Threats to the Great Barrier Reef

There are growing threats to the Great Barrier Reef, but none so great as climate change, the coral bleaching and the ocean acidification it causes. WWF is working hard to impress upon our governments the need for urgent action to address climate change. WWF is also working to reduce pollution run-off from agriculture.

Climate change

Climate change is the biggest threat to the reef’s future. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s Outlook Report for the Great Barrier Reef in 2009 stated: “the threats of increasing sea temperature, ocean acidification and rising sea level are assessed as very high risk to the ecosystem... . Their impact will be compounded by each other and by other existing regional and local threats.”

Coral bleaching

The reef has already experienced two mass coral bleaching events – in 1998 and 2002. Bleaching was more severe in 2002, when aerial surveys showed that almost 60% of reefs experienced bleaching of some degree.


Sediment, nutrient and pesticide pollution from catchment run-off is also affecting the health and resilience of the reef ecosystem. 

The amount of sediment flowing into the marine park has quadrupled over the past 150 years. This increase can largely be attributed to grazing and cropping expansion in the catchment, which has also resulted in the loss of native vegetation and wetlands.

Nutrient loads have also increased, encouraging algal blooms, which, in turn, provide food for larvae of the devastating crown-of-thorns starfish. In addition, nearly one-third of the reef is now exposed to pesticides.


Not only is the reef subject to high levels of fishing pressure. Fishing practices, such as trawling for prawns, are permitted in over one-third of the marine park, resulting in untargeted fish capture (bycatch), and damage to  the seafloor and its resident plants and animals.


The Great Barrier Reef is under threat from the most widespread, rapid and damaging set of industrial developments in Queensland’s history. The Queensland Government is fast-tracking dredging and dumping of millions of tonnes of seabed and rock, and encouraging increased shipping through the narrow straits between reefs. The Australian Government is considering approval of these developments, including the world’s biggest coal port at Abbot Point, 50 km from the Whitsunday Islands.

Join WWF’s Fight for the Reef campaign and learn how you can help the Reef here.


Younesco campaign promo / ©: Isabelle Kuehn /
This June Unesco’s world heritage committee will vote on the future of the Reef.

For the first time ever, you get a vote too.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is 345,000 km² in size – that’s larger than the entire area of the UK and Ireland combined or five times the size of Tasmania!
Coral reef destroyed by Crown of thorn starfish or by coral bleaching.  Great Barrier Reef & ... / ©: Jürgen Freund / WWF-Canon
Coral reef destroyed by Crown of thorn starfish or by coral bleaching. Great Barrier Reef & Coral Sea, Australia.
© Jürgen Freund / WWF-Canon