Despite UNESCO concerns, UN gives Australia one year to increase protections for Great Barrier Reef

Environmentalists are worried that new plans by the Australian government may soon endanger the welfare of the Great Barrier Reef. Photo by the University of Denver

Two days after the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, suggested in a report that Australia's Great Barrier Reef be listed as a "World Heritage in Danger" site, UNESCO has backed away from its suggestion, allowing the Australian government a year's time to accelerate protection of the reef. The decision by UNESCO to back off its initial suggestion of listing the reef as "in danger" comes just days after its public condemnation of the Australian government's plans to dump massive amounts of mud and rock in the area during ongoing work to expand a major coal port.

Already in danger from rising sea temperatures, water pollution and coastal development, the reef has lost more than half its coral cover over the past thirty years. Some worry that the decision in January by the government agency overseeing the reef to allow the dumping of as much as three million cubic meters of dredged up seafloor material at the site of the reef might further endanger the reef. The dredged up material is the result of an expansion to the nearby Abbot Point, a coal port in the state of Queensland that sits adjacent to the reef.

Proponents of the coal port expansion dismiss the environmental concerns, stating that while the dredged material would be dumped within the world heritage area of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, it would be dumped on a sandy seabed about 25 miles away from the nearest offshore reef. They also point to the economic potential of expanding Abbot Point, saying that by establishing one of the world's largest coal ports in Australia, they will be securing as much as $26 billion in coal-developing projects.

Environmentalists, however, are less enthused. They are worried that the dredge spoil will be fine sentiment that, despite being dumped some 25 miles away, will hang in the water and be carried by the currents to the reef.

UNESCO said the dumping of sludge was approved without investigation into less–damaging dumping methods. "This is of particular concern given evidence suggesting that the inshore reefs in the southern two-thirds of the property are not recovering from disturbances over the past few decades," UNESCO said in the report. Successive reports from scientific groups like the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Australian Institute of Marine Science have warned of mounting damage to the Great Barrier Reef.

The reef, which straddles the country's northeast coast, is a huge tourism draw; its network of about 3,000 reefs and 900 coral islands generates millions of tourists and an estimated $5.4 billion each year from tourism and recreation. It hosts 400 varieties of coral, 1,500 types of fish, rare snub-fin dolphins and a number of turtle species threatened with extinction. It is also the only living organism visible from outer space.

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