What are the key results of Report Card 2017 and 2018?

    • The Cape York sediment and particulate nutrient targets were met. Modelling shows the average annual loads of sediment reduced by 1.8% to 9.8%, almost double the 5% target. Reductions were due to improved pasture management from destocking cattle and controlling feral animals on the Queensland Government owned Springvale Station, and improved pasture and gully management through Australian Government Reef Trust projects.
    • The Burdekin region recorded the largest improvement (up 3.2% to 19.6%) in best practice nutrient management for sugarcane. Improved nutrient management was delivered through the Queensland Government Burdekin Nitrogen Project and the Australian Government Reef Trust: Reef Alliance Growing a Great Barrier Reef project.
    • Modelling shows the annual average load of dissolved inorganic nitrogen flowing from the Burdekin reduced by 1.2% to 26.7% as a result of these projects.
    • The loss of natural wetlands across the Great Barrier Reef catchments slowed with less than 0.1% loss (556 hectares) between 2013 and 2017.
    • Throughout the catchments, freshwater floodplain wetlands remained in moderate condition.
    • Loss of riparian woody vegetation across the Great Barrier Reef catchments increased with 45,467 hectares (0.74%) loss between 2013 and 2017.
    • The proportion of grazing land across the Great Barrier Reef catchments with adequate ground cover to reduce erosion was 63%, below the target of 90% primarily due to many areas being drought declared.
    • Overall inshore marine condition was poor in 2017-2018, with coral rated moderate and seagrass and water quality in poor condition. The Cape York, Wet Tropics and Burdekin regions were in moderate condition overall and the Mackay Whitsunday, Fitzroy and Burnett Mary regions were in poor condition.

    What are the Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan targets?

    The Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan 2017-2022 seeks to improve the quality of water flowing from the catchments adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef. The plan builds on previous water quality plans by setting separate targets for reducing water pollution from each catchment to enable better prioritisation of actions.

    Water quality targets define the required reductions in sediment and nutrient loads by 2025 for the catchments discharging to the Reef. The pesticide target defines the required protection level for aquatic ecosystems.

    The 2025 targets are:

    For more information, see the Targets page.

    How does the Reef Water Quality Report Card relate to Outlook Report, regional report cards and the Reef 2050 Integrated Monitoring and Reporting Program?

    There are a range of monitoring and reporting products for the Great Barrier Reef including:

    • The five-yearly Outlook Report examines the overall condition of the Reef including all factors influencing the health of the Reef, management effectiveness, resilience and the risk to the Reef’s future. The Outlook Report and the Reef Water Quality Report Card have different grading scales, and they also operate over different time scales. The Outlook Report provides a summary over five years (the most recent report covers from 2014–19), whereas the Report Card provides a one-to-two year summary of catchment management progress, water quality and inshore marine health.
    • Further information on coral reefs are provided by the Australian Institute of Marine Science Long-term Monitoring Program. This program surveys the health of 47 midshore and offshore reefs across the Great Barrier Reef region and is the longest continuous record of change in reef communities over such a large geographic area.  The program encompasses surveys of fish, coral and other bottom-dwelling organisms along the same sections of reef on each visit. It also documents the impacts of disturbances such as crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks, cyclones and bleaching events, and coral disease outbreaks. A separate component of the program monitors the effects of the 2004 Great Barrier Reef Marine Park re-zoning plan.
    • The Reef Water Quality Report Card summarises progress towards achieving improved land management practices, catchment indicator and water quality targets, as well as inshore marine health and wetland condition.
    • Regional report cards build on the underpinning science of the Reef Water Quality Report Card and add additional local information relating to the condition of freshwater, estuary and marine environments, and integrate data from local governments, ports, industry and other partners.
    • The Reef 2050 Integrated Monitoring and Reporting Program is a coordinated and integrated monitoring, modelling and reporting program that is under development for the Reef and its adjacent catchment. It will enable resilience-based management of the Reef and help track progress towards the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan targets.

    What period does the Reef Water Quality Report Card 2017 and 2018 cover?

    The Reef Water Quality Report Card 2017 and 2018 assesses the results of Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan actions reported up to June 2018.

    Have the results been independently reviewed?

    The Reef Independent Science Panel reviews and provides scientific advice on key elements of the Paddock to Reef program including the program design and major outputs such as the Reef Water Quality Report Cards.

    The Paddock to Reef Coordination and Advisory Group provides technical review and advice, with a focus on coordination and integration.

    In addition, each part of the program undergoes additional peer and external review processes. For example, the Source Catchments modelling framework has been reviewed extensively with international independent reviewers finding the modelling approach is best practice and highly innovative.

    Why are confidence ratings used, and how are they determined?

    A semi-quantitative, multi-criteria analysis approach is used to measure confidence for each key indicator in the report card. This is needed due to the range and variability of reporting data sets that underpin the results. Having a single, consistent multi-criteria framework enables comparison across reporting themes. The assessment considers the maturity of the methodology, level of validation, representativeness of the data, directness of the indicator and measured error.

    The Reef Independent Science panel reviews the method and confidence scoring for each report card.

    Why is progress towards achieving the targets slow?

    The Reef Water Quality Report Card 2017 and 2018 assesses the results of Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan actions reported up to June 2018.

    The modelling used to report reductions in water quality pollutants leaving catchments is based on the reported area of land management change. The rate of progress demonstrates that improvements in pollutant reductions are incremental.

    Many landholders have improved their land management practices, but the results reflect the large scale of change still required to meet the water quality targets. The Australian and Queensland governments are investing more than $600 million (PDF, 254.3KB) to deliver actions in the Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan through to 2022 to ramp up this progress.

    There are also some significant challenges to address such as extensive gullies which have eroded over many years. We are investing more resources and trialling new approaches to more effectively address the required landscape scale changes in the future.

    Results are considered a conservative estimate of progress as not all land management activities undertaken during the reporting period have been reported to the Paddock to Reef program. Significant time is needed to engage land managers and detailed project planning must be undertaken before management practices and water quality can improve.

    Over coming years, results from existing and additional programs will be reported including further Australian Government Reef Trust, Queensland Reef Water Quality Program and Queensland Natural Resource Management Investment Program investments.

    These report card results will help guide our policy approaches and prioritise our investment in future water quality projects. New prioritisation tools will help improve the cost effectiveness of investments and drive further progress towards the targets. Read more in the ‘Reef horizon’ fact sheet.

    Why is the focus on farmers and graziers?

    Everyone, not just farmers, need to play their part in improving water quality. While it is important that all industries minimise run-off to the Reef, the largest contribution to nutrient, sediment and pesticide run-off is broad scale agriculture (2017 Scientific Consensus Statement).

    The Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan addresses all land-based sources of water pollution including run-off from urban, industrial and public lands. It also recognises the importance of people in creating change.

    Partnerships across all sectors at all levels continue to be key to making progress towards the water quality targets. This includes governments working together with agriculture, industry, urban development and construction, conservation, community and natural resource management stakeholders to improve the quality of water flowing from the catchment to the Reef.

    How is marine water quality assessed?

    Given the size of the Great Barrier Reef and the dynamic and changing nature of conditions the Reef experiences (such as weather, water movement and river discharges), it is impossible to rely solely on monitoring data to confidently assess marine water quality over entire zones or regions.

    Marine water quality scores are estimated using the eReefs model which integrates multiple lines of evidence including satellite imagery. The eReefs model accounts for weather conditions, water movement, freshwater river discharges and pollutant loads to provide daily estimates of water quality across the Great Barrier Reef and through the water column.

    Revised in 2015–2016, the new metric is based on research from the Australian Institute of Marine Science, CSIRO and James Cook University. Further improvements to the eReefs model have addressed recommendations from the Reef Independent Science Panel. The same metric has been applied to this reporting period.

    Why do we have confidence in the water quality estimates produced by the model?

    To confidently measure water quality in the Great Barrier Reef (without the use of models), we would need sufficient monitoring to assess changing conditions over a long time and across a large area. Using remote sensing (satellite imagery) helps to overcome this problem. However, there are issues when cloud cover prevents assessment of the marine waters and turbidity hinders independent measures of sediment and nutrients. This happens frequently during the wet season when most of the discharge from rivers occurs.

    Confidence in the water quality predictions generated by the eReefs model is assessed using validation techniques. Model results are compared against monitoring data in specific locations to determine how well the model is predicting the conditions occurring in the Great Barrier Reef lagoon. The validation results are available in a comprehensive report.

    Improvements to the eReefs model and the integration of satellite data means model predictions are more closely aligned with monitoring data. Reporting trends over time is possible as the Independent Science Panel is confident that the new version of the model aligns well with the previous version.

    What impact has coral bleaching had on the Reef?

    Consecutive marine heatwaves in the summers of 2016 and 2017 resulted in back-to-back mass coral bleaching events and widespread mortality of corals in shallower reef habitats. Coral mortality generally decreased with increasing water depth. The ecosystem changed rapidly and continues to change as a legacy effect of this mass bleaching.

    For the first time in more than 30 years, the Australian Institute of Marine Science's Long-Term Monitoring Program (AIMS LTMP) reported in May 2018 that coral cover was in steep decline in all three marine regions (northern, central and southern Great Barrier Reef). According to the 2019 report, average hard coral cover continued to decline on reefs in the central and southern regions while stabilising in the northern region. Reef condition varied, both within and among regions.

    Scientists from James Cook University reported a sharp decline in the recruitment of coral larvae in the northern and central sections of the Reef during 2018, compared to levels before the mass coral bleaching events. Dominant branching and table corals were those worst affected by bleaching and recorded the biggest decline in recruitment.

    Early surveys in 2019, as part of AIMS LTMP, in the northern Great Barrier Reef found juvenile coral in multiple size classes at most reefs.  Similarly, the tourism industry and other Reef users have reported the presence and growth of juvenile corals at some sites. These juvenile corals may be individuals that have survived bleaching.

    While these reports may be an early sign of recovery, the condition and recovery of Great Barrier Reef coral is heavily dependent on windows of no severe disturbances such as cyclones and bleaching.

    Recovery of these impacted reefs will depend on the growth of surviving coral colonies and recruitment of new corals produced by the remaining adults.

    Not all reefs have been impacted; reefs that escaped impacts of bleaching, cyclones and crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks remain in good condition.

    Further information on marine condition and trends can be found on the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s website.

    Why is there no coral data in some areas, such as Cape York and Burnett Mary?

    The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s Marine Monitoring Program provides the inshore marine assessment for the report cards. The program does not assess inshore corals for Cape York or the Burnett Mary region.

    Why is seagrass condition still poor?

    Inshore seagrass meadows across the Great Barrier Reef are still poor in most regions, and remain poor overall. The scores reflect multiple influences and frequent disturbances during the past decade — including impacts from severe tropical cyclone Yasi which reduced the average seagrass score to very poor in 2011-2012 — and subsequent cyclones, floods and high sea temperatures. Refer to the Marine Monitoring Program publications for information on the condition and trend of seagrass and seagrass meadows.

    Why does marine condition appear moderate in the Wet Tropics and Burdekin regions while progress to catchment targets is poor?

    The annual score for marine condition is a combined score for coral, seagrass and water quality. The marine scores reflect multiple influences including temperature, rainfall, river flow, run-off, extreme weather events, and for coral, the impacts of crown-of-thorns starfish predation and coral disease.

    This differs to the catchment water quality results which are based on long-term average annual modelled progress. Modelling removes the annual variability due to differences in rainfall and run-off and reflects the water quality improvements needed for coral and seagrass health.

    Environmental conditions were relatively stable in the Wet Tropics and Burdekin regions from July 2016 to June 2018. Cyclone Debbie mostly affected areas further to the south of these regions. There was some flooding after cyclone Iris from mid-March to early April 2018, but coral and seagrass were not exposed to high risk from flood plume pollutants.

    Coral scores have remained moderate in both regions over the past three years. Bleaching in 2016 and 2017 was counterbalanced by some signs of recovery. Coral cover and juvenile density has increased at shallower depths at some Wet Tropics reefs and coral cover has rebounded at several reefs in the Burdekin.

    Seagrass remained in moderate condition in the Burdekin. Seagrass in the Wet Tropics remained poor overall, but meadows in the north were in better condition.

    Why is inshore marine condition poor in the Mackay Whitsunday, Fitzroy and Burnett Mary regions?

    Poor marine condition reflects the complex interaction between ecological processes and a range of pressures, including temperature, rainfall, river flow, run-off, extreme weather events, and for coral, the crown-of-thorns starfish predation and coral disease, that can all affect the Reef.

    In March 2017, severe tropical cyclone Debbie, a Category 4 system, passed through the Whitsunday Islands and crossed the mainland at Airlie Beach. As a result, both the Mackay Whitsunday and Fitzroy regions had two to three times the long-term median combined river discharge. The decline in coral cover following cyclone Debbie and associated flooding is unprecedented in the Mackay Whitsunday region. Coral condition is improving in the Fitzroy region, but macroalgae is very prevalent and recruitment of new coral is poor.

    Seagrass abundance also declined in the Mackay Whitsunday region following tropical cyclone Debbie. However, inshore seagrass meadows across the Fitzroy and Mackay Whitsunday regions are showing the early stages of recovering from multiple impacts. Seagrass in the Burnett Mary region fell to very poor in 2017–18 due to a decline in reproduction and nutrient status.

    What is the Paddock to Reef program?

    The Paddock to Reef Integrated Monitoring, Modelling and Reporting Program (Paddock to Reef program) provides the framework for evaluating and reporting progress towards the Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan targets and objectives through the report card.

    Monitoring and modelling of water quality occurs across a range of attributes, from paddock scale through to sub-catchment, catchment, regional and Great Barrier Reef-wide.

    The Paddock to Reef program evaluates management practice adoption and effectiveness, catchment condition, pollutant runoff and inshore marine condition. The program areas are inter-linked and integrated through a common assessment and reporting framework. For more information, visit Paddock to Reef.

    Why do we use modelling, not just monitoring?

    Monitoring shows pollutant loads leaving catchments vary significantly from year to year, mainly due to differences in annual rainfall and run-off. Therefore, modelling is used to estimate the long-term annual pollutant load reductions due to the adoption of improved land management practices. This removes the impact of factors such as climate variability and allows us to determine the expected benefits of improved land management now rather than monitoring for decades to see a trend.

    Research suggests that time lags to see improvements from land management practice change in monitoring data could range from years for pesticides up to decades for nutrients and sediments. This is due to the high degree of variability. The models use measured changes in land management and well-documented and accepted methods and assumptions. Long-term water quality monitoring data is used to validate and improve the models, continuously improving confidence in the estimates of water quality over time.

    Why have the land management practice adoption benchmarks changed and why do results look worse in some industry sectors?

    The Paddock to Reef program management practice component monitors the adoption of a range of farm management practices. Land management practice adoption benchmarks describe a starting point for agricultural management, as at 2016. These benchmarks are reviewed every five years and this report card details progress from the new benchmark based on reported improvements in land management practices.

    In some industry sectors the benchmarks are different to what has previously been reported due to:

    • a different mix of practices being monitored (some new practices are monitored and others are no longer monitored)
    • finer scale monitoring and reporting
    • availability of more and higher quality data for some practices that give a better estimation of current levels of adoption.

    Progress towards the water quality targets is modelled based on changes in land management practice adoption, therefore reductions in the loads of pollutants are a reflection of this change.

    How is progress towards the loads reductions targets assessed?

    Catchment modelling estimates average annual loads of key pollutants for each of the 35 catchments draining to the Great Barrier Reef. It reports on reductions from the anthropogenic baseline load each year based on the adoption of improved land management practices.

    Catchment load reduction targets to 2025 are set for the whole of the Great Barrier Reef, the six regions and 35 catchments. Progress towards the targets is reported as the reduction since last report card as well as the overall cumulative reduction to date.

    Scores are based on the minimum annual reductions required to achieve the 2025 target (the required reduction divided by the number of years remaining). The scoring assesses if the annual reductions are on track to achieve the targets.

    Why are ‘best practices’ in the report card different to those in the industry-led best management practice (BMP) programs?

    Progress towards the Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan management practice adoption target is reported using industry specific management practice frameworks (water quality risk frameworks).

    For sugarcane, horticulture and grains, practices are ranked from low risk (for innovative practices that pose the lowest water quality risk) to high risk (superseded practices that have the highest water quality risk). For grazing, they are ranked from very low soil erosion and water quality risk to moderate-to-high soil erosion and water quality risk. The frameworks allocate a percentage weighting to each practice, depending on its relative potential influence on off-farm water quality. They are based on evidence and backed by research.

    Industry BMP programs support individual landholders in assessing their own management and comparing it with commonly accepted industry standards. Under the industry BMPs, most practices that are described as ‘at industry standard’ align with moderate risk in the Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan risk framework. Practices that are ‘above industry standard’ generally align with the moderate–low or lowest risk in the framework. Over time, it is expected that the framework’s best practices will become industry standard.

    water quality risk framework

    What industry Best Management Practice (BMP) data is used in the Report Card?

    Practice change programs and projects report data at a farm level, de-identified to protect grower privacy which is then used in modelling.

    To date, industry BMP programs have not supplied data to indicate the adoption of improved farm management practices (progress toward adoption targets) for consideration in the Reef Water Quality Report Card.

    Industry BMP data was used to help develop the farm management practice adoption benchmarks which estimate the existing extent of adoption of key practices.

    What is the impact of drought on ground cover reporting?

    Ground cover reporting is an objective measure of the level of cover in the dry season derived from analysis of satellite imagery.

    Across regions and catchments, ground cover varies due to localised rainfall, land management and landscape type. Annual rainfall data is included to show where there has been above or below average rainfall.

    Climatic cycles of droughts and rains associated with El Nino and La Nina, and other longer-term climate phenomena, can have a pronounced effect on the level of cover. During drought conditions, ground cover levels will vary from long-term averages with the recent drought resulting in low ground cover levels across the Great Barrier Reef catchment.

    For areas in extended drought, ground cover levels are likely to decline, however there may be a lag effect. Similarly, it may take time for ground cover levels to increase and become stable after the onset of above-average rainfall. Recovery can also be further delayed if the land is already degraded due to poor land management.

    Maintaining ground cover during drier periods is important to protect the landscape from degradation when rain does eventually come. High intensity rainfall when droughts break can often present the greatest risk of sediment run-off.

    Read more about how graziers are managing through drought conditions.

    Why has the riparian clearing rate increased compared to the last time? Isn’t it regulated?

    Riparian vegetation extent is assessed every four years. The riparian area is defined as any area within 50 metres of a (mapped) stream or riverine wetland which is compatible with ‘Category R’ riparian vegetation, defined in Queensland’s vegetation management framework. This is a change from previous reports, where a 100m buffer was used.

    The riparian vegetation is separated into two components, riparian forest and riparian ground cover. Data derived from satellite imagery is used to estimate the amount of riparian forest cover and ground cover. Riparian clearing is then measured using data from the Statewide Landcover and Trees Study: this report card uses 2013 to 2017 data.

    Vegetation management laws passed by the Queensland Government in 2018 regulate clearing to conserve remnant vegetation, minimise land degradation, maintain ecological processes and prevent the loss of biodiversity. This includes clearing vegetation within 50 metres of a watercourse in all Great Barrier Reef catchments.

    Why does pesticide risk appear higher in some areas than was presented in the 2017 Scientific Consensus Statement?

    Pesticide risk has previously been reported for a limited area and number of catchments in the 2017 Scientific Consensus Statement and in the Wet Tropics and Mackay Whitsunday regional report cards. Reporting now covers all 35 catchments at the end of catchment ensuring land use on the coastal edge of catchments is included in the estimates.

    In addition, the number of pesticides included in the estimate of pesticide risk has expanded. Previously, only photosystem II herbicides were considered and it now includes other herbicides and insecticides commonly detected in Great Barrier Reef catchments and the inshore marine environment.

    For these two reasons, in some catchments (e.g. in the Burnett Mary and Wet Tropics), the pesticide risk baseline results indicate that a smaller per cent of species are protected from the direct effects of pesticides than what was previously reported.

    What are the pesticide baselines?

    The pesticide risk baselines are the 2015 to 2018 estimates of pesticide risk, determined for the end-of-catchments, from which future progress towards the pesticide target (at least 99% of aquatic species protected) can be modelled. Pesticide risk is the estimated average per cent of aquatic species protected from the direct impacts of the mixtures of pesticides in a waterway, and therefore, should not experience adverse effects from pesticides. Generally, as pesticide concentrations increase, the per cent of species protected will decrease and the effects on organisms will worsen. For example, if the pesticide risk baseline is 95%, this means 95% of aquatic species in an ecosystem should be protected. It also means 5% are expected to experience some effects such as reduced growth, reproduction or population levels. Therefore, to reach the pesticide water quality target, pesticide concentrations need to be reduced to ensure an additional 4% of species are protected.

    To calculate the pesticide risk baselines, we estimate pesticide risk from the concentrations of 22 pesticides commonly detected in catchment monitoring during the wet season. Monitoring data is combined with statistical modelling to capture areas which are not routinely monitored. Pesticide risk baselines have been calculated for each catchment, region and at the whole Great Barrier Reef scale.

    How will we measure progress towards the pesticide target?

    Progress from the baseline towards the target will be reported in the next report card using the Source Catchment model. Progress will be based on improved land management practices that reduce pesticide run-off.

    How has reporting on wetland extent changed?

    Changes in wetland extent are reported every four years based on updated mapping. This update incorporates mapping improvements for all previous reporting periods and adds a new reporting period from 2013 to 2017.

    Previous report cards detailed the net change in extent of natural and modified wetlands. However, this approach masked wetland loss as there could be an increase due to wetland modification. Results now detail the actual loss of natural and modified wetlands and have been recalculated for all reporting periods.

    The results refer to the loss of wetland extent over four-years as a percentage of the wetland extent at the start of the reporting period.

    Historical loss is provided for context and represents the estimated difference between pre-clearing wetland extent and current wetland extent.

    The loss of natural wetlands has slowed with less than 0.1% loss (556 hectares) between 2013 and 2017. Modification of wetlands increased in some areas, primarily due to the conversion of estuarine wetlands to freshwater wetlands through bunding. Bunding, also called a bund wall, is an earthen wall built to restrain the movement of water. Bunding is used for tidal exclusion and retention of fresh water.

    How is wetland condition reported?

    The Great Barrier Reef Wetland Monitoring Program tracks trends in pressures on wetlands and the state of wetland environmental values.

    This is the first report since a wetland condition baseline was detailed in Report Card 2016. It is also the first report to assess progress towards the ‘improved wetland condition’ objective at the Great Barrier Reef catchment scale. A random sample of wetlands were monitored using multiple indicators for both pressure and state. The change in condition was calculated by comparing results against the baseline.

    The hydrology condition indicator is being refined and more wetlands are being monitored. This will allow a wetland condition baseline to be developed for some regions in future report cards.