Using climate science to plan for sustainable use of the Great Barrier Reef

Jessi Kershner Rachel M. Gregg
Posted on: 2/26/2017 - Updated on: 6/18/2021

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Rachel Gregg

Project Summary

The Great Barrier Reef (GBR) Marine Park Zoning Plan is the primary planning vehicle for conservation and management of the GBR Marine Park. Management is shared between the Australian and Queensland governments, and day-to-day operations are overseen by the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service. The Zoning Plan aims to protect and conserve the biodiversity of the GBR ecosystem within a network of highly protected zones and provide opportunities for the ecologically sustainable use of, and access to, the reef. The Zoning Plan identifies eight zones: (1) general use zone; (2) habitat protection zone; (3) conservation park zone; (4) buffer zone; (5) scientific research zone; (6) marine national park zone; (7) preservation zone; and (8) commonwealth islands zone. The Zoning Plan also provides for three kinds of Designated Areas within zoned areas: shipping areas, special management areas, and fisheries experimental areas.

Climate change is not included in the actual GBR Zoning Plan. However in 2007, the GBR Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) conducted an extensive climate change vulnerability assessment of species, species groups, and habitats of the GBR. For each group, they identified key sources of vulnerability, consequences, and possible management responses. The information generated through this process was used to guide the development of the Climate Change Action Plan 2007-2012, which allowed for more concrete actions to be incorporated into GBR spatial plans (Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority 2007). While the Action Plan pertains to more than just the GBR Zoning Plan, several strategies within the Action Plan are specifically aimed towards incorporating climate change into the Zoning Plan with respect to mapping resilience, mapping refugia, and using climate information to evaluate and prioritize potentially conflicting uses:

  1. Mapping resilience: The GBRMPA has initiated several resilience-mapping projects (such as the mapping of coral, seabird, and turtle resilience) that will help to identify transition or alternative habitats that may accommodate potential shifts in the distribution and abundance of species and habitats affected by climate change. The GBRMPA implemented a pilot project for the reefs of Keppel Bay to help increase the resilience of the area with respect to future impacts from climate change and other disturbances, such as anchoring. Thirty-one sites were assessed as part of this project, and an individual profile or health assessment was carried out at each site. The individual profile described the current level of resilience (low, medium, high), level of management influence (how much the site will benefit from management actions such as implementing No Anchoring Areas), habitat type, and current zoning for the area. Four sites – Humpy and Barren Islands, and Big Peninsula and Monkey Beach on Great Keppel Island – were selected based on the following criteria: low to medium resilience, high levels of anchor damage, high public usage, and high accessibility for managers (Beeden et al. 2014). This information is being used to target management strategies to sites based on their resilience potential. For example, reefs with a low resilience ranking are given a chance to recover (e.g., by changing the level of management influence) and sites with high resilience are protected. This case study has provided the foundation for a reef-wide resilience mapping strategy in the Marine Park.
  2. Mapping refugia: While the current Zoning Plan protects ~33% of the GBR Marine Park from extractive uses, the vulnerability assessment highlighted the importance of ensuring that these highly protected areas overlap with the location of climate refugia or areas that are likely to maintain more stable climate conditions over time. Identifying potential climate refugia within the GBR and ensuring their protection from other stressors (e.g., tourism, water quality) was identified as a key focus of future research efforts and zoning reviews.
  3. Using climate information to evaluate and prioritize use: Efforts are also underway by the GBRMPA to prioritize species and habitats that are highly vulnerable to climate change for protection from non-climate pressures (e.g., physical damage, human disturbance, coastal development). Current vulnerability assessments include freshwater wetlands, seagrass, shorebirds and seabirds, sharks and rays, marine turtles, bony fish, dwarf minke whale, humpback whale, inshore dolphins, sea snakes, and sawfish.

In 2012, the Climate Change Adaptation Strategy and Action Plan (2012-2017) was released, which builds upon the outcomes and lessons learned from the 2007-2012 Action Plan (Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority 2012). The Adaptation Strategy uses key ecosystem-based management principles to guide its implementation, including focusing on reducing non-climate stressors, involving local communities and partners, building on existing good practices in natural resource management, and implementing adaptive management techniques.


Kershner, J. & R.M. Gregg. 2017. Using climate science to plan for sustainable use of the Great Barrier Reef. Summary of a project of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. Retrieved from CAKE:… (Last updated February 2017)

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The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is responsible for managing the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park so it's protected for the future.

Our work is guided by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975, Corporate Plan, Australian Government policies, Portfolio Budget Statement, Outlook Report and government priorities.

We use the best available scientific information to guide us, and engage with experts and the community. This includes four Reef Advisory Committees and 11 Local Marine Advisory Committees.


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