Shaping integrated monitoring for the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area

The Great Barrier Reef (GBR) was inscribed on the World Heritage list in 1981 in recognition of its outstanding universal value.

Great Barrier Reef with a paddler in background.IMAGE: Tourism is one of many community benefits bestowed by the GBR region. Image: Matt Curnock.

In addition to its biophysical values, the GBR Region contains important elements of cultural and indigenous heritage, and supports many community and economic benefits such as fishing and tourism. As highlighted in the GBR Outlook Report 2014, cumulative pressures are diminishing the resilience of GBR ecosystems. Living coral is declining, with the average coral cover falling by half between 1985 and 2012. While the effects of cyclones, crown-of-thorns starfish and coral bleaching are the main causes of coral mortality, most long-term declines have occurred in central and southern regions, where human pressures are the most intense.

Monitoring in the GBR Region typically has responded to emerging issues (such as crown-of-thorns starfish), long-term trends, or legislative requirements, rather than cumulative impacts or overall management needs. Furthermore, social and economic monitoring has not been a high priority. This project has built the framework for a standardised and integrated ecological, social and economic monitoring program for the GBR World Heritage Area that will be used to address these earlier shortcomings.


An approach that learns from measurable outcomes was taken to establish an integrated monitoring framework to support adaptive management. The GBR Marine Park Authority reviewed information needs for managing the GBR World Heritage Area, and the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) reviewed existing monitoring programs. Other collaborators included the NERP Marine Biodiversity Hub, the NERP Environmental Decisions Hub, the NERP Tropical Ecosystems Hub and the Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection.

The integrated monitoring framework was established using practical guidance developed specifically for this project. The guidance was developed using knowledge and advice from a broad range of experts in the fields of policy development, natural resource management, science and data management. The framework described in this report is based on the seven essential monitoring steps identified by the United States National Park Services. Conceptual models are central to capturing and communicating interactions between ecosystems, society and the economy to furnish all stakeholders a similar understanding of how the system functions.

Underwater view of coral reef.IMAGE: Living coral is declining in Great Barrier Reef ecosystems. Image: Reef Life Survey.

guidance to establish an integrated monitoring framework
Flow chart of guidance required to establish an integrated monitoring framework.

ABOVE: An overview of the guidance required to establish an integrated monitoring framework (what needs to be considered).

Flowchart of essential monitoring functions.

ABOVE: Essential monitoring functions to be considered in developing an integrated monitoring framework.

Key findings

The integrated monitoring framework established by this project provides the foundation for developing an integrated program for the GBR World Heritage Area. The program would monitor, evaluate and report on the condition of and trends in values underpinning relevant matters of national environmental significance and the associated drivers and pressures. This includes Outstanding Universal Value recognised under the World Heritage listing, as well as benefits to the community.

Governance is critical to the leadership and coordination required for integrated monitoring, to articulate clear responsibilities for prioritisation, and to effective implementation. Governance arrangements for the Reef Water Quality Protection Plan 2013 may provide a useful model for guiding the development of the governance arrangements necessary to coordinate a monitoring program for the World Heritage Area.

Fifty-two high-priority values, processes, pressures and drivers (reduced from hundreds) have been identified for monitoring. Further refinement is needed to reduce the number of priorities and to improve the specificity of the priorities and their objectives.

Sixty-five existing monitoring programs were candidates for inclusion in an integrated monitoring program. This existing network, while relatively extensive, is insufficient to monitor the identified priorities.

Multi-stakeholder workshops identified the following monitoring programs as fundamental building blocks: the AIMS Long Term Monitoring Program, the Eye on the Reef monitoring program, the Integrated Marine Observing System, the Paddock to Reef Monitoring Program, commercial fisheries monitoring, seagrass monitoring, the Social and Economic Long Term Monitoring Program and threatened species monitoring.

Integrated monitoring for the World Heritage Area will require broader use of conceptual models, development and promotion of standard monitoring protocols, and improved coordination and collaboration between end-users and existing data management systems. Existing monitoring programs will need to better serve managers, and an overarching data analysis and reporting group or unit will be needed.

New knowledge and opportunities

The integrated monitoring framework provides the basis for effective monitoring of the World Heritage Area. It articulates monitoring priorities, provides the first assessment of the capacity of existing monitoring programs to address these priorities, and provides direction for integrating long-term monitoring with short-term and compliance monitoring programs. The framework can be used more broadly in Australia. For example, it built on knowledge developed for monitoring marine ecosystem health (the monitoring blueprint) and will contribute to monitoring for future strategic assessments.

Outputs and outcomes

Guidance has been provided for establishing an integrated monitoring framework to support adaptive management of the GBR World Heritage Area, and an integrated monitoring framework has been established. Information needs for management, and existing monitoring programs, have been reviewed during this process.

The framework contributed to a strategic assessment of the World Heritage Area and is guiding the development of a reef-wide integrated monitoring and reporting program to review the success of the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan (draft released for public comment in September 2014). It will build upon and coordinate existing monitoring and reporting activities and will be linked to the outcomes and targets identified in the Plan.