Morrison government announces $1bn pledge for Great Barrier Reef over the next decade

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Lucas Jackson/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Lucas Jackson/Reuters

A re-elected Coalition would pour $1bn into Great Barrier Reef conservation projects over the next decade, the government says, just months after campaigning to prevent the reef being listed as “in danger” by the world heritage committee.

The announcement, to be made by the prime minister, Scott Morrison, in north Queensland on Friday, comes a fortnight after Labor pledged $163m to protect the natural wonder. It highlights the reef as a key election fight in the Cairns electorate of Leichhardt.

The funding pledge arrives just days before Australia is due to send a report to Unesco about the state of the reef and its plans to protect it, before a critical meeting of the world heritage committee scheduled for July in Russia.

Related: ‘Dancing through the water’: rare sighting of blanket octopus in Great Barrier Reef

Morrison said: “Funding will support scientists, farmers and traditional owners, backing in the very latest marine science while building resilience and reducing threats from pollution in our oceans, and predators such as the crown-of-thorns starfish.”

Billed by the government as the “single largest investment” in the reef, the nine-year investment includes more than half a billion dollars for water quality, covering work on erosion, land condition, and reducing runoff of pesticides and nutrients. Another $253m will specifically address reef management and conservation, including work from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to combat crown-of-thorns starfish and prevent illegal fishing.

Other funds will go towards reef health monitoring systems and research into reef resilience, and $74.4m will target habitat restoration, marine debris and species protection in programs led by traditional owners and community groups.

The government said its proposal would almost double the number of areas to be protected from crown-of-thorns starfish, from 253 to 500 reefs, as well as encouraging local farmers to improve land management to reduce agricultural runoff into the ocean.

“This is already the best managed reef in the world and today we take our commitment to a new level,” Morrison said, ahead of the official announcement in Cairns on Friday.

The new policy is in addition to the government’s previously announced $2bn for the Reef 2050 plan. On top of its environmental benefits, Morrison painted the announcement as reinforcement for the 64,000 jobs and $6.4bn in tourism revenue supported by the reef.

“From breakthrough science in coral seeding and restoration to improved water quality, the latest on water management and compliance systems, as well as the protection of native species, we are working across every aspect of the reef,” the environment minister, Sussan Ley, said.

“Our farmers, tourism operators and fishers are our reef champions and we are supporting them through practical water- and land-based strategies that will contribute significantly to the health of the reef.”

Ley and the government’s marine science experts agree the greatest threat to the world’s biggest coral reef system is climate change.

The 2,300km reef has seen five mass bleaching events – in 1998, 2002, 2016, 2017 and 2020 – all caused by rising ocean temperatures driven by global heating.

Related: Australian government’s plan to protect Great Barrier Reef falls short, environment groups say

In December the government released the first revision in five years of its cornerstone reef conservation policy, the Reef 2050 plan.

Conservationists said the plan was flawed because it was linked to the Morrison government’s inadequate greenhouse gas reduction targets.

But they also said more funding and action was needed to improve water quality and address unsustainable and illegal fishing.

Before Christmas, Labor said it would adopt a target to cut emissions by 43% by 2030 based on 2005 levels – slightly lower than the 45% target it took to the 2019 election but higher than the Morrison government’s target of a 26-28% cut.

Last year UN science advisers recommended the reef be placed on the world heritage “in danger” list – the first time any site had been recommended for the listing primarily because of the impacts of climate change.

After a strong protest from the federal government, including dispatching Ley on a private jet to personally lobby world heritage committee members around the world, the reef was not given the listing.

But the committee asked Australia to submit a report by 1 February this year on the reef’s condition and the steps taken to protect it.

A monitoring mission to be led by Unesco experts is also due to be held in the first half of this year before the world heritage committee considers again whether to put the reef on its list of sites “in danger” at its next meeting in July.

The Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, committed $163m to the Great Barrier Reef during a trip to Cairns earlier this month. The opposition proposed $85m for “shovel-ready” reef protection projects, $63m to expand the Reef 2050 plan, and $15m for reef research.

“We need to make sure that the reef is kept off the endangered list of the world heritage listing,” Albanese said.

Veteran Liberal National party MP Warren Entsch is the government’s special envoy for the reef. He held the seat of Leichhardt at the 2019 election by a 54-46% margin against Labor candidate Elida Faith, who will challenge for the seat again this year.

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