBRWHA.

These marine domains are connected and contain values of national and international significance. However, few of the ecological values of the adjacent areas are considered in the current Statement of Outstanding Universal Value for the GBR World Heritage Area. Each is managed under different legislation, with separate and largely independent management bodies. However, many of the values that frame the objectives of each management area are not independent or isolated, and their effective protection and management requires a coordinated approach. A better understanding of the values shared by the connected ecological systems, and the mutual dependency between adjacent systems for maintenance of key values, would help identify opportunities and benefits for cross-jurisdictional cooperation.

The values and influencing processes in some areas have been identified, for example in the Torres Strait (Fuentes et al. 2015, Johnson et al. 2015, Marsh et al. 2015, Waterhouse et al. 2014, Coppo et al. 2015), but have not been assessed in the context of links to the GBR. In other areas, such as the Coral Sea, values have been identified and characterised (e.g. Ceccarelli 2010, Edgar et al. 2015, Beaman et al 2016), while some areas have limited published information on values.

Ocean currents are known to be the major mechanism by which the values across the entire bioregion are both defined and connected, for example by facilitating dispersal of larvae and particles and the propagation of climate features (e.g. marine heat waves that cause bleaching) (Steinberg 2007, Weeks et al. 2010, Wolanski et al. 2013). While a range of research outputs have described elements of physical connectivity in components of the region (e.g. Steinberg 2007, Weeks et al. 2010, Wolanski et al. 2013, Herzfeld et al. 2016, Ganachaud et al. 2011, Sun et al. 2015), there has never been a holistic review and compilation of this existing knowledge to inform the nature of the connections that link the ecological and other values across management boundaries.

How Research Addresses Problem
Importantly, no single consistent approach or framework exists for characterising the values and the processes driving connectivity across the different marine areas, and there have been no efforts to map values and the drivers across the wider GBR region or to understand connections and interdependencies between management areas. This project will produce a compilation of knowledge to address this need, and deliver it via a platform accessible to agencies responsible for management of the values of the region. This project will deliver a product which can inform protected area management policy and planning in the GBRWHA as well as the Coral Sea, Torres Strait and Great Sandy Marine Park, and help Australia to more effectively meet its obligations as World Heritage Area managers in the region.

Alignment with NESP Research Priorities
3c) Define the values of the ecological systems of the Great Barrier Reef that lie outside of the GBR Marine Park and world heritage boundaries (e.g. Torres Strait, Hervey Bay, Coral Sea) and how their management and connectivity does or should be incorporated into GBR protected area management.


Project Keywords

Ecosystem values; Connectivity; Biologically important areas; Marine management; Cross-jurisdiction.


Project Funding

This project is jointly funded through JCU, UQ, CSIRO, AIMS and the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Programme.


Project Map

Click on a marker for larger map

Markers are not an exact position of where the research is taking place, they are only to be used as a guide to the general area in which it is being carried out.