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Great Barrier Reef-wide summary

The overall condition of the inshore reef remained poor in 2011–2012 and 2012–2013. Inshore water quality was poor in 2011–2012 and 2012–2013 and varied from moderate to poor depending on the region. Inshore seagrass showed signs of recovery in some regions and improved from very poor in 2011–2012 to poor in 2012–2013. Inshore coral reefs remained in poor condition in 2012–2013 with reefs in the Wet Tropics region declining from moderate to poor and reefs in the Fitzroy region declining from poor to very poor. However, there was improved coral recruitment in the Wet Tropics and Burdekin regions in 2012–2013. Pesticides were detected year round at all sites in the reef in 2011–2012 and 2012–2013, except for Cape York.

Great Barrier Reef marine condition graph

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Great Barrier Reef snapshot

A standardised scoring system was developed for each of the key indicators in the report card. The scoring system is used to assess and communicate progress towards the management practice and catchment targets as well as current marine condition using the following categories:

Results—colour coding
Very goodGoodModerate
PoorVery Poor 

Management practices

Grazing Sugarcane Horticulture
Proportion of graziers who adopted improved practices between 2009 and 2013.
Target: 50 per cent by 2013
Proportion of growers who adopted improved practices between 2009 and 2013.
Target: 80 per cent by 2013
Proportion of producers who adopted improved practices between 2009 and 2013.
Target: 80 per cent by 2013
Grazing 30% Sugarcane 49% Horticulture 59%

Catchment indicators

Groundcover Nitrogen Sediment Pesticides
Late dry season
groundcover as
at 2012–2013.
Target: 50 per cent by 2013.
Reduction in
annual average
total nitrogen
load between
2009 and 2013.
Target: 50 per cent
Reduction in
annual average
sediment load
between 2009
and 2013.
Target: 20 per cent by 2020
Reduction in
annual average
pesticide load
between 2009
and 2013.
Target: 50 per cent by 2013
Groundcover 84% Nitrogen 10% Sediment 11% Pesticides 28%

Management Practices

Grazing

Grazing 30% - Moderate resultTarget: 50 per cent by 2013.
From 2009 to 2013, 30 per cent of graziers (2,548) are known to have adopted improved land management practices, up from 24 per cent (2,043) to June 2012. The greatest adoption of improved practices by June 2013 was in the Mackay Whitsunday region (69 per cent).

There are 8,545 graziers managing 322,891 square kilometres of land across the Great Barrier Reef catchment.

By June 2013, 70 per cent of graziers were using (A or B) management systems that are likely to maintain land in good to very good condition or improve land in lesser condition, up from 65 per cent in June 2012.

Graph data (.csv, 1KB)

Major sources of adoption of improved practices during the period from 2008-2009 to 2012-2013 were:

  • Regional Natural Resource Management bodies, through the Reef Rescue program, facilitated management system improvements by providing incentives and training to 1,433 grazing businesses.
  • Extension services provided by the Queensland Government influenced management practice improvements in at least 448 grazing businesses.
  • The Australian Government's FarmReady program has been an important contributor to services in the grazing industry, through subsidising the cost (with a cap) of training provided by registered private consultants and training firms. An estimated 591 graziers adopted improved practices through training directly relevant to Reef Plan objectives with the support of the Australian Government's FarmReady program.

Sugarcane

Sugarcane 49% - Moderate resultTarget: 80 per cent by 2013.
From 2009 to 2013, 49 per cent of sugarcane growers (1,857) are known to have adopted improved land management practices, up from 41 per cent (1,559) to June 2012. The greatest adoption of improved practices by June 2013 was in the Burdekin and Burnett Mary regions (55 per cent).

There are 3,777 sugarcane growers managing 4,032 square kilometres of land across the Great Barrier Reef catchment.

By June 2013, cutting-edge (A) or best management (B) practice systems were used by 50 per cent of sugarcane growers for nutrients, 34 per cent for herbicides and 25 per cent for soil. This was up from 47 per cent for nutrients, 31 per cent for herbicides and 22per cent for soil in June 2012.

Graph data (.csv, 1KB)

Major sources of adoption during the period from 2008-2009 to 2012-2013 were:

  • Regional Natural Resource Management bodies, through the Reef Rescue program, directly facilitated management system improvements in 1,810 sugarcane growing businesses, and over 185,000 hectares of sugarcane farming land.
  • A total of 1,098 businesses improved nutrient management systems through grants and extension funded by the Reef Rescue program.
  • A total of 761 businesses improved herbicide management systems.
  • A total of 865 sugarcane businesses improved soil management systems.

Horticulture

Horticulture - 59% - Moderate resultTarget: 80 per cent by 2013.
From 2009 to 2013, 59 per cent of horticulture producers (568) are known to have adopted improved land management practices, up from 50 per cent (482) to June 2012. The adoption rate varied across regions and ranged from moderate to good.

There are 970 horticulture producers managing 595 square kilometres of land across the Great Barrier Reef catchment.

By June 2013, cutting-edge (A) or best management (B) systems were used by 53 per cent of horticulture producers for nutrients, 80 per cent for herbicides and 76 per cent for soil.

All 568 horticulture producers implemented improved practices with the support of Reef Rescue Water Quality Grants, facilitated by regional Natural Resource Management bodies and the Growcom Farm Management System (FMS) program. Of these, 198 completed nutrient management projects, 72 completed herbicide management projects, 144 completed soil management projects and 69 completed irrigation and stormwater runoff projects.

Graph data (.csv, 1KB)

Industry-wide management system adoption is estimated using the proportions established through the Growcom FMS in each region, and expressed as the percentage of growers with A, B, C or D management systems.

It is important to note that the level of grower participation in the program has increased year by year. As the proportion of the grower population represented in the program increases, so the distribution of A, B, C or D management systems changes over time as a reflection of the larger and more representative sample size. Early participants in the program have often been relatively progressive landholders, and this is apparent in terms of relatively high proportions of A and B in the management system distribution in early years. Increasing program participation over time can have the effect of diluting the percentage of growers in the A and B categories over time. This is not to be seen as a regression of farm management systems.

Dairy

Dairy 74% - Good resultTarget: 80 per cent by 2013.
From 2009 to 2013, 74 per cent of dairy producers (154) are known to have adopted improved land management practices, up from 59 per cent (123) to June 2012.

There are 207 dairy producers across the Great Barrier Reef catchment, with the vast majority in the Burnett Mary and Wet Tropics regions.

Evidenced drivers of management practice change included:

  • 96 producers completed and acted upon Soil and Nutrient Management Plans facilitated by the Queensland Dairyfarmers' Organisation (QDO) Dairying Better n' Better program
  • 58 producers completed on-farm projects with the assistance of Reef Rescue Water Quality grants facilitated by Burnett Mary Regional Group (26) and Terrain Natural Resource Management (32)
  • 78 producers implemented improved practices as a result of engagement with the Queensland Government's Rural Water Use Efficiency (RWUE) program's On Farm System Assessment initiative. The RWUE program's Financial Assistance Scheme assisted a further 37 producers to adopt improved management practices.

Catchment indicators

Groundcover

Groundcover 84% - Very good resultTarget: 50 per cent by 2013.
Late dry season mean groundcover across grazing lands was high (86 per cent by June 2012 and 84 per cent by June 2013), well above the Reef Plan target of 50 per cent, mostly due to high rainfall over recent years. The 26-year mean groundcover was 78 per cent.

All reporting regions had mean groundcover levels well above the target in 2012 and 2013. These ranged from a low of 82 per cent in the Burdekin to a high of 94 per cent in the Wet Tropics by June 2013.

Groundcover results for the Great Barrier Reef catchment and regions
Region 26-year mean groundcover (%) 2012 mean groundcover (%) 2013 mean groundcover (%) Area with less than 50% groundcover averaged over past 26 years (%) Area with less than 50% groundcover in 2012 (%) Area with less than 50% groundcover in 2013 (%)
Wet Tropics – Herbert catchment only 89 92 94 0.9 0.3 0.2
Mackay Whitsunday 88 90 91 1.2 0.6 1.1
Burdekin 76 86 82 7.9 0.4 1.1
Fitzroy 79 84 84 3.3 0.5 0.7
Burnett Mary 85 89 92 0.9 0.3 0.2
Total Great Barrier Reef 78 86 84 4.9 0.4 0.8

Groundcover changes over time

The 2012 and 2013 mean groundcover levels exceeded the long-term (26-year) mean of 78 per cent. This resulted in a very low proportion of the catchment's grazing land being below 50 per cent groundcover (0.4 per cent by June 2012 and 0.8 per cent by June 2013). This corresponds with generally above mean annual rainfall in the past five years. The 26-year mean of 4.9 per cent of the area being below 50 per cent groundcover was inflated by some particularly high years in the mid-1990s when significant areas were affected by severe drought. The years with the lowest groundcover were 1994 to 1996, and 2004. During these years, groundcover was less than 70 per cent and the percentage of area with mean groundcover below 50 per cent ranged from 13 to 16 per cent. There was also low mean annual rainfall in the preceding years.

The 2012 and 2013 mean groundcover levels across the Great Barrier Reef catchment were slightly lower than the highest levels over the past 26 years. Mean annual rainfall in 2013 was below the 26-year mean for all regions with the exception of the Burnett Mary region. Large parts of western Queensland were drought declared during 2013 including some areas of the Burdekin and Fitzroy regions. Generally drier conditions across the Great Barrier Reef catchment area led to reductions in mean groundcover levels, although the localised effects may have been more pronounced for some areas.

Graph data (.csv, 2KB)

Graph data (.csv, 1KB)

Regions with high mean annual rainfall generally have consistently high levels of groundcover. For example, the Mackay Whitsunday, Wet Tropics and Burnett Mary regions had mean groundcover greater than 85 per cent over the past 26 years. In addition, the area with mean groundcover below 50 per cent for these regions has been below 1.2 per cent for the entire monitoring period. In comparison, regions with lower, more variable annual rainfall (e.g. Fitzroy and Burdekin) show greater variability in groundcover. In the Burdekin region for example, the mean annual rainfall in 1994 was 457 millimetres and mean groundcover was 61 per cent. This contrasts with 2010 when mean annual rainfall was 1292 millimetres and mean groundcover levels were 91 per cent.

Graph data (.csv, 1KB)


Catchment pollutant loads

Catchment modelling has been used to estimate the long term annual load reductions due to the adoption of improved management practices. The model is run over a fixed climate period to account for climate variability.

Nitrogen

Nitrogen 10% - Very poor resultTarget: 50 per cent by 2013.
The estimated annual average total nitrogen load leaving catchments reduced by 10 per cent (1646 tonnes) by June 2013, up from eight per cent (1279 tonnes) by June 2012. The greatest reduction (17 per cent) was from the Mackay Whitsunday region with 302 tonnes by June 2013.

Graph data (.csv, 1KB)

  • Agricultural fertiliser use is a key source of dissolved inorganic nitrogen. The estimated annual average dissolved inorganic nitrogen load leaving catchments reduced by 16 per cent (856 tonnes) by June 2013, up from 14 per cent (719 tonnes) by June 2012.
  • The greatest per cent dissolved inorganic nitrogen load reduction (31 per cent) by June 2013 was in the Burnett Mary region with 134 tonnes.

Graph data (.csv, 1KB)

Note: Dissolved inorganic nitrogen reductions are only modelled for regions with significant sugarcane areas.

Phosphorus

Phosphorus 13% - Poor resultTarget: 50 per cent by 2013.
Grazing lands are the key source of phosphorus. The estimated average annual total phosphorus load leaving catchments reduced by 13 per cent (444 tonnes) by June 2013, up from eight per cent (290 tonnes) by June 2012. The greatest reduction was from the Wet Tropics region with 19 per cent (189 tonnes) by June 2013.

Sediment

Sediment 11% - Very good resultTarget: 20 per cent by 2020.
The estimated average annual suspended sediment load leaving catchments reduced by 11 per cent (615,100 tonnes) by June 2013, up from eight per cent (424,100 tonnes) by June 2012. This is more than halfway towards the Reef Plan 2009 sediment target. The greatest reduction was from the Burdekin region with 16 per cent (399,000 tonnes) by June 2013.

The regions contributing the highest total suspended sediment loads by June 2013 were the two largest catchments which are dominated by grazing - the Burdekin and the Fitzroy.

Graph data (.csv, 1KB)

Pesticides

Pesticides 28% - Moderate resultTarget: 50 per cent by 2013.
Agricultural lands are a key source of pesticide runoff, particularly from areas of intensive sugarcane. The estimated annual average pesticide load leaving catchments reduced by 28 per cent (4626 kilograms) by June 2013, up from 20 per cent (3267 kilograms) by June 2012. This is more than halfway towards the Reef Plan 2009 target. The greatest reduction was from the Mackay Whitsunday region with 42 per cent (1672 kilograms) by June 2013. The large reductions can be attributed to the shift from C class management to B and A class management practices over the past three years.

Graph data (.csv, 1KB)

Note: No pesticide management data is available for Cape York.


Marine

Water quality at mid and outer shelf sites is generally good to very good overall because it is less directly influenced by river discharges.

Improvements in land management practices will take time to translate into improved marine condition as there are significant time lags between implementation and measurable outcomes in these natural systems. Inshore marine condition is also strongly influenced by episodic events such as tropical cyclones and floods which have impacted all regions in recent years.

Confidence in the marine results for Cape York and the Burnett Mary remains low due to limited data availability and validation. Consequently data from these regions are not used in the Great Barrier Reef-wide assessment.

Water quality

Inshore water quality (assessed by remote sensing of chlorophyll a and suspended solids) remained poor in 2011–2012 and 2012–2013. There was a slight improvement in water quality since the record flooding in 2010–2011; however, the overall poor score reflects the cumulative impact of above-average flows from many rivers over multiple years and the continued re-suspension of finer sediment by wind and waves. Concentrations of chlorophyll a and total suspended solids were rated poor and moderate respectively in 2011–2012 and 2012–2013.

Trend in the Water Quality Index from 2011–2012 to 2012–2013. The Water Quality Index is also separated into component scores for concentrations of chlorophyll a and total suspended solids. Trend data is only shown for these two years because a major change in the remote sensing algorithms mean the historical data is no longer directly comparable. The full historical time-series will be reprocessed for the next report card.

Graph data (.csv, 1KB)

In 2011–2012 and 2012–2013, remote sensing of water quality showed a clear gradient of improvement from inshore areas, that are more frequently exposed to flood waters, to offshore areas, that are more distant from terrestrial inputs. The inshore area of all regions had annual mean chlorophyll a concentrations that exceeded the Great Barrier Reef Water Quality Guidelines and the area that exceeded the guidelines approached 100 per cent of some areas during the year, for both years (from 64 per cent in the Mackay Whitsunday to 98 per cent in the Burnett Mary in 2012–2013) (GBRMPA, 2013). While some exceedance of the guideline is expected during the wet season, these high concentrations are indicative of high nutrient loading from the catchments.

Concentrations of suspended solids also exceeded the Great Barrier Reef Water Quality Guidelines during the year for both years, particularly in the Fitzroy region, which reflects the greater input from continued flooding in recent years and re-suspension of finer sediment particles by wind and wave action (from 28 per cent in the Burnett Mary to 51 per cent in the Fitzroy in 2012–2013).

Note the remote sensing data in the following figures for Cape York and the Burnett Mary regions is not validated with any field data, unlike the other regions. In the other four regions, more detailed, site specific water quality information is available which is assessed against the Great Barrier Reef Water Quality Guidelines (see regional summaries for detail).

Relative area (%) of the inshore and midshelf water bodies where the annual mean value for chlorophyll a exceeded the Water Quality Guidelines from 1 May 2012 to 30 April 2013.

Graph data (.csv, 1KB)

Relative area (%) of the inshore, midshelf and offshore water bodies where the annual mean value for total suspended sediment exceeded the Water Quality Guidelines from 1 May 2012 to 30 April 2013.

Graph data (.csv, 1KB)

Pesticides

Pesticides were detected at all sites in 2011–2012 and 2012-2013 with high variability in the profiles and concentrations between regions and seasons. The most frequently detected pesticides in inshore waters are those that combine to inhibit photosynthesis (PSII) in plants (e.g., diuron, atrazine, hexazinone, simazine and tebuthiuron). An index has been developed using PSII herbicide equivalent concentrations to assess the potential combined toxicity of these pesticides relative to the Great Barrier Reef Water Quality Guidelines. The PSII herbicide equivalent concentration incorporates the relative potency and abundance of individual PSII herbicides compared to a reference PSII herbicide, diuron. Recent research indicates that persistent concentrations of pesticides below guideline levels may have a longer-term, chronic impact on some marine organisms. The five categories of the index reflect some of the published effects on photosynthesis at levels of pesticides below guideline levels, where category 5 is no impact and category 1 corresponds to the greatest impact and is equivalent to the Water Quality Guidelines.

Elevated PSII herbicide equivalent concentrations generally coincided with periods of high flow from the major rivers in the wet season. Biologically relevant concentrations of PSII herbicides (Category 4 and above) were present in eight of the 12 routinely monitored sites in the Wet Tropics, Burdekin and Mackay Whitsundays regions. No PSII herbicide equivalent concentrations were detected above guideline levels (Category 1) at any monitoring sites. In 2012-2013, the highest PSII herbicide equivalent concentration (Category 3 - known to affect photosynthesis in diatoms and seagrasses) was detected in the Mackay Whitsunday region at sites with seagrass meadows and inshore coral reefs nearby. Flood waters from the Tully, Herbert, Burdekin and Mary rivers also had concentrations of PSII herbicides (Category 3 and 4) that suppress photosynthesis in marine species, mostly attributed to the presence of diuron.

Maximum PSII herbicide equivalent concentrations at all sites monitored in the reef in 2012–2013.

Graph data (.csv, 1KB)

Herbicide equivalent concentrations provide a single reporting parameter for PSII herbicides with a similar mode of action on photosynthesis. However, they may obscure differences in the abundance of individual herbicides detected in different regions because they also consider the potency of each herbicide. For example, a herbicide detected at a high concentration may have a low potency (with respect to the reference diuron) and thus the contribution to the overall PSII inhibition is very small. Hence the concentrations of individual herbicides are also presented below. The types of pesticides detected in each region are often related to the land management activities in adjacent catchments.

The most prevalent pesticide detected across the reef in 2012-2013 was diuron (heavily used in the sugarcane industry), which was the main contributor to the PSII herbicide equivalent index. Diuron was detected at the majority of sites in the Wet Tropics, Burdekin and Mackay Whitsunday regions and in greater abundance than in 2011–2012. Atrazine, tebuthiuron and hexazinone were also frequently detected. Tebuthiuron was the only pesticide that exceeded the Great Barrier Reef Water Quality Guidelines, at a routine monitoring site at North Keppel Island in the Fitzroy region. Tebuthiuron is used in the grazing industry and is typically found at elevated concentrations in this region, due to the high proportion of land used for grazing activities. A range of other pesticides were detected across the reef including terbutryn, galaxolie and the insecticide imidacloprid.

Maximum concentration of individual PSII herbicides at all sites monitored across the reef in 2012-2013 compared to the previous four years.

Graph data (.csv, 1KB)

Seagrass

The overall reef-wide condition of inshore seagrass meadows improved from very poor in 2011–2012 to poor in 2012–2013. Seagrass abundance and reproductive effort were very poor in 2011–2012 and poor in 2012-2013, while nutrient status remained consistently poor. However, there are differences between habitats and regions over time (refer to regional sections).

Graph data (.csv, 1KB)

The reef-wide abundance of intertidal seagrasses improved from very poor in 2011–2012 to poor in 2012–2013. However, abundance remained very poor in the Wet Tropics, Mackay Whitsunday and Burnett Mary regions due to the continuation of a number of stressors including above median discharges from adjacent river systems. Seagrass in these regions also had very poor reproductive effort, which may affect the capacity of local meadows to recover from previous environmental disturbances. Consistently poor scores for nutrient content of seagrass tissue at sites in all habitats reflects the cumulative impact of poor water quality.

Seagrass abundance differed according to habitat type. The greatest fluctuations occurred in estuarine habitats, most often in response to prevailing climatic conditions but also due to localised weather events such as pulses of nutrient-rich, sediment-laden flood waters and cyclonic activity. Seagrass abundance in coastal habitats has been relatively stable over the past decade; however, there are signs of a continual decline since 2009. Abundance at inshore reef and subtidal habitats has been in a constant state of decline since monitoring began in 2005-2006. However, there appears to be some localised signs of recovery in 2012-2013. Recovery was mainly fast-growing pioneer species and it may take many years for meadows to fully recover their more complex foundational community structure.

The impact of the slow recovery of seagrass on populations of dugongs and turtles remains variable. The rate of dugong and turtle strandings, which increased significantly after the 2011 floods, has returned to normal for dugongs (though from a much lower population base). However, the rate of turtle deaths (turtles are more sedentary in their behaviour) has remained higher than the historical stranding rates prior to 2011. Further information on seagrass abundance is presented in the regional sections.

Coral

Inshore coral reefs remained in poor condition overall in 2011–2012 and 2012–2013, and the level of cover from competing macroalgae was moderate in both years. The density of hard coral juveniles and the rate of change in coral cover were very poor in 2011–2012 and poor in 2012–2013. However, there are differences between regions over time (refer to regional sections).

Graph data (.csv, 1KB)

In 2011–2012, the overall condition of inshore coral reefs continued to decline which reflected further loss of coral cover, the low recovery potential of reefs and increases in macroalgae. Reef-wide coral cover in 2011–2012 was at its lowest point since surveys began in 2005 due to a combination of impacts associated with tropical cyclones, outbreaks of crown-of thorns starfish, broad-scale flooding and coral disease.

In several regions, the incidence of coral disease was related to the discharge from local rivers. The associated increase in turbidity and the proportion of fine-grained sediments is likely to have had a negative impact on coral recruitment and growth by smothering and limiting the amount of available light. Macroalgae, which competes with the coral for space and can supress recovery, was at its worst level overall in 2012-2013, reflecting localised poor water quality from the continued input of pollutants. The density of juveniles and the rate of change in coral cover increased marginally in 2012-2013 and were rated as poor overall, up from very poor in 2011–2012. However, in general, the low levels of coral cover coupled with low densities of juveniles may indicate a lack of resilience of coral communities at many inshore reefs. The combination of acute disturbances and elevated stress from poor water quality are driving changes in the composition and condition of inshore reefs.

While coral data collection began in 2005, the coral trend is calculated as the average rate of increase in coral cover compared to modelled predictions over the preceding three years, so the trend graphs start in 2007-2008. Further information on the cover of hard corals, macroalgae and density of hard coral juveniles is shown in the relevant regional section.

Last updated:
31 March, 2015
Last reviewed:
22 August, 2014

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