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By  Amy Edwards 27 June 2023 5 min read

Key points

  • Surveying Great Barrier Reef residents to understand how they value and use the Reef helps inform management decisions.
  • The surveys have been taking place for close to a decade.
  • Climate change and COVID-19 have significantly impacted Reef residents.

The Great Barrier Reef is an international treasure. But, what does it mean to the people who call it home?

Two years ago, researchers reached out to residents living between Bundaberg to Cape York. They asked them what words sprang to mind when they thought of the massive marine wonderland on their doorstep?

The most common words people wrote were ‘coral’, ‘fish’, ‘beautiful’ and ‘tourism’. Their associations between the Reef and its visual beauty were clear.

The most common words people wrote were ‘coral’, ‘fish’, ‘beautiful’ and ‘tourism’.

But during the same period, three other words dominated people’s thoughts – ‘climate change’ and ‘COVID’.

Every few years, the Social and Economic Long Term Monitoring Program (SELTMP) gathers data about Reef communities and their changing relationship with the world’s largest marine ecosystem.

The surveys, which last took place in June 2023, have been running for a decade. In 2013, scientists from CSIRO and Reef managers from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority first recognised a major information gap in their understanding. They didn't know enough about the human uses, values, and perceptions of the Reef – all of which were critical for future decision making by Reef managers and government.

Dr Matt Curnock is a social-environmental scientist with us and co-leader of SELTMP. He said the Reef managers and scientists identified a wish-list of all the things they wanted to know.

“The first surveys in 2013 provided a snapshot of how different communities such as residents, tourism operators and fishermen valued and interacted with the Reef. They also captured how vulnerable these groups were to environmental change,” Matt said.

A change in thinking around climate change

An underwater shot of coral, cod and snorkellers at Pixie Pinnacle, Ribbon Reef ©  Matt Curnock

Close to 2500 Reef residents completed the most recent round of surveys in  June 2021.

At the time, 94 per cent of residents agreed that the aesthetic beauty of the Reef was “outstanding”.

That year was also the first time in the history of the surveys that climate change was perceived by residents as the number one threat to the Reef.

“There’s been a change in mindset across the Great Barrier Reef community in the past decade,” Matt said.

“For example, in the 2017 surveys, residents’ perceptions of climate change as a threat became more prominent. Prior to the 2016–2017 major bleaching event, climate change barely got a mention. But that mass bleaching event was so widespread and severe it brought home the impact.

“The threat was on people’s doorstep. It prompted a community response of grief and empathy and increased awareness of the climate threat. This came through strongly in the data.”

The Global Pandemic

The world-wide pandemic was the next major event to impact Reef residents, not just emotionally but financially.

COVID had a devastating effect on the Reef’s tourism industry – a major sector of the region’s economy. Tourist visits to the Reef dropped to near-zero between March and June 2020, and the recovery over the next two years was slow. Parts of the industry still haven’t fully recovered to pre-COVID levels.

A scuba diver enjoys the colourful coral of the Great Barrier Reef. ©  Matt Curnock

Among the SELTMP team’s research activities in recent years, the scientists have implemented a ‘deep dive investigation’ into resilience and adaptation of the Reef tourism industry to the COVID-19 pandemic.

They are hoping to gain insights into how the Reef tourism industry will adapt to future crises and what to monitor to help operators and supporting organisations meet their objectives in the future.

How the Great Barrier Reef residents survey is used

The Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan was first published by the Australian and Queensland Governments in 2015. It is the overarching framework for protecting and managing the Reef up to 2050 and is updated every five years.

The plan outlines clear objectives for the desired future of the Reef including ‘human dimension’ goals. These capture social, economic, cultural and governance aspects of the Reef.

SELTMP is one of the key programs that continues to monitor progress towards those goals and inform management of the Reef. Dr Michelle Dyer is Assistant Director for Social Science with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. She said the data continues to be a litmus test for residents’ sentiment towards the Reef and their changing relationship with it.

Recreational Fishers are an important group of Great Barrier Reef users. ©  Matt Curnock

“The data also gives insight into how people using the Reef feel about it and their perceptions of management, governance and Reef health. Fishing continues to be a popular activity on the Reef and we look at the SELTMP data to further understand this group,” Michelle said.

In 2018, the Reef Authority used SELTMP data to help recreational fishers ‘Protect Their Patch’. The campaign aimed to get fishers to report illegal fishing in green zones at Seaforth — an area north of Mackay that had the highest number of no-take green zone poaching offences in the Marine Park. Through SELTMP data, they learnt that recreational fishers perceived illegal fishing as a big threat to the Reef and 85 per cent wanted to do more to protect it.

The Reef Authority were aware from the data that word of mouth was the primary way fishers got information about the Reef. So, they produced material that prompted discussion on green zones among recreational fishers. This material included tackle box stickers, fridge magnets and posters for community halls and local businesses.

Learning and adapting on the Great Barrier Reef

Over the years, SELTMP researchers have regularly reviewed and refined their surveys. This helps meet changing information needs for Reef managers. The updates also enable the team to provide progress updates on the Reef 2050 Plan objectives.

“When you learn more about the Reef as a social-ecological system, you naturally ask more questions. So, there’s a growing interest from an increasing number of end users who would like to know more,” Matt said.

Reports on the 2021 SELTMP survey included a user-friendly brochure (PDF 8.7MB) and online dashboards, making the results available for the general public as well as Reef managers.

Matt said that over the past decade there has been a shift in Reef management and protection, with increasing restoration and initiatives underway. This has aimed to help bolster Reef resilience to growing threats, particularly from climate change.

“It's really important for us to be learning from the resident community about how they are using the Reef and contributing to its protection at this pivotal stage,” he said.

SELTMP is funded by the partnership between the Australian Government’s Reef Trust and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation and is being delivered in partnership with CSIRO, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the Queensland Government’s Reef Water Quality Program.

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