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Australia – Release Of The Draft Great Barrier Reef Strategic Assessment.

16 December, 2013

 

Legal News & Analysis – Asia Pacific – Australia – Environment 

 

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

 

  • The draft strategic assessment which identifies and makes recommendations in respect of key concerns both to the marine and coastal components of the Great Barrier Reef has been released for public consultation.
  • The various components of this draft strategic assessment will inform the direction of both the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the Queensland Government in relation to the management of the Great Barrier Reef over the next 25 years.

WHAT YOU NEED TO DO

 

  • Interested parties should review the Draft GBR Strategic Assessment and provide any submissions by 31 January 2014.

On 1 November 2013, the draft Great Barrier Reef strategic assessment (Draft GBR Strategic Assessment) was released. This assessment was undertaken by the Australian and Queensland Governments pursuant to an agreement with the Federal Minister for the Environment (Minister) under s 146(1) of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth) (EPBC Act), following the “extreme concern” expressed by the World Heritage Committee at the approval of large projects in the region. The Draft GBR Strategic Assessment addresses two separate aspects of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) – the marine component and the coastal zone component.


In its entirety, the Draft GBR Strategic Assessment comprises four components, a draft program report and a draft strategic assessment report for both the marine component and the coastal zone component. All four draft reports are available here.


The Draft GBR Strategic Assessment has been released for public consultation so that any submissions received can inform the preparation of the final reports for consideration by the Australian Minister for the Environment and, in 2015, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee. According to the Department of the Environment (DOTE), the outcomes of the strategic assessment will then inform development of a “Long Term Sustainability Plan for the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area”, which is aimed at providing “an over-arching framework to guide the protection and management of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area from 2015 to 2050”.


Draft GBR Strategic Assessment


Basis For Draft GBR Strategic Assessment


Strategic assessment is a broad “landscape-scale” assessment of environmental impacts of a particular policy, program or plan which permits consideration of multiple impacts (including cumulative impacts) on matters of national environmental significance (MNES).
Consistent with usual practice, the GBR strategic assessment has been conducted on a large scale and timeframe and therefore seeks to enable consideration at an overall landscape level. The aim of adopting such a large scale is to enable the community, governments, businesses and industry an opportunity to achieve both conservation and planning outcomes at a larger scale that can be reached through project level assessments.

 

As noted above, there are two components to the Draft GBR Strategic Assessment; the marine and coastal zone components. The Queensland Government is leading development of the strategic assessment and program reports for the coastal zone and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) is responsible for the strategic assessment and the program reports for the marine area. Each component includes two separate reports: a Strategic Assessment which assesses the current management arrangements against the terms of reference and makes recommendations for improvement, and a Program Report which describes the current management arrangements and the relevant future commitments.


Draft Marine Strategic Assessment


Scope


The Report made the following notable findings:

 

  • most habitats and species are in good condition overall, but there have been serious declines in inshore biodiversity values;
  • generally, the management of activities for which GBRMPA has direct responsibility is effective;
  • GBRMPA’s ability to address consequential and cumulative impacts is problematic;
  • GBRMPA is working towards effective management is all areas, and there have been considerable improvements since 2009;
  • management of activities for which GBRMPA has direct responsibility (eg tourism) is effective;
  • management effectiveness challenges were evidence for issues that are broad in scale and complex socially, biophysically and jurisdictionally (that is, port activities, shipping, climate change, and extreme weather, coastal development, water quality protection, commercial and recreational fishing and Indigenous heritage) or those that are poorly resources (for example historical heritage); and
  • GBRMPA’s ability to address consequential and cumulative impacts was one of the areas assessed as problematic for most management topics.

The Draft Marine Strategic Assessment is a voluminous document and this alert is not the appropriate forum to consider in detail or comment on all of the issues raised. We will focus instead on the recommendations that flow from the assessment of the current management approach of GBRMPA, matters of national environmental significance, drivers and activities, impacts and management effectiveness.


Recommendations


In total, 38 recommendations are made in the Draft Marine Strategic Assessment. We discuss what we consider to be the key recommendations from a maritime perspective.


Port Activities


Despite most port infrastructure along the GBR coast being outside the region, it is acknowledged that the environmental footprint associated with access channel and ship anchorages extends into the GBR region.


Accordingly, the need is identified to adopt a strategic approach to port development and to enhance collaboration with the Queensland Government, other Australian Government agencies, port corporations and relevant partners.
This is to be achieved through:

 

  • improving certainty in relation to port locations and adopting a Queensland ports strategy that concentrates port development to around longestablished major ports in Queensland;
  • supporting a strategic approach to planning, assessment and management of port development (including long-term integrated planning for the network of trading ports on the GBR coast to achieve environmental, social and economic sustainability);
  • improved governance arrangements across the GBR which strengthen coordination between responsible agencies;
  • improving the understanding and management of environmental impacts from dredging and dredge material disposal in the GBR world heritage area, particularly recognising the uncertainty in relation to the duration, intensity and extent of predicted dredge material plumes and their impact on the GBR region, specifically by:
    • working with proponents and agencies to explore all alternatives which may avoid and reduce the need for dredging and dredge material disposal;
    • ensuring dredging and dredge material disposal decisions takes into account the GBR water quality guidelines and is within ecosystem thresholds, and
  • working with port corporations, other agencies and proponents to identify and address critical information needs, and to promote research and development into innovative best practice arrangements to mitigate cumulative impacts of port activities within the GBR region.

Shipping


For GBRMPA to work collaboratively to manage shipping and reducing potential risks in the GBR region, supporting the actions outlined in the draft North-East Shipping Management Plan and to work with the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, Maritime Safety Queensland and other relevant partners to implement the final plan. Our earlier article on the North East Shipping Management Plan can be found here.


Draft Marine Program Report


Scope


The Draft Marine Program Report is informed by the findings and recommendations of the Draft Marine Strategic Assessment (discussed above) and is designed to implement these recommendations in the context of the management of the GBR by GBRMPA over the next 25 years.


Based on the findings of the Draft GBR Strategic Assessment, GBRMPA will deliver the following new initiatives to enhance protection and reduce impacts on the GBR:

 

  • define the environmental outcomes required to protect the GBR and how to achieve them;
  • provide a consistent and transparent framework for the assessment of the impact of development activities on the GBR;
  • provide greater certainty on the location, types of and conditions for sustainable uses to be permitted;
  • clarify the management arrangements of GBRMPA and their contributions;
  • build upon existing partnerships and engagement programs delivering actions to achieve a healthier and more resilient GBR;
  • reduce administrative burdens for GBRMPA, other government agencies and project proponents; and
  • provide a foundation for management which builds on existing experiences and is able to respond to emerging issues.

Key Elements Of Proposed Program


In addition to the above, it is stated that GBRMPA will work to strengthen its management through various foundational arrangements. We set out below those arrangements we consider to be of specific relevance to the maritime industry:

 

  • progressive updates of GBRMPA’s guidelines to include new and revised standards for ecological health, including:
    • hydrodynamic modelling guidelines for dredging and spoil disposal; and
    • developing a new guideline on the assessment and management of underwater noise impacts on species,
  • consistent with the Queensland ports strategy (that port development is to be concentrated around long-established major ports in Queensland (for further detail, see our article on the Queensland ports strategy available here)), GBRMPA will promote a strategic approach to the development and operation of marinas and other access infrastructure along the GBR coast;
  • GBRMPA to work with other responsible agencies to implement actions set out in the North-East Shipping Management Plan (for further detail, see our article here) , including:
    • implementing systems, training, equipment and procedures to ensure immediate response capacity to shipping and cargo incidents, including arrangement to fund necessary environmental responses not covered by the National Plan to Combat Pollution of the Sea by Oil and other Hazardous and Noxious Substances;
    • improving incident response capacity to and understanding of chemical and cargo spills; and
    • improve capacity to treat marine pest incursions,
  • continuing to work with government partners, including ports corporations to improve governance, strategic planning and the environmental stability of port activities at a GBR wide scale; and
  • continuing to work in close collaboration with AMSA, MSQ and other relevant partners in the management of shipping within the region, including through finalisation and implementation of the North East Shipping Management Plan.

Draft Coastal Strategic Assessment


Recommendations


In total, the Draft Coastal Strategic Assessment makes 21 specific recommendations. It identifies current conditions as being good to very good with recent trends indicating that the position, for the most part, is stable or improving (a notable exception being the GBR World Heritage Area).


The Strategic Assessment identifies the following key points:

 

  • the Great Barrier Reef coastal zone is subject to system long-term and chronic impacts (such as climate change, poor catchment water quality and the impacts of historical broadscale clearing) and small scale, localised impacts (including urban, industrial and port development);
  • the Queensland Government’s program (ie the policies, plans and programs aimed at protecting MNES) is “broadly effective”; and
  • some aspects – including the current approach to offsets, and management of port development – are only partially effective at protecting the MNES.

Draft Coastal Program Report


Scope


The Draft Coastal Report sets out the foundational management measures that are currently in place, a range of proposed new measures designed to strengthen existing management and various forward commitments to ensure ongoing improvement and monitoring.


Recommendations


After identifying the Queensland Government’s existing policies, programs and legislation already provide a “robust foundation of management”, the Draft Coastal Program Report indicates the following key strengthening measures (which, in particular, respond to the deficiencies outlined in the Draft Coastal Strategic Assessment):

 

  • development of the Queensland Ports Strategy (see above and also our earlier article here) to support the development of ports in the major long-established port areas with a concurrent focus upon improved environmental management;
  • issuing the final State Planning Policy to streamline the Queensland planning system (this final State Planning Policy document was released in late November); and
  • refinement of the approach to offsets to “provide greater flexibility and ensure that offset funds derived from the GBR region are used to tackle the most significant issues facing the reef”.

Next Steps


Once finalised, the Draft GBR Strategic Assessment, will form part of the Commonwealth’s response to concerns raised by the World Heritage Committee in respect of development impacts on the GBR World Heritage Area raised in 2011 and the resulting long-term plan for the sustainable development of the GBR which will be submitted for consideration by the World Heritage Committee in 2015 during its 39th ordinary session.


Following the close of public comments, the Draft GBR Strategic Assessment will be revised and submitted as the final strategic assessment report and program for the GBR to the Minister. The Minister may recommend changes or endorse and program, following which the program will be implemented.


Submissions can be made on the Draft GBR Strategic Assessment until 31 January 2014 via an online survey, available here.

 

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For further information, please contact:

 

John Briggs, Partner, Ashurst
john.briggs@ashurst.com


Paul Newman, Partner, Ashurst
paul.newman@ashurst.com


Shane Bosma, Ashurst
shane.bosma@ashurst.com


Paul Wilson, Ashurst
paul.wilson@ashurst.com

 

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