Great Barrier Reef Faces Crucial Test as UNESCO Deadline for Australia Ends Today Feb 1

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By Esther Tanquintic-Misa | February 1, 2013 2:27 PM EST

Today is not only the first day of February but is also the day set by the UNESCO as deadline for the Australian government to submit its actions as to how it plans to preserve and protect the Great Barrier Reef, or otherwise risk losing its World Heritage status. The Australian federal government had said it was able to meet the deadline, but the question still floats - were its submitted to do actions really enough to save and salvage the great reef?

Tony Burke, federal environment minister, said on Friday that Australia met the deadline, noting the report that detailed plans on how to improve management and protection of the Great Barrier Reef had been submitted.

"We have made substantial progress in addressing the recommendations made by the World Heritage Committee, including agreement to conduct one of the most comprehensive strategic assessments ever undertaken in Australia," he said, stressing Australia was "absolutely committed" to protecting the reef.

But environmentalists think and say otherwise.

There was actually little action done to protect the Great Barrier Reef, Greens Senator Larissa Waters said, noting that she won't be anymore surprised if the reef does end up on the World Heritage In Danger list.

"The Australian and Queensland governments have continued to treat the Reef like a coal and gas highway and a rubbish tip for dredge spoil and deserve a fail mark from UNESCO," she said.

Mr Burke said that both the federal and state governments of Queensland are taking cautious approaches as to how to pursue economic-related developments at both inside and adjoining the reef.

"The Great Barrier Reef is an iconic Australian environmental asset, the Gillard government is absolutely committed to the protection of the reef and our oceans," Mr Burke said in a statement.

In its report submitted to the United Nation's environmental arm, the Australian federal government committed to stamp down any coal port or shipping developments that would give ''unacceptable'' damage to the Great Barrier Reef, specially if these would be placed in sensitive areas like Gladstone, unless the criteria of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act has been complied with and met by the proposed developer.

''UNESCO wanted the government to establish a benchmark that they wanted us to meet, and it has been met. The development approvals that have happened since the report have been consistent with that.''

''The World Heritage Committee can be assured that no new port developments or associated port infrastructure have been approved outside existing long-established major port areas since the committee made this recommendation,'' the government's report said.

''A project will only be approved by the Australian government environment minister if the residual impacts on protected matters, including 'outstanding universal value', are determined to be not unacceptable.''

But Ms Waters, along with the WWF and the Australian Marine Conservation Society, said Australia had not done much progress.

"Despite the clear warning from UNESCO in June 2012 that Australia could become the only developed nation with a World Heritage site on the In Danger list, key UNESCO recommendations have been ignored," Ms Waters said.

"The Government hasn't pushed pause on new or expanded coal and gas ports, hasn't declared pristine Port Alma and its indigenous dolphins off-limits and hasn't done independent studies into the Gladstone Harbour fish and wildlife disease disaster."

Felicity Wishart from the Australian Marine Conservation Society likewise thinks along the same lines.

"The fact that a world heritage committee is worried means that all Australians should be worried," she said.

"It's our responsibility to protect the reef, it is an international icon it is one of the great natural wonders of the world."

"At the moment what we're seeing is this massive over development of dredging, dumping and shipping."

"There's no curb on that and we can't afford that."

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