Outstanding Universal Value of the Reef

The Great Barrier Reef is an international icon. It is a renowned tourist attraction and one of the world’s most unique and biologically diverse natural environments.

No other World Heritage property contains as much biodiversity as the Reef.

The Reef was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1981 for its Outstanding Universal Value (OUV). This includes its unique natural attributes, enormous scientific and environmental importance.

The strong ongoing links between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and their Sea Country are recognised in the Reef's World Heritage listing and contributes to its OUV.

Despite the challenges it is facing, the Reef maintains these characteristics to this day.

Dive into our virtual reality video to view the Reef and learn about how we are building it's resilience to threats.

Explore the Reef with virtual reality

underwater photograph of a clown fish in the Great Barrier Reef
underwater photograph of a turtle in the Great Barrier Reef

World Heritage Committee decision on the Great Barrier Reef

The World Heritage Committee has considered the state of the Reef for many years.

In September 2023, the committee agreed to not consider the Reef for the List of World Heritage In Danger.

Properties are added to the list to encourage better management action and attract financial support.

The decision recognises the increased action we are taking and the investments we are making for long-term Reef protection.

Australia provided UNESCO with a progress report in late January 2024. The report demonstrates our progress on key actions to protect the Reef.

Read more about the World Heritage Committee decision on the Great Barrier Reef

Threats to the Reef

Climate change is the biggest threat for reefs worldwide, including the Great Barrier Reef. It is also a significant threat for many other World Heritage properties.

The Reef is also under pressure from the impacts of poor water quality, crown-of-thorns starfish, fishing and marine debris.

Urgent global action on climate change is needed to protect our coral Reefs.

Australia is also accelerating actions to build the Reef’s resilience, by addressing other threats.

Read more about threats to the Great Barrier Reef

The World Heritage listed Great Barrier Reef is one of the most complex natural ecosystems on earth.

The reef is the biggest living structure on the planet, roughly the size of Italy or Japan, an area so large that it can be seen from space. Across its vast expanse are 35 catchments connecting a network of 3000 coral reefs, shallow seagrass, estuaries, inshore mangroves and deep oceanic waters.

The reef is home to thousands of species of marine life, including 1200 species of coral, 1500 species of fish, six of the world's seven species of marine turtle whales, dolphins, plus a great diversity of sponges, anemones, marine worms and crustaceans.

Its islands, beaches and coastal areas provide important habitats for approximately 80% of Australia's shorebird species. No other World Heritage property contains such biodiversity.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are the traditional owners of the Great Barrier Reef area, with continuing connections to the land and sea Country dating back more than 60,000 years.

An international icon and Australia's most acclaimed natural asset, the Reef and its catchment area attracts millions of visitors every year and it is an important part of the social and economic fabric of numerous communities living in the region.

The reef is under pressure from a range of threats, including climate change, poor water quality and crown of thorns starfish outbreaks. But there is hope to ensure that one of Australia's national treasures is protected for future generations.

The Australian Government is taking increased action on climate change and funding initiatives to build the reef's long-term resilience. This is helping to deliver targets outlined in the Reef 2050 Plan, which is Australia's framework for protecting and managing the Great Barrier Reef.

Through our investments in the Reef we are improving the quality of water flowing to the reef, supporting world leading reef management, accelerating the development of restoration and adaptation measures to help the reef adapt to climate change and empowering people to care for the reef through strong partnerships and collaboration.

Australia's approach to protect and manage the Great Barrier Reef is underpinned by the collaboration with Reef Partners utilizing the latest marine science, Traditional owner First Nations people knowledge and the expertise of local community partners. Through this, we are committed to ensuring the Great Barrier Reef remains a living, natural and cultural wonder of the world.

underwater photograph of coral in the Great Barrier Reef

Climate change action and the Reef

Australia is taking increased action on climate change.

We are committed to being part of the global effort to manage climate change impacts and improve the health of reefs worldwide.

The Australian and Queensland governments released an updated Reef 2050 Long Term Sustainability Plan in 2021.

Since then, Australia has committed to more ambitious greenhouse gas emissions reductions targets and introduced new initiatives to achieve them.

In 2023, we published a Climate Change Addendum to the Reef 2050 Plan. The Addendum demonstrates our increased focus on limiting the impacts of climate change on the Reef.

Our efforts to address local pressures facing the Reef and build its resilience are important in managing the impacts of climate change on the Reef.

These efforts will be most effective when combined with national and global action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Read more about the Reef 2050 Plan 2023 Climate Change Addendum.

Our actions on the Reef

The Reef 2050 plan is the overarching framework that guides our actions for protecting and managing the Reef.

Traditional Owners of the Great Barrier Reef are also leading actions to protect and care for their Sea Country.

We are partnering with Traditional Owners and investing to support their aspirations for a 'Healthy Reef and Healthy People'.

To build the Reef’s resilience to climate change and other threats, together with the Queensland Government we are investing more than $5 billion to 2030.

We are investing to accelerate and scale up actions to improve water quality.

We are using the latest science to help the Reef resist, adapt to and recover from the impacts of climate change.

We are supporting strong partnerships, stewardship and collective action to empower people to care for the Reef.

Together with the Queensland Government, we are working with fishers to better protect threatened species and deliver sustainable fisheries.

Read more about our investments and actions on the Reef

Aerial photograph of coral

Planet Shapers - deep diving

The Great Barrier Reef is the world's largest coral reef and living structure. It's even visible from space.

This incredibly complex ecosystem was declared a World Heritage area back in 1981, but it's facing significant threats that may impact its future.

Eric Fisher has been guiding tourists on the reef for almost 20 years. Eric, tell me, how big is the Great Barrier Reef? It covers 365,000 square kilometres, which really starts up there in the catchments, the land and the sea.

They're all connected. So right now you're on a reef called Moore Reef, which is east of Cairns. You're on the north west corner of that, literally 54 kilometres straight from Cairns. The health of this reef is quite amazing. But the reef is challenged. The biggest challenge is climate change. Climate change is impacting the reef through cumulative disturbances, lots of disturbances in a short period of time. Climate change is the biggest threat to the reef, but there's also the crown of thorns starfish, water quality issues, marine debris, cyclones and storms. That's why investment in scientific research to protect the reef is so important.

The Australian Institute of Marine Science, or AIMS, is Australia's world class marine research organisation. Laura, welcome to AIMS come on through and I'll show you what we're up to. Headquartered outside Townsville, its work is vital to protecting the reef.

So what we're focused on here at AIMS is providing solutions for these major challenges that our ecosystems are facing. Understanding how marine organisms will respond to those future conditions.

So there are many pressures that are impacting our reef. Climate change is widely recognized as the biggest of all. We have scientists coming from all around the world coming here to work on global issues.

So what you can see where is the coral is actually quite brown. But that's a good thing because Dr. Bay's current research centres around the heat resistant coral. But firstly, what's a coral for? A lot of people think that corals are colourful rocks, but in fact they're really complex and fascinating animals. Corals are solar powered they have little plants living inside their bodies. And those plants provide a lot of the food that they need to grow in the clear waters that we find them in. So it's kind of like an animal, a vegetable and a mineral all wrapped up in one.

What happens when the ocean temperatures heat up? Well, when ocean temperatures heat up, corals lose these algae that they rely on for food. So what we've seen in the last decade or so are an increasing number of these very warm marine heatwaves, we call them.

So what we're doing here is we're studying how corals can become more heat tolerant. And our results from the lab are promising. It appears to us that there's a quite an extraordinary ability to cope and adapt. The question is whether they can adapt fast enough to the rate of change that we're observing. Yeah, this is the next generation of corals. So these are about a year old. It's about breeding the right corals in the facility, placing them out on the reef and then helping them survive that first critical year. We can protect them from being eaten. We can help them not being overgrown by algae and we're even looking at providing food or probiotics for them to stay healthy, Healthy coral guts, healthy corals.

That's right. AIMS is the home of the National Sea Simulator. Using a collection of large seawater tanks, researchers are able to manipulate environmental factors such as light, temperature, acidity and more. The National Sea Simulator is what we affectionately call the smartest aquarium in the world. So we do spot coral spawning every year here in the National Sea Simulator. It's an event that attracts scientists from around the world.

Tell me how these some of the baby corals. Yeah, this is the next generation of corals that we just talked about. And really you can see quite clearly here if I reach out you can see some of these very young corals here. We are able to identify more tolerant corals and we are able to breed them and produce whole families of corals that are more tolerant.

But the challenge is not just breeding them. It's then settling them, allowing them to transition into the next life stage and have them grow healthily on the reef.

We have scientists on the reef every day doing experiments, running transects in the water, counting fish, sharks, turtles and so on. Being heat resistant might help corals deal with climate change, but unfortunately it doesn't stop corals being tasty to their natural predators.

The crown of Thorns Starfish. Tell me a bit more about why a crown of thorns starfish is such a problem for the reef. Every 10 to 15 years on the Barrier Reef, we have a huge population explosion of these animals and what they eat is, unfortunately, corals. And so the last thing the corals need with current other stress like climate change around is a sea star eating them and decimating their numbers. The only thing we can really do is to cull the starfish. There's a lot of different people helping us out on the reef, so we have the tourism operators, we've got our crown of thorns control boats, and we have some pontoon operators like Eric Fisher at Reef Magic, who is one of our first collaborators. We've worked with him for nearly ten years now. So a lot of people are helping us out.

Well, our reefs are for everyone and the solution involves everyone. And so the work that we're doing here in Australia has the potential to benefit many other nations that are less able to do the work that we can do here. Tourism has operated on the Great Barrier Reef for decades, but in recent years many tour operators have taken on additional roles working alongside scientists on the reef. Eric Fisher from Reef Magic has been doing this type of work for years.

So coral rubble stabilization, we've been using a technique that was pioneered by the chocolate bar company Mars. They're modular structures covered in crushed limestone. We tie on coal fragments. We see incredible results. We see a coral cover increase by 50% in less than 18 months.

So it's not just about scientists and our work, but it's also about how we draw in the community, the industries, and most importantly, forging and building relationships with traditional owners, which are the first scientist of the oceans.

Science is based on observation, and traditional owners have been observing the reef for tens of thousands of years. Increasingly, scientists are collaborating with traditional owners to make use of these valuable resource. First Nations guides like Lazarus tell traditional stories to help tourists connect with the reef. And we have a dreamtime story about this reef right here, about it being a shark. So that’s a little hammerhead right there. Oh, that's cool.

So traditional owners really use the reef in a sustainable way. So we have our glass bottom boat tours taking all around the reef here. And while we're on the reef, we're talking about our traditional hunting. Makes me feel really, really proud. My culture, my backgrounds, I'm sharing this with people and having them going out of the way to learn and asked me tons of questions. Eric, you're a master reef guide, not just any tour guide. What is a master reef guide? The thing about Master Reef Guide was to create a network of storytellers. These identifiable individuals, part of the storytelling culture, doesn't necessarily have to be marine biologists.

They can be a First Nations cultural guide. They can be a skipper. Anyone can be a Master Reef Guide. In that sense, is your ability and your passion to tell a story. You want people to be connected to the reef.

How are you doing that? So what's happening today? We've got marine biologists down in the water taking people who've never been snorkel before, getting comfortable, also teaching them stories about the reef. We've got people who have never been underwater before, are actually trying diving for the first time. We've got glass bottom boats if you want to stay dry and get that First Nations perspective. We have our lab presentations happening today where you can interact with the marine biologists and the research that's happening. But another lovely part of this pontoon is are underwater observatory. This is where you can see the fish feeding underwater. They put that little personal touch talking about an animal's personality, which makes that great a connection.

It's so unbelievably healthy up here on Moore Reef. The diversity of corals is astounding that so many different pieces of fish we've seen turtles and sea cucumbers, you can't help but get underwater experience the magic and really want to protect our reef.

We all need to get out and see it. What we want to do is connect people to the reef. We do encourage you to go out to the reef, see the reef, involved with the reef. You want people take home the most memorable experience they've had. I went from my first dive. That was really exciting because I'm actually a very poor swimmer and I was so nervous. Yes, definitely wanted to see everyone out here and have a look at it so we can get more people on board to protect it. Definitely. Yeah. That's that's the most personal thing, taking people for the first time snorkelling in the reef that sticks with you forever. I went two trips on the glass on a boat, and I was just amazed by the Mars stars. I'd never heard of it or anything like that. I'm really pleased I came and learned about this. You know, it's so good to see that something positive is happening on the reef.

So how good a job are we doing of protecting the Great Barrier Reef? But we are doing the very best we can because we want the strength to be around, not just for the next couple of generations, but we're talking the next 50, 60,000 years and generations on the reef. We want everyone to love the reef and see the reef.

So you've got federal bodies, you've got non-government organisations, you've got traditional owners, tourism operators, big industry, all trying to work together. That collaborative model based on mutually beneficial partners is the way of the future when it comes to like practicing 21st century conservation.

Collaboration and innovation

Australia’s Reef actions are underpinned by collaboration and innovation.

Managing and protecting the world's largest coral reef system is a big task. Collaboration is a vital part of our efforts.

Our investments are supporting collaboration between Reef Traditional Owners, scientists, and tourism operators.

We are also using innovations and the latest science to investigate new solutions to protect and restore the Reef.

Image credits

Matt Curnock, Jordan Robins, Shutterstock