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Report Card 2016—Frequently asked questions

What are the key messages of Report Card 2016?

  • Better targeting of investment helped farmers make the most effective land management practice changes.
  • For the first time, grains were reported in the Burnett Mary with 74% of land managed using best management practice systems.
  • Modelled annual average loads of dissolved inorganic nitrogen reduced by 5.5% to 25.5% in the Burdekin as a result of improved nitrogen and irrigation management by sugarcane growers. Improvements were delivered through the first Reef Trust Reverse Tender, funded by the Australian Government and facilitated by NQ Dry Tropics, and the RP20 Burdekin Nitrogen Project, funded by the Queensland Government and facilitated by Sugar Research Australia.
  • Modelled annual average loads of sediment reduced by 4.1% to 9.6% in the Fitzroy as a result of targeted investment in streambank protection. This included 117 graziers receiving funding through the Australian Government’s Reef Program to improve their land management practices.
  • For the first time, the state of and pressures on wetland environmental values are reported across the Great Barrier Reef. Overall, wetlands are in moderate condition.
  • Overall inshore marine condition was moderate in 2015–2016 with increased confidence in the result due to an improved water quality metric.
  • Coral bleaching and mortality is highly variable across the Great Barrier Reef with inshore coral reefs south of the Daintree (Wet Tropics) in moderate condition in 2015–2016. Corals in the northern region between Port Douglas and the tip of Cape York were most affected by the 2016 coral bleaching.

Why are the targets for 2018 when the Reef 2050 Plan has targets for 2025?

The Reef Water Quality Protection Plan has been in place since 2003 and was revised in 2009 and 2013. It outlines the Australian and Queensland governments’ commitments to improve Reef water quality. This plan forms the basis of the water quality targets and water quality commitments in the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan (Reef 2050 Plan).The targets for 2018 are set out in the Reef Water Quality Protection Plan 2013.

The 2018 targets are to reduce the anthropogenic end-of-catchment loads in priority areas by:

  • 50% for dissolved inorganic nitrogen
  • 60% for pesticides (toxic equivalent loads)
  • 20% for sediment and particulate nutrients.

However, new finer-scale targets have recently been included in the draft Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan 2017–2022, which is the latest update of the Reef Water Quality Protection Plan.

Past Reef Water Quality Protection Plans and the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan set Great Barrier Reef-wide targets. The new targets set reductions for each catchment that flows into the Great Barrier Reef and provide greater definition of the current Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan targets which commit to achieving reductions of up to 80% in dissolved inorganic nitrogen, and 50% in sediments from priority catchments by 2025.

Future report cards will assess progress against the new targets.

What period of time does the Report Card 2016 cover?

Report Card 2016 assesses the reported results of Reef Water Quality Protection Plan 2013 actions up to June 2016.

What impact has coral bleaching had on the Reef?

High temperatures combined with an El Niño year triggered the worse coral bleaching event on record in 2016. An estimated 29% of shallow-water coral was lost across the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. The impact of bleaching was highly variable across the Great Barrier Reef and there was a gradient of decreasing severity from north to south.

  • The northern region of the Marine Park (from the tip of Cape York to Port Douglas) was the most affected by severe bleaching and subsequent loss of coral. However, some offshore areas in far northern Cape York were not as severely affected.
  • In the central areas of the Marine Park, south of Port Douglas to Mackay, the loss of coral was highly variable and ranged from low at inshore reefs through to medium at some reefs further offshore.
  • The southern areas of the Marine Park (from Mackay to Bundaberg) had little or no loss of coral.

For latest information on the bleaching see the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority website.

Why has the confidence in marine water quality changed?

A revised marine water quality metric was developed in 2015–2016 as an initial step towards integrating multiple streams of data to measure and report on marine water quality.

This was in response to the Reef Independent Science Panel expressing low confidence in the previous metric, which relied exclusively on satellite (remote sensing) data. Water quality scoring that relied solely on remote sensing data did not work well in the inshore marine environment where data collection was limited through the wet season due to cloud cover, and proxy measurements for sediment and nutrients were difficult to separate due to higher turbidity. In addition, satellite data is poorly validated for the Cape York and Burnett Mary regions, giving low confidence in the water quality scores of previous report cards.

The new metric is underpinned by the eReefs biogeochemical model, which has been integrated with satellite images to improve accuracy. All marine water quality results presented in the Reef report card were generated using the revised metric. Modelled data were available for only three years, and scores for inshore water quality are for open coastal waters only. The revised metric is not directly comparable to the metric used in previous report cards; therefore, trends are not applicable.

Why is there no coral data in some areas, such as Cape York and Burnett Mary?

The Marine Monitoring Program run by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) provides the inshore marine assessment for the report cards. The program does not assess inshore corals for Cape York or the Burnett Mary region.

Why is progress towards achieving the load reduction targets slow?

The modelling used to report the reductions in pollutant loads transported to the Reef is based on the reported area of land management change. The rate of progress reflects the fact that improvements in pollutant load reductions are incremental. The scoring of catchment loads results changes each year to reflect the expected progress towards the 2018 targets. The closer we get to 2018, the more progress is expected. Therefore, a limited percentage reduction can result in a downgraded score.

The reported load reductions are a conservative estimate, as we do not include all results from all programs. It is expected that, over coming years, we will incorporate results from additional programs such as the industry-led best management practice (BMP) programs, further Australian Government Reef Trust and Queensland Reef Water Quality Program investments, and the Queensland Natural Resource Management Investment Program. These will help to demonstrate accelerated progress.

Why is seagrass condition still poor?

Inshore seagrass meadows across the Great Barrier Reef showed slight improvements in condition (i.e. their abundance, reproductive effort and nutrient status), but remained poor overall.

In some regions, inshore seagrass meadows continue to recover from previous losses, which occurred during a period of major floods and cyclones, but remain in moderate to poor condition overall. In the Fitzroy region, the condition of seagrass meadows improved from very poor to poor.

Why are riparian and wetland extent not included in this report card?

Changes in the extent of riparian vegetation and natural wetlands are reported every four years. The latest results are detailed in Report Card 2014.

Why is wetland condition now included in the report card, and how often will it be reported?

Freshwater wetlands in the Reef catchments provide a vital role in coastal and marine ecosystems by retaining sediment, absorbing and transforming pollutants, slowing overland flow and providing nurseries for freshwater and marine species. The Great Barrier Reef Wetland Monitoring Program is a new program that reports on the environmental values of freshwater floodplain wetlands in the Great Barrier Reef catchments. It reports on the Reef Water Quality Protection Plan 2013 target: ‘There is no net loss of the extent, and an improvement in the ecological processes and environmental values, of natural wetlands.’

The monitoring program assesses the anthropogenic pressures on wetland values and the state of wetland environmental values every four years. Reporting for 2016 provides a baseline of their condition, and progress in the future will be calculated by comparing results against the baseline. We will undertake further work to refine the wetland indicators, in particular the hydrology indicator.

Why are confidence ratings used, and how are they determined?

Assessing and reporting confidence in the report card indicators drives continuous improvement in the program over time. Confidence ratings also show where there is high or low confidence in different indicators.

The Paddock to Reef Coordination and Advisory Group developed a multi-criteria analysis to qualitatively score the confidence of each key indicator in the report card using available data and expert opinion. The Reef Independent Science Panel reviews the method used and the final confidence scores.

What programs contributed to the progress towards meeting the targets?

Report Card 2016 details the area of land managed using best management practices to improve water quality. Results are based on improvements reported through:

  • the Australian Government’s Reef Program, Systems Repair Project, Reef Trust Reverse Tender and the National Landcare Program
  • the Queensland Government’s Natural Resource Management Investment Program, extension programs, and the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection’s Burdekin Nitrogen Project (RP20C).

Many other programs are engaging landholders, but learning new skills and implementing new farming practices takes time. The farm-management improvements being implemented as part of these programs are expected to be reflected in higher nutrient and sediment load reductions in future report cards.

For more information, see Reducing pollutant run-off: Report Card 2016 standouts.

Why is the focus on farmers and graziers?

While the largest contribution to nutrient, sediment and pesticide run-off is from broad scale agriculture, it is important that all industries minimise run-off to the reef. It is recognised that everyone, not just farmers, need to play their part in improving water quality.

Governments will be working with councils, industries and communities to identify actions they can take to improve the quality of water flowing from the catchment to the Reef. These actions will form part of the final Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan 2017–2022.

Some activities in the marine environment, such as dredging for port operations, can have locally significant impacts. These kinds of activities are tightly regulated by the Australian and Queensland governments and actions to further improve their management are included in the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan.

What is the Paddock to Reef program?

The Paddock to Reef Integrated Monitoring, Modelling and Reporting Program (Paddock to Reef program) is a collaboration involving the Australian and Queensland governments, industry, regional natural resource management bodies and research organisations. It is a highly innovative approach to integrating data and information on management practices, catchment indicators, water quality loads and the health of the Great Barrier Reef. The objective of the program is to measure and report on the progress towards the goal and targets in the Reef Water Quality Protection Plan.

Approximately $9 million a year is spent on monitoring, modelling and reporting as part of the Paddock to Reef program. This cost is shared between the Australian and Queensland governments. This investment is additional to the Australian Government’s $8 million contribution to the Reef 2050 Integrated Monitoring, Modelling and Reporting Program which will track the progress towards targets, objectives and outcomes of the Reef 2050 Plan and drive adaptive management. These investments are helping to safeguard the health of the Great Barrier Reef, a natural wonder which generates about $6 billion a year for the Australian economy.

How does the Reef Report Card relate to regional report cards and the Reef Integrated Monitoring and Reporting Program?

There are a range of monitoring and reporting products that seek to address the key issues for the Great Barrier Reef. They include:

  • the Reef-wide five-yearly Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report which reports on the overall condition of the Reef, factors influencing the health of the Reef, management effectiveness and risks to the Reef
  • the Great Barrier Reef Report Card which reports on progress towards achieving better land management practices, catchment indicator and water quality targets, and inshore marine health
  • regional report cards which provide finer-scale (local) information relating to the condition of freshwater, estuary and marine environments, and integrate data from local governments, ports, industry and other partners
  • reports in response to incidents at different scales and locations that affect Reef health (e.g. bleaching reports).

Graphic showing how the reef-wide and regional report cards complement each other by providing information at different scales.

Why are 'best practices' in the report card different to those in the industry-led best management practice (BMP) programs?

Progress towards the Reef Water Quality Protection Plan management practice adoption target is reported using industry specific management practice frameworks (water quality risk frameworks). For sugarcane, horticulture and grains, practices are ranked from low risk (for innovative practices that pose the lowest water quality risk) to high risk (superseded practices that have the highest water quality risk). For grazing, they are ranked from very low soil erosion and water quality risk to moderate-to-high soil erosion and water quality risk. The frameworks allocate a percentage weighting to each practice, depending on its relative potential influence on off-farm water quality. They are based on evidence and backed up by research. More details are available in the water quality risk frameworks.

Under the industry BMPs (for cane, grazing and grains), most practices that are described as ‘at industry standard’ align with moderate risk in the Reef Water Quality Protection Plan risk framework. Practices that are ‘above industry standard’ generally align with the moderate–low or lowest risk in the framework. The only major exception is the nutrient standard in the SmartCane BMP, which does not currently align with best practice in the framework. Over time, it is expected that the framework’s best practices will become industry standard.

Water Quality Risk Framework of the Reef Water Quality Protection Plan
Lowest risk, commercial feasibility may be unproven Moderate-low risk Moderate risk High risk
Innovative Best Practice Minimum Superseded
Industry BMP programs (generalised)
  Above Industry Standard Industry Standard Below Industry Standard

Why do the results for grains management practice adoption appear better than other industries?

Over half (57%) the grains land across the Great Barrier Reef catchments is managed using best management practice systems for water quality. For the first time, grains were reported in the Burnett Mary with 74% of land managed using best management practice systems.

The grains industry BMP has been in place since 2008–2009 and has engaged 418 growers in the Great Barrier Reef catchments. The grains industry are proactive when adopting practices which have good water quality impacts. Grains farms tend to be larger than the other cropped farms (sugarcane, bananas and horticulture) so have very high input cost associated with planting, harvesting, weed and fertiliser management. Reducing inputs of fertilisers and pesticides and adopting zero tillage practices has been shown to improve the water quality. By adopting these practices on a grain farm, input costs can significantly be reduced which leads to a more profitable crop. For this reason adoption of these practices is high in the grains industry.

Why do we use modelling, not just monitoring?

We know from monitoring pollutant loads leaving catchments that the loads vary significantly from year to year, mainly due to differences in annual rainfall and run-off. Therefore, catchment modelling is used to estimate the long-term annual pollutant load reductions due to the adoption of improved land management practices. This removes the impact of factors such as climate variability.

Research suggests that time lags to see the improvements from land management practice change in monitoring data could range from years for pesticides up to decades for nutrients and sediments. This is due to the high degree of variability. The models use measured changes in land management and well-documented and accepted methods and assumptions. Long-term water quality monitoring data is used to validate and improve the models, continuously improving confidence in the estimates of water quality over time.

Have the results been independently reviewed?

The Reef Independent Science Panel reviews and provides scientific advice on key elements of the Paddock to Reef program including the program design and major outputs such as the Reef report cards.

The Paddock to Reef Coordination and Advisory Group provides technical review and advice, with a focus on coordination and integration.

In addition, each part of the program undergoes additional peer and external review processes. For example, the Source Catchments modelling framework has been reviewed extensively with independent reviewers finding that the modelling approach is best practice and highly innovative.

Last updated
27 October 2017

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