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Seaweek 2013: Sustainable Seas

Teaching Unit for Middle School:

Sustainability and the Great Barrier Reef


In this Marine Education Society of Australasia teaching unit, students investigate the meaning of sustainability. Through participation in activities that require research, analysis and refection, students will gain a deeper understanding of the pressures, threats and issues pertaining to the Great Barrier Reef. Students will explore actions that can be taken to ensure the Great Barrier Reef has a sustainable future and be empowered to know that they can make a difference.

Frameworks and Curriculum Links

Completing this teaching unit will enable students to work towards demonstrating and understanding the key components identified in the following frameworks:

Essential Learnings in the Queensland Studies Authority Sustainability action processes and knowledge of ecological and human systems in the Sustainability Curriculum Framework Principles of the Children’s Earth Charter Ecological principles for Catholic Education in the Queensland On Holy Ground document.

Please see Appendix 1 for a full list of the framework and curriculum links for this Education Program.

Theme Overview

The Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area consists of the world’s largest system of coral reefs, together with lagoons, seagrass meadows, mangroves and estuarine communities. Stretching over 2000km along Australia’s northeast coastline, the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area covers more than 38 million hectares (equivalent to approximately 38 million football fields). It represents one of the most complex and biologically diverse systems on Earth and contains critical habitats for a number of rare, threatened and endangered species. In 1981, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and adjacent coastal areas and islands were inscribed on the World Heritage List, on the basis of their outstanding natural features and ecological integrity.

The incredible diversity of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area includes: Six of the world’s seven species of marine turtle and is the largest green turtle breeding area in the world. A significant dugong population by world standards. 54% of world’s mangrove diversity. ~ 3000 separate reefs containing over 1/3 of all the world’s soft coral and sea pen species. 13% of world’s species of echinoderms (eg. sea stars). Around 800 species. 5000 species of molluscs (one of the most diverse cuttle bone faunas in the world). Over 1500 species of fish. The Great Barrier Reef is about 12 000 years old and for most of that time there has been minimal human impact. Around 1850, European settlers began populating and developing the coastal strip adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef. Since then, human settlement has impacted on the reef. As a result, the Great Barrier Reef is now under pressure from: Downstream effects of land use (water quality issues). Increasing fishing effort and impacts. Increasing coastal developments. Shipping & pollution incidents. Increasing tourism and recreation. Climate change/coral bleaching.

The changes that have taken place during the past 150 years include:

  • Increased pollutant levels that show little sign of abatement.

  • Depleted fish stocks in localised areas.

  • The loss of up to 70-80% of wetlands in most of the major river catchments adjacent to the Reef.

  • An increase by 200-1500% in nutrients such as phosphate and nitrogen in river discharges.



The Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area is managed by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. Management initiatives include the 25-year Strategic Plan which was developed by more than 60 user and interest groups, indigenous peoples and government agencies. The Plan sets out a 25-year vision for the area and details long-term and short-term objectives to achieve that vision. The vision, which focuses on a healthy environment, multiple use and maintenance of values, together with strategies outlined in the plan, provides direction for the managing of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s key strategies to increase the resilience of the Great Barrier Reef are:

  • Continue to protect biodiversity (build upon Representative Areas Program/ rezoning).

  • Improving water quality (Reef Water Quality Protection Plan addressing runoff, land use, etc).

  • Address coastal developments to minimize downstream impacts.

  • Promoting sustainable fisheries (Queensland Fisheries Management Plans).

  • Developing sound policy re effects of climate change (Climate Change Action Plan; Bleaching Response Plan).

To minimise impacts on the Marine Park, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority works closely with adjoining management agencies to ensure the integrated development and implementation of management strategies to protect natural and cultural values. The main tool used in managing the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is zoning. Zoning provides protection for areas, which is critical for maintaining a healthy environment, and sets a broad framework for the management of human use by designating where specific types of activities may take place.

The actions taken to look after the Great Barrier Reef include:

  • Bycatch Reduction Devices and Turtle Excluder Devices are required on all trawl nets within the World Heritage Area.

  • Vessel Monitoring Systems (satellite tracking devices) are mandatory on the commercial prawn trawl fleet.

  • An environmental management charge is administered by tourist operators, with a fixed proportion of the funds going towards applied research for the Great Barrier Reef.

  • Limits on permitted tourism use have been introduced in some highly used areas.

  • Codes of 'best practice management' have been implemented to improve agricultural practices and address environmental problems within individual industries (especially the grazing, agriculture and aquaculture industries).

  • Liaison is continuing with agricultural industry peak bodies to encourage adoption of sustainable farming practices.

  • A system of 16 Dugong Protection Areas has been established; a comprehensive whale and dolphin policy is being implemented for the entire Great Barrier Reef, and turtle conservation strategies are being implemented.

  • The Representative Areas Program has been initiated to protect the biodiversity within the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area by protecting areas of the Reef that ‘represent’ different habitats and communities.



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