The 2,000 km long Great Barrier Reef of Australia is the largest World Heritage site in the world – it is roughly the size of Italy or Japan.
Inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1981, it is a hotspot of biodiversity, hosting six of the world’s seven species of marine turtles, 54% of the world’s mangrove diversity, and a third of known soft corals and sea pen species.
But the Great Barrier Reef, thought to be the world’s most complex ecosystem, is standing at a crossroad of conservation, with climate change, illegal fishing and by-catch, coastal development and water quality issues all posing major threats to its future. Jon Day, WCPA-Marine Regional Coordinator for Australia and New Zealand, and Director of a report on the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, told this to delegates at the 2010 World Heritage Committee meeting.
Ocean acidification, sea level rise, increasing sea temperature and changing storm patterns all linked to climate change are already affecting some species, and will have an impact on virtually all of them and their habitats over the next 100 years, Day said.
But it’s not all bad news as some measures taken have already proved effective. A couple of years after the introduction of 'no take' areas has seen the recovery of species of trout. Forty-five years after the ban on whaling, the Humpback whale population has recovered.
The Great Barrier Reef is also at the source of the movement to create more marine protected areas and World Heritage sites. There is a gap in the coverage and consideration of marine sites for World Heritage inscription, even though our oceans are essential to biodiversity; they cover 70% of the planet and host 95% of all life on earth.
The World Heritage Marine Programme was created in 2005 to try to fill this gap and support the management of these important sites. An action plan on Marine World Heritage sites is due to be adopted at the next World Heritage Committee annual meeting in Bahrain in 2011.