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The challenge

People and the Great Barrier Reef

People are a part of the Great Barrier Reef. ©  Matt Curnock

People are a part of the Great Barrier Reef.

Today, management of the Reef requires more than a comprehensive understanding of the biophysical pressures, ecosystem states and responses. Understanding the human dimension of the Reef is essential for long-term planning and management, and for monitoring and evaluation.

The 'human dimension' includes how people, industries and communities perceive, interact with, and value the Reef, and how these groups are likely to respond to and cope with changes associated with environmental degradation, climate change, regulatory frameworks, and culture.

Our response

A social and economic long-term monitoring program

The Social and Economic Long Term Monitoring Program for the Great Barrier Reef (SELTMP) is gathering long-term data specific to Reef users, communities and industries, and providing new insights into relationships between people and this iconic natural resource. SELTMP synthesises existing socio-economic data from a wide range of sources, then fills key knowledge gaps by conducting large-scale surveys of Reef user groups.

The first of such surveys, in 2013, questioned 8,300 people (commercial fishers, tourism operators, tourists, and coastal and national residents) about their dependence, usage and affinity with the Reef, as well as their perceptions, values, experiences, attitudes and behaviours.

SELTMP was established in 2011 with funding provided by the Australian Government under the National Environment Research Program (NERP). SELTMP is led by researchers from CSIRO and James Cook University, in partnership with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the Great Barrier Reef Foundation and NQ Dry Tropics.

The results

A comprehensive dataset of increasing value

Already producing fascinating insights into the human dimension of the Great Barrier Reef, the value of SELTMP to Reef managers and the Australian public will increase as longitudinal data and knowledge are accumulated through repeated surveys.

A social and economic long-term monitoring program for the Great Barrier Reef is providing vital information to help make informed decisions. ©  Matt Curnock

Some of the findings so far from SELTMP are summarised below.

Use and dependency:

  • 95 per cent of coastal residents in the catchment have visited the Great Barrier Reef in their lifetime and 88 per cent have visited the Great Barrier Reef in the previous 12 months.
  • Among tourists visiting the Great Barrier Reef catchment, 70 per cent had visited the Reef during their stay and 50 per cent took a commercial Reef tour.
  • 25 per cent of coastal residents are dependent on the Great Barrier Reef for at least some of their household income.


  • 76 per cent of tourism operators and 46 per cent of commercial fishers feel optimistic about the future of their business within the Reef.
  • When asked what words come to mind when thinking about the Great Barrier Reef, 82 per cent of respondents recalled positive words such as beauty, diversity, fish and corals.
  • The Great Barrier Reef is considered to be Australia’s most inspiring landmark and the vast majority of Australians either want to visit the Reef or have done so already.

The cultural context:

  • In all user groups of the Great Barrier Reef, we found that people value the aesthetic appeal of the Reef above all other values – even economic values.
  • Users of the Great Barrier Reef have strong feelings of personal responsibility and stewardship for the Reef; 88 per cent of coastal residents felt a personal responsibility to protect the Great Barrier Reef.
  • 94 per cent of coastal residents are proud that the Great Barrier Reef is a World Heritage Area.
  • The Great Barrier Reef forms a significant part of the Australian and coastal identity; 64 per cent of coastal residents believe that 'the Great Barrier Reef is part of my identity'.

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