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Great Barrier Reef Not 'in Danger,' UNESCO Says

May 29, 2015 11:23 AM EDT
Great Barrier Reef

(Photo : Pixabay)

The iconic Great Barrier Reef in Australia avoided being put on the World Heritage Site's "in danger" list, based on a UNESCO draft report, however concerns were still raised about its future in the long term.

Australia must now provide a progress report by late 2016 on its commitments to protect the famed reef, according to a preliminary decision Friday by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

However, whether the draft decision is accepted is another matter. It will be decided by the 21 nations on UNESCO's World Heritage Committee at a meeting in Bonn, Germany next month.

Climate change, extreme weather, pollution and coastal development are among the threats cited to the reef, which covers an area of 348,000 square kilometers (~1134,000 sq. miles) and is home to 400 types of coral, 1,500 species of fish and 4,000 types of mollusk.

In September 2014, Australia had pledged to ban future port developments and improve management and monitoring procedures as part of the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan - a recovery plan that was deemed by some as "not good enough" since it failed to address some key concerns.

So earlier this year, the Australian government submitted a revised plan to UNESCO saying how it would better address threats to the Great Barrier Reef, BBC News reported. This included a proposed objective of reducing pollution by 80 percent before 2025, as well as reversing a decision to allow dredged material to be dumped near the reef.

"This decision has been described by some as a reprieve for the Reef. It is not a reprieve - it is a big, red flag from UNESCO," Shani Tager, Greenpeace Australia Reef campaigner, said of the Heritage Committee decision in a statement.

"By insisting that the Australian government prepare a report within 18 months... UNESCO has clearly shown that the Great Barrier Reef is not fine and is not safe in Tony Abbott's hands," she said of the Australian prime minister. "UNESCO now joins a long line of scientists, banks, organizations and individuals who are deeply worried about the reef's health."

(Photo : NOAA/Flickr)

The Great Barrier Reef is not just hailed for its incredible marine biodiversity, but also for its contribution to Australia's tourist economy. The reef, which was named a World Heritage Site in 1981, sees about two million tourists each year and generates over $5 million annually.

Although the Queensland Tourism Industry Council (QTIC) said listing the reef as being "in danger" would deter tourists, surprisingly, most mining and tourism groups were happy with UNESCO's decision.

That's most likely because tourists travel to the Great Barrier Reef to marvel at its 3,000 coral reefs, which are currently suffering from ocean acidification and extensive bleaching events.

The UN says this is the "most biodiverse" of its World Heritage sites, and that it is of "enormous scientific and intrinsic importance."

Now that UNESCO is holding Australia to its promises, hopefully this magnificent coral reef system can begin its road to recovery.

"They're setting targets and they're obviously going to watch this very closely," Professor Callum Roberts, a marine conservation biologist at the University of York in the UK, told BBC News.

"I think UNESCO is right to put on hold its decision, in view of this long-term sustainability plan. But it's also very right to set some target dates for Australia to produce evidence that it's actually sticking to the plan - that it's investing enough money to make that plan happen."

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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