The Marine Protected Area you see from space

25 October 2010 | Fact sheet

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, Australia

Background:

The Great barrier reef is one of the richest, most complex and diverse ecosystems in the world. As the world's biggest single structure made by living organisms, it can be seen from outer space. It is of great scientific interest as the habitat of species such as the dugong (‘sea cow’) and the large green turtle, which are threatened with extinction.The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park covers 98.5 of the Great Barrier reef and is administered by The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), in partnership with the Government of Queensland. The Great Barrier Reef was selected as a World Heritage Site in 1981. It is the second biggest marine world heritage site.

View photos of the world heritage site

Size and Location

The Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area covers 348 000 km² (an area bigger than the United Kingdom, Holland and Switzerland combined). The park lies east of the mainland coast of Queensland, Australia.

Flora and Fauna

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is one of the world’s largest, most important and most biologically diverse ecosystems. It is home to thousands of organisms, with over 1500 species of fish, about 400 species of coral, 4000 species of mollusc and 242 species of birds, as well as a great diversity of sponges, anemones, marine worms, crustaceans, and many others including more than 100 protected species.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is home to one of the world’s most important dugong populations, six of the world’s seven species of marine turtle, including the largest breeding aggregation of green turtles (on the Raine Island) and Sea snakes, a unique but vulnerable group of animals. The vulnerable endemic hump-backed dolphin, as well as migratory species including the humpback whale and dwarf minke whale also live in the area.

About 1.7 million seabirds from 23 species breed on islands and cays, accounting for up to 50 per cent of the global population for some of these species.

Threats

There is a conflict between the various uses of the reef and the desire to see it maintained in its pristine state. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park protects a large part of Australia's Great Barrier Reef from damaging activities. Fishing and the removal of artifacts is strictly regulated, and commercial shipping traffic must stick to specifically defined shipping routes that avoid the most sensitive areas of the park.

The Great Barrier Reef's environmental pressures include lowered water quality from agricultural runoff and climate change, increased temperatures, storms and coral bleaching. Cyclic outbreaks of the crown-of-thorns starfish, overfishing which disrupts food chains, and shipping routes which can result in oil spills or improper ballast discharge also damage the reef. On April 3 2010, The Shen Neng 1, a Chinese ship carrying 950 tonnes of oil, ran aground, creating the largest grounding scar on the Great Barrier Reef known to date. The scar was roughly 3 km and 250 m wide. Some damaged areas have become completely devoid of marine life. There are concerns that there could be considerable long-term damage to the reef and it will be 10 to 20 years before the reef returns to the state it was in before the incident.

Tourists make extensive use of reefs and waters for recreational activities, including fishing, diving and snorkelling, water sports, sightseeing, reef-walking and some shell collecting. Tourism is allowed within all zones, except preservation and scientific research zones.