How to manage people, coral and sea snakes

Coreplan Researcher Jahn Petter Johnson visited the Great Barrier Reef to study the administration of this vast protected area. Here he will share some of his experiences.

On my way up along the port side of SS Yongala, a shipwreck situated in the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) Marine Park, I came across a sea snake that had just been up to fill its lungs with air. The Yongola is rife with these toxic but relatively harmless snakes. Mating season is upon us and the creature heading down is feeling amorous, finding the black rubber hose of my breathing valve highly attractive. I resorted to giving it a tap on the nose with my camera in order to make it understand that my breathing valve hose was not the most friendly type and it set off towards the seabed.

How do you administer such a large marine ecosystem with so many different types of use? My visit to the SS Yongala was part of my attempt to figure this out, to gain some experiences I could bring back to Coreplan. The Great Barrier Reef (GBR) off the coast of Queensland in Australia is the largest living structure in the world. It consists of more than 3,000 small and large coral formations comprising a connecting structure covering 2,300 km. By comparison, the distance as the crow flies from Kinnarodden to Lindesnes is approximately 1,700 km. The width varies between 60 and 259 km. The average depth within the GBR is only 35 m, while it slopes down towards 2,000 m on the outside. The biodiversity is immense, there are more than 600 soft and hard corals here, 100 different types of jellyfish, 3,000 different types of mussel and shellfish, 500 types of worms, 1,625 different types of osseous fish, 133 types of shark and skates and 30 different types of whales and dolphins visit the area. This biodiversity can be experienced simply from swimming around at the surface. The accessibility means that the GBR receives around 2 million visitors each year and it is also used by the local population for industry, fishing and recreation as well as being an important research object. For the indigenous population on the mainland in Queensland and the Torres Strait Islands in the north, the GBR has always been an essential part of culture and industry. In other words, the GBR is a complex socio-ecological system that is challenging to administer.

The GBR is currently administered as a vast protected area. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (GBRMP) was established in 1975 through a collaboration between the Commonwealth of Australia and Queensland. The area is administered by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) in partnership with traditional ownership groups. In 1981, the GBR was also awarded World Heritage Site status by UNESCO. Today, the park covers an area of 344,400 km2. This corresponds to almost half of the Norwegian economic zone or an area the size of Germany. The park is home to around 3,000 coral reefs, 600 continental islands, 300 coral islands and 150 mangrove islands in close proximity to the coast. The coral reefs amount to around 7% of the park area.

The challenges associated with the administration of the GBR are major, but there are two main underlying considerations, preserving biodiversity and the health of the coral reef. Not long ago, extensive coral death was reported in the northern part of the GBR, caused in part by higher water temperatures and high acidity levels in the sea as a result of climate variation, but pollution from land, especially run-off from agriculture, is also a stress factor for the relatively sensitive coral animals.

The main instrument for the administration of the GBR is zoning, not all that different to the zoning used in Norwegian coastal zone planning. The GBRMP has eight of these zones, with various types of restrictions. The strictest regulation can be found in areas with particularly high value or areas used for research. This amounts to approximately 4% of the protected area. However, most of the area can be freely used, albeit subject to some restrictions. Around 33% of the area has been defined as no-fishing zones. In these zones, most activities, with the exception of fishing and catching, are permitted. In connection with this, discussions are under way regarding the impact the no-fishing zones have as a fisheries administration instrument. It is clear that they cause fishing pressure to increase in other areas and this is not always ideal. Furthermore, nothing has so far been documented for the GBR showing that the no-fishing zones contribute to ensuring improved fishing outside of the zones.

GBRMPA covers all wildlife within the boundaries, including the air above the area and the materials in the seabed. The zones on the map not only govern what you can do on the surface but must be considered 3-dimensional. Furthermore, a long-term administration plan has been established for the period up to 2050, ensuring that the administration is 4-dimensional. The zones regulate ordinary use, but various groups of Aboriginals and Torres Islanders have, by virtue of being recognised as traditional owners, also entered into partnership with GBRMPA regarding the administration and use of specific areas through Traditional Use of Marine Resources Agreements (TUMRA).

What can Coreplan learn from the GBR administration? The GBR is a special socio-ecological system and does not represent an overall administration model that can be transferred to other parts of the world. But elements of the GBR administration, such as the use of protected areas, are also used elsewhere. The GBR is special in being geographically limited as an intertwined and complex administration object but with stable and clear boundaries. The flora and fauna are linked to the reef and move in and out of the area to a limited extent (with the exception of tourists, sharks, tuna and whales). The weather conditions and accessibility in shallow water relatively close to land mean that the reef is often under great pressure all year round and administration is necessary to prevent damage to the reef. In itself, the model can probably be transferred to other countries with coral reefs, but the GBR administration is based on complex regulations and requires extensive resources, GBRMPA has around 200 employees at head office and a similar amount of people out in the field. Additionally, volunteers are extensively used for various types of work. More or less permanent zoning of large areas, as is done in the GBR, is unlikely to be a good model for marine administration in Norway, with the exception of areas where there is a need for specific protection (such as seaweed areas, deep-water coral reefs or specific spawning grounds). Our marine ecosystem is different and permanent zoning could easily fail to achieve its aims. The way we use them, zones can also contribute to alleviating conflicts and clarifying usage, but they are not necessarily a good instrument for restricting the extraction of living resources, something that is crucial in Norwegian marine administration.

And we do not have to worry about amorous sea snakes when diving!

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