SYDNEY: Australia welcomed a draft decision by the United Nations to keep the Great Barrier Reef off its endangered list Saturday, but environmentalists warned of ongoing risks to the natural wonder.
Climate change, farming run-off and development have threatened the world’s biggest coral reef ecosystem, stoking fears the World Heritage Site could be formally listed as “in danger”.
But in a preliminary recommendation released on Friday, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) appears to have saved Australia this embarrassment.
“This is a fair draft decision and we hope that it’s adopted,” Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told reporters in Perth, adding that Australia was very proud of the Great Barrier Reef and the efforts to protect it.
The Great Barrier Reef will remain under surveillance but not be listed as endangered, the draft recommendation to the UN’s World Heritage Committee said.
“The overall outlook is poor,” the document said of the reef, citing climate change, poor water quality and the impact of coastal development as the major threats to its health.
“Key habitats, species and ecosystem processes in the central and southern inshore areas have continued to deteriorate from the cumulative effects of these impacts,” it added.
But the draft also welcomed the Australian government’s 35-year plan to protect the national icon and major tourism drawcard and called on it “to rigorously implement all of its commitments” under the so-called Reef 2050 Long-term Sustainability Plan. Australia must also submit a progress report by December 2016.
Environment Minister Greg Hunt said Australia’s efforts had been recognized, including a recent ban applying to most of the reef on the century-old practice of dumping dredge waste — which conservationists says smothers corals and seagrasses.
“The world has recognized that Australia has made huge steps in the last 12 months. More to be done, but this is a good result for the reef, it’s a good result for Australia,” he said.
Hunt said “in terms of the international response, this is an overwhelming endorsement”, adding that long-term international scrutiny was valuable.
Queensland state, the gateway to the reef, also welcomed the draft decision which comes after it promised to introduce laws to limit port development on the reef.
State Environment Minister Steven Miles said the plan for the reef would help turn around a long-term decline which had been hastened by cyclones, coral bleaching and the coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish.
But environmental group Greenpeace said the UN draft recommendation was a “red flag” about concerns to the reef, which runs along Australia’s resource-rich north east coast.
“UNESCO is recognizing that the reef is under threat,” the group’s Shani Tager told AFP.
“While is it not on the in danger list, they are very clearly still looking at what’s going on.”
Tager said the Australian government could not talk about conserving the reef at the same time as is was also expanding coal and port developments on the Great Barrier Reef coast.
“We’ve lost 50 percent of the coral cover in the last 30 years and climate change is a massive threat to its future,” she said.
Greens senators Larissa Waters accused the state and federal governments of attempting to “turn the reef into a highway for climate-destroying coal”.
WWF-Australia said UNESCO had placed Australia “on probation”.
“The Australian and Queensland governments must now deliver on their promises to better protect the reef,” chief executive Dermot O’Gorman said.
The reef covers a 348,000 square kilometer area and contains some 2,500 individual reefs, providing some of the world’s most spectacular maritime scenery and one of the richest ecosystems for fish, birds, crustaceans and other wildlife.
The draft recommendation will be put to UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee, which determines whether natural, cultural and historical sites should be included in its list and monitors their state of conservation, at its next session which begins in Bonn on June 28.