Great Barrier Reef

Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef is the largest reef system on earth, stretching 2,300 kilometres along Queensland’s coast1. This iconic, international treasure is worth over five billion dollars annually to the Australian economy and generates more than 60,000 jobs23.

If the coal reserves held in the Galilee Basin are developed, they will be sold on the global market, requiring a significant increase in port capacity on the Queensland coast along with large increases in ship movements through the reef.

In order to build and expand coal ports, dredging of the sea bed is required to create channels deep enough for coal ships. Dredging involves excavation and removal of sediment from the seabed, which is then dumped at a different location. Conservationists are concerned about risks the process of dredging and dumping pose to the Great Barrier Reef’s water quality and marine habitat.

140 million tonnes of marine sediment are proposed to be dredged during port development in the Great Barrier Reef over the next decade, according to my calculations from port development plans.
Jon Brodie, Senior Principal Research Office, James Cook University

Coal ships

Coal ships. Image by Dean Sewell.

In 1981 the Great Barrier Reef was declared a World Heritage Area by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO)4. In 2012 UNESCO carried out an investigation into the Great Barrier Reef to ensure its World Heritage status was being preserved.

At that time UNESCO recommended that in order to maintain the Reef’s World Heritage status Australia should not permit any new port development in the area outside of the existing and long-established major ports areas5.

UNESCO warned Australia that the Great Barrier Reef could be listed as “World Heritage in Danger” if convincing action was not taken to actively manage the unprecedented development pressures facing the region. In 2014 UNESCO decided to defer a decision on whether to list the Great Barrier Reef as “in danger” until 20156.

UNESCO has expressed “concern” and “regret” over the Federal Government’s approval of the expanded Abbot Point coal terminal, near Bowen in north Queensland. (, 2014)

In their 2015 meeting the decision was made to place the Australian government on ‘probation’, and given until 2016 to show that its rescue plan is working and until 2019 to demonstrate it has stopped the decline of the Reef.

A 2012 study found that the Great Barrier Reef has lost half its coral since 1985, the coral killed by a combination of pesticide runoff, muddy sediment from land clearing, predatory starfish and coral bleaching7.

Coal port development poses an additional threat, including reduced water quality due to dredging, pollution from coal dust and fragments, the risk of coal ships running aground and coral bleaching as a result of global warming driven by carbon emissions from the burning of coal8.

The Queensland Government maintains its commitment to develop coal export ports and says this is consistent with its committment to helping meet Australia’s international obligations for managing the Great Barrier Reef9.

Reference and further reading:


  1. Facts about the Great Barrier Reef, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) 

  2. Outlook Report 2014, GBRMPA 

  3. Media Statement: Development pressures on Great Barrier Reef to be assessed, Queensland Government 

  4. Heritage, GBRMPA 

  5. Committee Decision 36 COM 7B.8, UNESCO WHC 

  6. Committee Decision 38 COM 7B.63, UNESCO WHC 

  7. Great Barrier Reef has lost half its coral since 1985, Washington Post 

  8. The Great Barrier Reef and the coal mine that could kill it, The Guardian 

  9. Securing the future of the Port of Abbot Point, Queensland Government