"The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has recently expressed concern about the governance of the reef," said Allan Dale from the Cairns Institute of James Cook University. "We have spent billions of dollars managing the reef but we are still going backwards in terms of its ecological health. Someone in the overall system needs to take a leadership role, take a step back and look at the system as a whole."

Together with colleagues from various institutes across Queensland, Dale developed a new risk assessment method for analysing governance systems and found that there are serious concerns in several areas of governance relating to the Great Barrier Reef. "We hope that our new technique will help in improving the governance of this important reef system," he said.

The researchers assigned domains to the various areas of governance that affect the reef, including coastal management; biodiversity; agricultural resources; marine resources; water resources; and atmospheric resources. Each of these domains was divided into sub-domains – for example, the coastal domain contained sub-domains of international, national, provincial, regional and local coastal management and key functions carried out by related authorities and organizations.

"We then assessed the health of the overall system domains and sub-domains," Dale told environmentalresearchweb "This included looking at whether all these domains were connected, functioning, had capacity, clear objectives and good strategies."

The researchers found several areas that need serious attention, such as the Major Projects sub-domain, which contains all the relevant organisations involved in developing large projects such as new ports or coal mines.

"Problems in this sub-domain arise from weaknesses in regional strategic and local land-use planning, which could better guide major project development and avoid cumulative impacts," said Dale. "The cost of reform in the Major Project sub-domain could be modest if focussed on improving project assessment coordination, better engagement frameworks and impact monitoring. The spectre of the Australian Government devolving responsibility for major project assessment under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act to Queensland is significant and could resolve the current ideological gridlock between both governments over the issue."

Dale and colleagues also looked at seemingly unrelated governance domains such as the nation's school-based education system. They found that Australia's education system is still not delivering students and a civic community with good understanding of the environmental and economic risks posed by poor natural-resource management. "This could retard the emergence of effective and acceptable societal-wide solutions to the major threats facing the Reef," said Dale.

The researchers did find areas where significant improvements are evident. For example, fishing has been reduced in particular zones and some aspects of the reef's health are recovering. In general, maritime management systems were excellent.

But while some outcomes are improving, some governance domains are not, claimed Dale. That is why he is calling for urgent cross-institutional, cross-governmental partnerships to better manage the reef.

The scientists published their study in Environmental Research Letters (ERL) as part of the ERL Focus on Delivering on Conservation Promises: Risks and Impacts of Investments.

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