Australia (Great Barrier Reef)


Great Barrier Reef Marine Park


One of the earliest and best-known examples of marine zoning is Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (GBRMP), off the northeastern coast of Australia, encompassing and stretching along 2,300 km of coastline, one of the world’s richest and most diverse marine ecosystems. The area of the GBRMP is approximately 344,400 km2, making it one of the largest marine protected areas in the world.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act of 1975 established the GBRMP. The overall goal of the GBRMP Authority is “ provide for the long-term protection, ecologically sustainable use, understanding and enjoyment of the Great Barrier Reef through the care and development of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.”

The perception that the Great Barrier Reef was degrading was a fundamental driver in the process of establishing the marine park in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Main threats included oil drilling and limestone mining, pollution from shipping, land-based sources of pollution, and increased fishing and tourism activity.

Spatial planning and zoning, considered as the cornerstones of the management strategy for the protection of the Great Barrier Reef, were established to: (a) maintain the biological diversity and ecological systems that create the Great Barrier Reef; (b) manage the impacts of increasing recreation and expanding tourist industry; (c) manage effects of recreational and commercial fishing; and (d) manage impacts of risks of land-based pollution and shipping.

Plans of management have been prepared for intensively used, or particularly vulnerable groups of islands and reefs, and for the protection of vulnerable species or ecological communities. Plans of management complement zoning by addressing issues specific to an area, species, or community in greater detail than can be accomplished by the broader reef-wide zoning plans. A permit system is used to implement the zoning plans.

Spatial management in the GBRMP is based on eight zones, ranging from the least restrictive “general use zone” in which shipping and most commercial fishing are allowed, to the most restrictive “preservation zone” where virtually no use is permitted. The initial zoning plans and regulations, implemented sequentially in four sections of the GBRMP from 1981-87, evolved and changed considerably in response to the dynamic nature of both the marine environment and perceived effectiveness of the plans. About 4.5% of the GBRMP was designated as “no-take areas”. When in the late 1990’s monitoring results showed that ecosystem protection goals were not being achieved, an extensive “re-zoning” process, the Representative Areas Program (1998-2003), increased the no-take areas, up to about a third of the entire area of the GBRMP.

One of the recommendations of a 2006 governmental review of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act of 1975 was the preparation of an “Outlook Report” every five years that will document the overall condition of the GBRMP, the effectiveness of management, and the pressures on the ecosystem. The Outlook Report has been an important contribution in the consideration of any future changes to zoning plans. However, the Australian government has indicated that the existing Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Zoning Plan 2003 would not be amended until it has been in operation for at least seven years to provide stability for business, communities, and biological systems. The first seven-year period ended in 2011.

Although few parallels can be drawn between the contexts and associated challenges of the GBRMP and the densely-used areas such as the Baltic Sea, the North Sea, and numerous other places in Europe, Asia and North America, some important lessons can be learned about the process of integrated sea use management and marine spatial planning from the experience of the GBRMP.

Its long-standing experience illustrates the need to conduct marine spatial management in a continuous manner, one that allows monitoring and evaluating initial plans and adapting them to changing circumstances. It also shows that stakeholder involvement and sustainable financing are critical to successful outcomes of marine spatial management over time.


Key elements of Marine Spatial Planning in the Great Barrier Reef


Authority: Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act of 1975
Lead Planning Agency: Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority
Financing: The annual budget of the GBRMPA is about AUS$ 50 million.
Size of Planning Area: 344,400 km2
Time required to complete the plan: Initial zoning plans, initiated in four sections, were developed between 1981-87; rezoning of the entire GBRMP was completed between 1998-2004 
Drivers of MSP: Original concerns in 1970s about phosphate mining and oil and gas exploration on the Great Barrier Reef, overfishing, and anticipated declines in environmental quality; current concerns about climate change and the cumulative effects of coastal development and port expansions to accommodate coal and gas exports to China and India
Stakeholder participation: Limited in original zoning plan, but extensive in the “re-zoning” planning process (1998-2004)
Sectors included in planning: All
Relation to coastal management: Problematic in early years, but improved significantly because of need to deal with effects of agricultural runoff; faces ongoing challenges due to jurisdictional divides between federal and state governments
Relation to marine protected area management: The GBRMPA is the acknowledged “gold standard” of MPA management
Plan approval: Statutory review of re-zoning plan completed in both houses of Parliament in 2004
Legal Status of Plan: No overall comprehensive management plan for GBRMP has been developed since it was established; a 25-year Strategic Plan developed in 1994 has been largely ignored; zoning plan is regulatory and enforceable
Plan revision: The key recommendation from a 2012 UNESCO World Heritage Centre mission to inspect the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage site and a subsequent decision that was adopted at the World Heritage Committee meeting in June 2012 is for a comprehensive Strategic Environmental Assessment to be undertaken and completed by 2015, after which a new strategic plan will be implemented
Performance monitoring and evaluation: Major research and monitoring activities to measure and evaluate the ecological effects of the Representative Areas Programme




For further information go to the website of the Great Barrier Marine Park Authority.
Additional reading is also available on the references page of this website.


Additional readings


Lawrence D., Kenchington R., and Woodley S. 2002. The Great Barrier Reef: Finding the Right Balance. Melbourne University Press: Victoria, Australia.



Last updated: 12 April 2016