Open Letter / The Reef Is In Danger. Pretending That It Is Not, Helps Nobody.


I’ve been asked to share my letter to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Heritage Unit about the proposed Reef “In Danger” listing.

I write to you as a person with a long history in water quality and its impact on the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) in support of the recommendation to list the site as “In Danger”.

Having been involved with farming, water quality and the reef for 30 years, I have some insight into the impact of water pollution and solutions to it. 

I was Chair of the Wet Tropics Natural Resource Management board (Terrain) from 2004 to 2014 and in that role represented the 6 natural resource management groups covering all catchments draining to the reef lagoon on the joint state and federal 2050 Reef Advisory Committee. It was during that time that the Reef 2050 Plan was written.

Since that time I have continued to work on reef water quality with farmers, science and industry in all the catchments that drain to the Great Barrier Reef.

I also sat on an independent review committee convened by WWF which gave independent advice on the adequacy of the Reef 2050 Plan.

Previous to all that, as Mayor of the Douglas Shire, in partnership with the local sugar cane industry and CSIRO, I led the first catchment water quality improvement plan, now rolled out in all catchments and updated regularly.

All politics aside, the fact is the GBR IS in danger, should be recognised as such and is long overdue.

It is not the WH committee playing politics here, it is the federal government.

The Australian Government washed its hands of water quality when it gave its last allocation of water quality money to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, in the hope it would raise the necessary funds to address water pollution.

While climate change has become the major threat to the reef, it has been water quality that did the damage to inshore and mid-shelf reefs over the last century…. until regular bleaching started.

To build resilience, and if the reef is to recover or adapt to a new climate, it needs clean water. The 2050 Plan water quality targets have not been met and agriculture in its current form is not compatible with the reef.

Agriculture could be made compatible with the GBR, if, for example, coastal ecosystem function was restored and agriculture adopted more sustainable practices. These are things Australia can do but has chosen not to. Unlike climate change, this is a problem only Australia can solve.

Alluvium, engaged by the Queensland Government, estimated the cost of meeting the 2050 Plan targets at $8.28 B (

Investment in the GBR by the Australian Government, outside its statutory management obligations has, fallen far short of this number. In my view Australians would prioritise saving the GBR well above other commitments such as $600 m for a new (and patently unnecessary) gas fired power station or the estimated $89 B for a new fleet of submarines. These numbers are quoted to demonstrate the cost of addressing catchment water pollution impacting the GBR is not lack of funds, rather that saving the reef is a lesser priority for the Australian Government.

Mike Berwick AM

Member, IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas

Low Isles reef captured , in 1929 and the same location in 1993 revealing the extent of damage to inshore and mid-shelf coral cover from poor water quality in all catchments with intensive cropping and grazing. Standing hard corals are replaced by soft coral, algae, seaweed and rubble. Image Supplied.

Footnote from author regarding tourism opposition to the “In Danger” listing

Rather than oppose the Great Barrier Reef being listed as “In Danger”, I suggest the tourism industry admit that it is in trouble, and offer visitors an opportunity to have a positive impact on climate and water quality, rather than a negative one.

There are calculators to do this so it is legitimate and accountable.

This is a better option than pretending the reef is “all good” when we all know that it isn’t.

Visitors to our World Heritage environments increasingly want meaningful nature-based experiences that demonstrably help protect the environment.


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