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Chief Executive Officer's review

Head and shoulders image of Josh Thomas Chief Executive Officer. Josh is wearing a suit and tie and smiling at the cameraJosh Thomas Chief Executive OfficerI am pleased to submit the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s (the Authority) performance report for the year ending 30 June 2019, my first as Chief Executive Officer.

I follow in the footsteps of Dr Russell Reichelt who held the position of Chair and Chief Executive Officer for more than 11 years, until his retirement in October 2018.

Dr Reichelt will be remembered for his steady hand at the helm of the Authority over the past decade, as the Great Barrier Reef (the Reef) has come under increasing pressure. Dr Reichelt’s intellect and warm diplomacy played a major role in forging partnerships at international, national and regional levels to shape a better future for the Reef.

Managing diverse environments across the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is a privilege and a challenge. The health and biodiversity of the Reef are under threat due to the impact of climate change, land-based run off, coastal development and other human-induced pressures. Climate change is the greatest of these threats and with sea surface temperatures remaining well above average throughout most of the 2018–19 summer and severe weather and flooding associated with the cyclones and monsoon events, only the strongest and fastest possible actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will reduce the risks and limit the impact of climate change on the Reef.

Strong management actions within the Marine Park are essential for building Reef resilience, as is ongoing work beyond its boundary to address climate change and reduce impacts such as water pollution and marine debris. We continue to highlight these issues and collaborate widely with our partners to address them. Global action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions remains critically important to the Reef’s long-term health.

In pursuit of a healthier Reef for future generations, our management of this spectacular environmental icon must continue to adapt and set the standard for best-practice Reef management. The Authority is working harder than ever to adapt and deploy management techniques that support a more resilient Reef. We have focused our efforts on actions supporting the Great Barrier Reef blueprint for resilience, including culling crown-of-thorns starfish, strengthening our compliance regime, and deepening our engagement with Traditional Owner groups, the tourism industry, schools and the wider community to maximise all efforts supporting Reef health.

Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report 2019

In late June the Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report 2019 (Outlook Report 2019) was delivered to the Minister for the Environment for tabling in Parliament.

Published every five years, the Outlook Report examines the Great Barrier Reef’s health, pressures, and likely future. It provides a regular and reliable, evidence-based assessment of Reef health and management, and informs government actions associated with the Reef. The Outlook Report 2019 is an impressive body of work achieved by a small team within the Authority, and provides a foundation for the adaptive management of the Reef and its condition.

A reminder of recent and severe impacts to the Reef and its health, Outlook Report 2019 will help guide our strategic direction and management actions in the years to come.

Transforming management of the Marine Park

This year we have transformed our approach to policy, planning and regulation in managing the Marine Park. We have prepared a roadmap to deliver a proactive, modern and risk-based approach to planning. The roadmap will see us working in partnership with Traditional Owners, industry and stakeholders to deliver a contemporary policy, planning and regulatory framework that protects key values and enables ecologically sustainable use of the Great Barrier Reef.

We have amplified our efforts to strengthen partnerships with Traditional Owner groups. In March we released the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Strategy for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. The strategy received input from representatives of Traditional Owner groups at dedicated workshops, and includes actions the Authority will take to keep Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage values strong, safe and healthy. It represents an exciting step forward in enhancing our work in this area.

In late June we facilitated a three-day workshop on Magnetic Island bringing together nine Traditional Owner groups that have formal Traditional Use of Marine Resource Agreements (TUMRAs) in place, as well as one aspiring group. The event was the first to bring all nine TUMRA groups together in a workshop setting to share information about Reef health, Marine Park compliance, Traditional Owner involvement in Marine Park management and ways to improve communication with government partners and the community.

Events of this type are highly successful in providing a coordinated platform for the Authority and TUMRA groups to maintain and improve the TUMRA program, and reinforce the Authority’s partnership with Traditional Owners on sea country management and commitment to the TUMRA program.

Enhancing reef resilience

In 2017, we produced the Great Barrier Reef blueprint for resilience (the Blueprint) which prioritised 10 actions to build the Reef’s resilience. A Blueprint progress report, From Blueprint to action: Great Barrier Reef blueprint for resilience progress report, was released in October 2018. It reviewed the first year of actions taken by the Authority and partners towards achieving the Blueprint’s initiatives.

Improvements to crown-of-thorns starfish data management and synthesis, and new decision-making tools to guide in-water starfish control activities demonstrate our responsive management approach. New technologies such as drones, surveillance equipment and vessel management systems to monitor fishing and gather compliance intelligence are other tools being used to address new threats and incidents affecting the Reef’s resilience.

In the face of climate change, we have actively broadened our focus to facilitate targeted, science-based reef restoration and intervention activities such as coral reseeding and coral gardening. During 2018–19 new guidelines were made available to assist applicants seeking permission to undertake restoration or adaptation activities in the Marine Park, as well as the regulators assessing these applications.

The guidelines help applicants understand the risks associated with proposed projects, how applications will be assessed and the type of information required for assessment. They also encourage best practice standards and outline activities that are unlikely to be accepted.

We have also made significant progress on the resilient reefs network for the Great Barrier Reef. An initiative of the Blueprint, this body of work will identify areas in the Reef that have relatively low exposure to impacts, retain relatively higher coral cover, recover rapidly after impacts, and make relatively higher contributions to the coral larval supply. It will build our understanding of the frequency and severity of disturbances such as thermal stress, cyclones, crown-of-thorns starfish and declining water quality, against projected recovery rates of coral reefs. This better understanding of disturbance patterns for reefs will inform a range of management actions such as the placement of reef-based infrastructure, or guiding reef intervention decisions such as coral restoration. This work is the result of a long-term commitment by the Authority in collaboration with the University of Queensland, and scientists from the Australian Institute of Marine Science, James Cook University and CSIRO.

Controlling crown-of-thorns starfish

Coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish are natural inhabitants of the Reef but when population densities increase beyond corals’ ability to reproduce and grow, they cause widespread damage. Crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks have been one of the primary causes of coral loss over the last 30 years.

Reducing both the impacts of the current crown-of-thorns starfish outbreak and the potential for future outbreaks through targeted control is one of the most scalable and feasible actions for reducing coral mortality and preventing further declines in Reef resilience.

The Authority manages an Australian Government funded Crown-of-thorns Starfish Control Program to protect a network of high ecological and economic value coral reefs from outbreaks. Additional funding of $13.2 million during 2018–19 allowed us to increase the program’s capacity from two to six vessels in late 2018.

Providers of crown-of-thorns starfish control vessels continue to work consistently in the field to deliver outcomes for the program. The Reef Joint Field Management Program also provides invaluable surveillance data on crown-of-thorns starfish abundances and coral cover which guides the efficient and effective deployment of starfish control vessels. Actions are targeted to protect the reefs that are most important for sustaining the health of the ecosystem, as well as the industries it supports.

Working with partners and stakeholders

Working with partners and stakeholders in delivering on-ground actions to enhance resilience is a focus under the Reef Blueprint. As the Government’s lead agency on the Reef, we play a critical role in providing expert technical and policy advice to partner organisations and stakeholders to help them take action to avoid, mitigate and manage threats.

We have a long-standing partnership with the Great Barrier Reef Foundation. Both organisations bring complementary expertise and experience to the table to address challenges facing the Reef.

Last year the Australian Government announced a record $443 million Reef Trust Partnership between the Department of the Environment and Energy and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation to fund actions addressing key threats to the Reef. This funding presents the most significant opportunity to enhance the Reef’s resilience to climate change and other threats.

Over the past year we have played an integral role in framing delivery of the Reef Trust Partnership with the Foundation to ensure strong focus on practical outcomes. This includes governance and oversight of funding decisions through roles in the Partnership Management Committee and working groups.

Our strong engagement in delivering the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan (Reef 2050 Plan) provides an opportunity to co-lead the coordinated response to key Reef threats in partnership with the Australian and Queensland governments and other parties.

The Reef 2050 Plan brings together partners and stakeholders, and provides an overarching framework to protect and conserve the Reef’s outstanding universal value. A full review of the Reef 2050 Plan is required every five years to respond to new information, changing circumstances and emerging issues, particularly those presented in the Authority’s Outlook Report 2019.

The first full review of the Plan is due in 2020 (the 2020 review) and will build on the mid-term review undertaken in 2017–2018. The 2020 review will be a comprehensive and collaborative process reflecting adaptive management to the known and predicted state of the Reef from 2020 onwards.

Bridging the gap between science and management

Science is at the heart of our efforts to manage and protect the Reef and a number of our programs, including the Reef 2050 Integrated Monitoring and Reporting Program (RIMReP), crown-of-thorns starfish control and Marine Park compliance benefit from close collaboration with Reef scientists.

A significant achievement of the 2018–19 financial year was finalising design of a Reef knowledge platform that will bring together data collected across the Reef by different researchers and organisations and see it used to inform management decisions. Spanning several years, the collaborative effort of a large group of experts and stakeholders led by the Authority and Queensland Government, has realised an integrated knowledge system combining Indigenous, social, economic and environmental attributes of the Reef. The completed RIMReP design has been used to develop an implementation roadmap and online prototype of the system. The prototype demonstrates the potential benefits of a fully implemented program and already provides an understanding of the wide variety and locations of monitoring on the Reef.

In 2019–20, the prototype will continue to evolve and guide the transition to a fully integrated monitoring program for the Great Barrier Reef. Once established, RIMReP will be a game-changer — providing coordinated access to information about the Reef, its catchment and human use of the Region.

Continuing education and fostering stewardship

The Authority empowers stakeholders to be champions of the Reef through a wide range of education and stewardship programs. Through these, we provide technical expertise and advice to local councils and Queensland and Australian government agencies, volunteer groups, schools, tourism operators, fishers and natural resource management bodies. The programs aim to raise awareness, influence best practice and find pragmatic solutions to achieve the Authority’s purpose and goals and ultimately build a sense of collective responsibility and care for the Reef.

Reef HQ Aquarium, the national education centre for the Reef, continued to deliver important conservation and Reef education messages. It was identified as a Best of Queensland Experience by Tourism and Events Queensland for providing an exceptional visitor experience and exceeding consumer expectations. The Aquarium welcomed more than 128,000 visitors during 2018–19, with more than 83,000 people participating in educational talks and tours. Through its formal programs and outreach education via the award-winning Reef Videoconferencing program, reef education was delivered to more than 8000 students across Australia and the world.

The 2018–19 year saw the launch of the Master Reef Guides program in February 2019. A total of 26 industry professionals graduated from the intensive training program and are acting as ambassadors for the Reef and its management. Key to the success of the program is strong support by government and the tourism industry. The program was developed through a partnership between the Authority, Tourism and Events Queensland and the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators.

The Authority also played a key role in facilitating Australia’s involvement in the 2018 International Year of the Reef. The year-long celebration focused on motivating communities, not only throughout the Great Barrier Reef catchment but more broadly across the globe, to celebrate and learn about the value and importance of coral reefs. People were encouraged to pledge their commitment to protecting the future of the Great Barrier Reef by making small behavioural changes that collectively, will make a significant difference to the health of the environment.

Celebrating 40 years of field management

The Reef Joint Field Management Program capped off a great year by celebrating 40 years of collaborative safeguarding of the Reef in June. As one of Australia’s longest-running and most successful environmental partnerships, the Authority has played a critical role in shaping and implementing this unique program over the years. A key to its success is clearly the common focus on delivering vital on-ground and in-water work to protect and uphold the values of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.

Funding boosts announced by the Australian and Queensland governments in early 2018 have provided a long-term guarantee of strong on-water presence to manage the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. The funding has enabled recruitment of additional staff and established an Authority presence in Gladstone. The current fleet of 20 vessels will soon see the addition of a second 24-metre long-range vessel — the Reef Resilience — which will increase our patrol and incident response capacity.

A focus of the field unit is to ensure compliance around green zones, and in late 2018 a ‘Protect your Patch’ education campaign was launched encouraging fishers to report poaching and other illegal activity. This campaign built on similar successful compliance campaigns conducted in the 2017–18 year. Targeted media and community events at illegal fishing hot spots along the coast were supplemented with educational material highlighting the importance of green zones.

The past year also saw a significant increase in joint training, fieldwork and patrols with Indigenous ranger groups.

Changing governance

Following a review of the Authority’s governance in 2017, a number of changes were legislated including separation of the Chair and Chief Executive Officer roles. Dr Ian Poiner was appointed as part-time Chairperson of the Marine Park Authority Board (Authority Board) on 29 October 2018, and I commenced as the Authority’s Chief Executive Officer on 18 March 2019 for a five-year term.

Changes were also made to the Authority Board structure. Ms Wendy Morris was appointed on 7 February 2019, as the member with tourism experience and knowledge, joining Dr Poiner and existing members, Prof Emma Johnston and Mr Dave Stewart.

There are two further Authority Board positions to be recruited, a member with knowledge of, or experience concerning Indigenous issues relating to the Marine Park and a general member. Both processes are underway.

In line with good governance principles and to meet the recommendations of the governance review, the following documents and procedures have been implemented to support management of the Authority Board:

  • Board Charter
  • conflict of interest policy
  • skills matrix to guide recruitment of Board members
  • formal induction process for new members, including a probity interview on commencement.

The number of Authority Board meetings has also increased from four to six per year and the Authority Board has increased engagement with stakeholders in the Reef community, hosting stakeholder events in Airlie Beach and Cairns in the first half of 2019.

Following the 2019 Australian Government Election, I welcome the appointment of the Hon Sussan Ley MP as Minister for the Environment, Mr Trevor Evans as Assistant Minister for the Environment and Waste Reduction, and the Hon Warren Entsch MP as Special Envoy for the Great Barrier Reef. I have had the pleasure of meeting with both Minister Ley and Mr Entsch, as well as hosting Minister Ley at a visit to the Authority’s offices in June 2019. I look forward to fostering our strong working relationship and continuing to promote robust policy to protect the long-term future of the Great Barrier Reef.

Financial performance

The Authority’s financial report shows, as at 30 June 2018, a $9.282 million deficit owing primarily to non-financial assets at Reef HQ Aquarium being written down in value by $10.721 million. This has been offset by some grants received from Government where suppliers were not able to be contracted during the 2018–19 year (these funds will be expended in 2019–20).

In conclusion

The Great Barrier Reef is an important part of the Australian national identity, a global environmental icon, and key to the cultural identity of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Despite recent declines it remains a beautiful, vibrant, and resilient ecosystem. It’s vital that we ensure the Reef’s future through global action on climate change to maintain its ecological functioning.

Through its legislation, the Authority has the ultimate responsibility for protection of the Great Barrier Reef Region. Our management continues to evolve as we focus our activities on addressing the highest risks to the Reef and improving ecosystem resilience in the face of known and emerging challenges, particularly the effects of climate change.

In the year ahead we will continue to deliver conservation actions and a strong management presence through expansion of the Reef Joint Field Management Program and advancing our own policy, planning and regulatory approach. We will build on established education programs and engagement activities, working with key decision-makers for the Reef and fostering partnerships and stewardship actions.

In presenting this annual report, I acknowledge and thank all our staff, the executive management and Authority Board for their efforts over the past year.

Josh Thomas

Chief Executive Officer