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In the mid-1990s, concerns were raised that the levels of protection provided by the zoning at the time were inadequate to protect the range of biodiversity that existed in the Marine Park. This was recognised as important to ensure that the Great Barrier Reef remained a healthy, productive and resilient ecosystem that would continue to support a range of industries.

Between 1999 and 2004, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority undertook a systematic planning and consultative program to develop new zoning for the Marine Park.

The primary aim of the program was to better protect the range of biodiversity in the Great Barrier Reef by increasing the extent of no-take areas (or highly protected areas, locally known as ‘Green Zones’), ensuring they included 'representative' examples of all different habitat types - hence the name, the Representative Areas Program.

Whilst increasing the protection of biodiversity, a further aim was to maximise the benefits and minimise the negative impacts of the rezoning on the existing users of the Marine Park. Both these aims were achieved by a comprehensive program of scientific input, community involvement and innovation.

  • The Representative Areas Program was undertaken in a number of key phases: View a diagram outlining each of these phases.
  • The need for rezoning - a realisation the previous zoning was not adequate for biodiversity protection
  • Research and planning - collating and refining information to start the rezoning, including data sets, bioregions and planning principles
  • First community participation phase - seeking the views of the community and stakeholders
  • Developing the Draft Zoning Plan
  • Second community participation phase
  • Further development of the Plan - including Ministerial and Parliamentary approvals of the final plan
  • Implementing the Zoning Plan
  • Education, surveillance and enforcement
  • Monitoring the effects of the Zoning Plan

A Report on the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park zoning plan 2003 provides an overview of the preparation and information that assisted the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to make the decisions that resulted in the statutory Zoning Plan 2003.

It includes a summary of the issues raised during both formal Community Participation phases.

The degree to which the rezoning has provided better protection for the range of biodiversity throughout the Great Barrier Reef is depicted in the following maps; the 'pie charts' indicate the extent to which each of the 70 different habitat types or 'bioregions' are now within highly protected zones:

  • 30 protected Reef bioregions
  • 40 protected non-Reef bioregions

The 'representative areas' approach has ensured that at least 20 per cent of every bioregion (and frequently much more) is within a highly protected zone type.

This ensures protection of examples of all the species that occur in those habitats, including those species about which we know very little or have yet to be discovered.

It also allows important ecological, physical and chemical processes to occur which are fundamental to provide the capacity to recover from disturbance or withstand ongoing pressures.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Zoning Plan 2003 developed as a result of the Representative Areas Program has been in operation since 1 July 2004, and positive results are already appearing.

Original Zoning Plans (1983-1997)

Between 1983–1988, Zoning Plans were progressively developed covering the four main sections of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park – namely the Cairns, Central, Far Northern and Mackay/Capricorn Sections.

Between 1988–1997, an additional small section (Gummo Woojabuddee) was zoned, and two existing Zoning Plans (for the Cairns and Far Northern Sections) were reviewed, and the zoning was amended.

Collectively these Zoning Plans resulted in a spectrum of zone types across the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park with approximately 4.5 per cent declared as no-take areas or ‘Green Zones'.

These Green Zones were based on the best available information and were considered to be the appropriate level of protection at that time, given the community views and consequent level of political acceptance.

Commencement of Representative Areas Program (1998)

In the late 1990s, it was recognised that the existing zoning throughout the entire Marine Park did not adequately protect the range of biodiversity known to exist. Many biological communities (inshore marine habitats or deep offshore waters) were poorly represented in no-take areas.

It was clearly recognised that all plants, animals and their habitats within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park played important roles in maintaining the health and resilience of the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem.

A systematic program was therefore commenced (the Representative Areas Program), which was specifically designed to determine the major habitat types of the Great Barrier Reef Region, and develop a new Zoning Plan based on protecting ‘representative’ examples of each habitat type within a network of no-take or highly protected areas.

The Representative Areas Program was designed to maintain the health and resilience of the ecosystem and provide benefits for present and future generations.

Key publications

Collation of data sets (1998-1999)

To determine the main habitat types, all available biophysical, biological and oceanographic datasets were compiled (for example, bathymetry, reef morphology, slope, tidal range, substrate type, and soft and hard corals). In addition to existing biophysical data, surrogates were used to approximate different habitat types. Independent reef and non-reef experts, many internationally recognised in their fields, advised the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) on what they considered were the primary data sets and the physical factors determining the distribution of specific organisms.

  • View example maps of habitat types and biological data used

Development of map of bioregions (1999 -2000)

More than 40 sets of Great Barrier Reef data were compiled. This data was then used in workshops by the reef and non-reef experts to help classify the biological and physical diversity of the Great Barrier Reef.

Analytical methods also spatially cluster areas of similar biological and biophysical diversity.

This information helped define 70 different habitat types or 'bioregions' (30 reef bioregions and 40 non-reef bioregions) across the Great Barrier Reef and provided a fundamental basis for the Representative Areas Program.

  • View some of the datasets used to develop the bioregions
  • Map showing protection of non-reef bioregions
  • Map showing protection of reef bioregions

New coastal areas added to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (2000-2001)

Between August 2000 and July 2001, 28 new coastal areas that had previously been excluded were added to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

It is a statutory requirement that Zoning Plans be prepared for any new areas as soon as practicable after being formally recognised as part of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park – zoning for these areas was prepared as part of the Representative Areas Program.

Development of operating principles

The biophysical operating principles, which helped to guide decision-making throughout the Representative Areas Program process, were developed by an independent Scientific Steering Committee, including marine scientists of international standing in their fields.

The Scientific Committee used the best available science to recommend eleven biophysical operational principles, including minimum amounts of protection per bioregion, levels of protection for important habitat types, and replication of no-take areas throughout each bioregion.

Another set of four social, economic and cultural operational principles were similarly defined and agreed upon by another expert committee; these included maximising complementarity of no-take areas with human values, activities and opportunities.

Key publications

Further information

  • A review of zoning plans
  • New coastal areas of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park

May - August 2002

During a rezoning process, all components of the Zoning Plan are open for comment and alteration. As the Zoning Plans in place at this time were progressively developed over 17 years, some of the terms, management provisions and zone names differed between areas of the Marine Park.

It was proposed the Draft Zoning Plan would comprise a single Zoning Plan for the entire Marine Park, including the new coastal sections. This would allow consistent names and provisions to be applied.

A public notice to prepare a Draft Zoning Plan was issued on 7 May 2002, with public input invited until 7 August 2002.

The first formal community participation phase was extremely resource-intensive and involved a variety of techniques to ensure all coastal communities were aware of the Representative Areas Program and encouraged to get involved. An important part of this phase was a program to ensure the public understood the numerous pressures on the Great Barrier Reef and why a new Zoning Plan was needed.

This stage of community participation included providing blank maps of defined areas in the Marine Park linked to a questionnaire. People were asked to mark areas of interest to them and record corresponding information on the questionnaire.

These areas could either be places people used for fishing or other activities or sites of special and unique value. The map questionnaire also prompted people to provide general comments about Marine Park management issues. The map questionnaires were completed by individuals or people working as a group.

As a result, 10 190 written submissions were received, with over 95 per cent using the map questionnaires provided by Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

This was the largest number of submissions ever received by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority for a zoning or management planning exercise (the previous record was 1009 submissions received during the Cairns Section Zoning Plan review in 1992).

The record level of publicity about the rezoning program and a large number of written submissions required the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to implement a number of new ways to handle the huge amount of information. This included developing a new submissions database.

Key publications

Technical Information Sheets

  • Correcting misinformation, misunderstandings and providing the facts 

Other Publications

Identifying options for a network of no-take areas

A combination of the information provided in the submissions, stakeholder advice or involvement, and analytical approaches was collectively used to identify options for no-take areas.

The analytical approaches comprised marine reserve design software, including Marxan, adapted for use in the Representative Areas Program, and a suite of GIS-based spatial analysis tools.

The analytical software enabled the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) to integrate a number of data layers representing biophysical, social, cultural and economic values and enabled a number of options to be generated and assessed (for example, to what extent did a ‘candidate’ area meet the biophysical operating principles, and how much did it impact on the known socio-economic values in the available data layers).

Developing the Draft Zoning Plan (late 2002 - mid-2003)

Areas selected to be new no-take zones aimed to maximise the protection of the range of biodiversity while minimising negative social, economic or cultural impacts on Great Barrier Reef Marine Park users and stakeholders.

Similarly, the placement of the other multiple-use zone types aimed to do the same. Using information from the submissions and a range of other data sources, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority developed a Draft Zoning Plan and addressed several other tasks:

  • Zoning, for the first time, the new coastal sections
  • Ensuring consistency of zoning provisions throughout the Marine Park
  • Implemented coordinate-based descriptions for zone boundaries.

Key publications

  • Use of spatial analysis and GIS techniques to rezone the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (Paper, 2003)

Technical Information Sheets

  • Correcting misinformation, misunderstandings and providing the facts -

Other Publications

June - August 2003

The Draft Zoning Plan was released in June 2003, and the community was invited to provide submissions by 4 August 2003.

  • The second community participation phase included:
  • More than 360 meetings/information sessions with thousands of people along the Great Barrier Reef coast
  • The distribution of 76 000 Draft Zoning Plans, 57 000 submission forms, 29 000 explanatory brochures and more than 2100 Compact Discs
  • More than 500 media reports
  • 88 newspaper advertisements
  • Almost 2000 calls to our free-call 1800 number
  • 35 000 hits on the Representative Areas Program website (63 per cent from Australia, the rest from 99 countries).

Unlike the first community participation phase, which sought a broad set of information about Marine Park uses and values, the second consultation phase focused on the community's comment on the Draft Zoning Plan.

A more focused questionnaire (covering both sides of an A3 page) accompanied the Draft Zoning Plan and assisted public comment. The questionnaire prompted people to identify the draft zones they did not support and requested them to provide alternative options and state their reasons.

The questionnaire also prompted people to nominate those proposed zones they supported with reasons why and to comment on the draft zoning provisions.

Not all community members were happy with the Draft Zoning Plan. When questioned, some admitted they had not put in a submission in the first place.

Without promising that every comment could possibly be incorporated, and reminding everyone that there would likely be many views of what to do for the same area, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority encouraged the public that their input was important and all submissions would be fully considered.

Over 21,500 submissions were received by the close of community participation phase Two from a wide range of users, Traditional Owners, local communities, other stakeholders and the public. This time, over 97 per cent of submissions used the questionnaires provided.

Like community participation phase one, the huge number of submissions required an innovative and effective analysis process. Each submission was scanned, analysed by Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority staff and recorded in a detailed database.

Key publications

Technical Information Sheets

  • Correcting misinformation, misunderstandings and providing the facts -

Other Publications

  • Representative Areas Program Bioregions of the World Heritage Area (Brochure, 2001)
  • Correcting misinformation, misunderstandings and providing the facts (Flyer, 2002)
  • Representative Areas - Submission Brochure (Brochure 2002)
  • Our Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is Under Pressure (2002)
  • Representative Areas - Detailed Map Submission (Brochure 2002)
  • Representative Areas Program Updates (2000 - 2003)

Revised Zoning Plan (August - November 2003)

The Draft Zoning Plan was revised following consideration of all the information received in the second phase of community participation.

The social, economic, cultural and practical implications helped determine the final selection of the zoning network while still maintaining or enhancing the levels of protection of biodiversity.

Many modifications to the Draft Zoning Plan were made when preparing the revised Zoning Plan, but in some locations, there were limited options available to modify proposed no-take areas, particularly the inshore coastal areas.

The significant changes between the initial zoning, the Draft Zoning Plan and the final Zoning Plan, as accepted by Parliament, can be readily seen in the report Review of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act - Review Panel Report, released in 2006. Maps 9, 10 and 11 on pages 69-71 of that report highlight the differences.

The revised Zoning Plan provided protection for 33.3 per cent of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in no-take zones and protected adequate examples of all 70 bioregions as defined by the biophysical operating principles.  Many other zone types also provided increased protection, including a further 0.2 per cent in no-go (Preservation) zones.

Regulatory Impact Statement

It was recognised that the revised Zoning Plan was likely to cause localised economic impacts in relation to a number of Marine Park users, such as the inshore commercial and recreational fisheries.

Independent experts, including the Bureau of Rural Sciences, the Bureau of Tourism Research and consultants with expertise in this field, conducted assessments of the social and economic impacts of the revised Zoning Plan.

They quantified the range of benefits and costs for all industries that would be affected including commercial fisheries, recreational fisheries, tourism, research and the non-extractive recreational industry.

One of the assessments also estimated the conservation and other indirect community benefits (for example the non-transferable ecosystem service benefits such as the maintenance of habitats, maintaining resilience, waste assimilation, and the value for bio-prospecting).

These reports assisted in the preparation of a Regulatory Impact Statement that was required to be submitted to the Australian Government when the Zoning Plan was tabled in Parliament.

  • View the Regulatory Impact Statement (Report, 2003)

Submission of the Zoning Plan to Parliament (December 2003)

The revised Zoning Plan was submitted to the then Federal Minister for the Environment and Heritage who tabled it in both Houses of the Australian Parliament on 3 December 2003.  The legislation required the Zoning Plan to be tabled in both Houses of Parliament for a minimum of 15 sitting days.

During this statutory review period, either House of Parliament was able to pass a resolution to disallow the Zoning Plan; this would have required the entire Plan to be re-done from the very start (including the two phases of public participation).

Key publications

Representative Areas Program Implementation (2004)

The statutory review period for the Zoning Plan in both Houses of Parliament was completed in March 2004. At this time, the Minister determined that the new Zoning Plan would come into effect on 1 July 2004.

At the same time, the Australian Government agreed, in principle, to a structural adjustment package for those who could demonstrate they were adversely affected by the new Zoning Plan.

To ensure Marine Park users understood the changes that would come into effect from 1 July 2004, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority undertook an extensive public education and awareness-raising program.

This involved community information sessions, a television, radio and print media campaign, and the publication of a range of printed information on zoning (18 detailed maps, four general maps and a booklet outlining the new zoning requirements). A comprehensive website was also established so users could access copies of any of the maps or to download details for individual zones.

In November 2004, the Queensland Government mirrored the new zoning in most of the adjoining State waters, so there was complementary zoning for virtually all the State and Federal waters within the entire Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.

Key publications

In July 2004, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park was rezoned to better protect the Great Barrier Reef's biodiversity. This increased the Marine National Park Green Zones area from less than five per cent to 33 per cent of the Marine Park.

Extractive activities such as collecting and fishing are not allowed in Green Zones, whereas other types of zones permit these activities.

Scientists have embarked on a major research program to monitor the ecological effects of rezoning. This research is funded by institutions such as the Marine and Tropical Sciences Research Facility, James Cook University (JCU) and the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS).

The rezoning monitoring program

Scientists from James Cook University and the Australian Institute of Marine Science are carrying out the rezoning monitoring program. The program currently involves three core projects focused on reef fish populations:

  1. Near-shore reefs
  2. Mid-shelf and offshore reefs
  3. Inter-reefal shoal country.
1. Near-shore reefs monitoring project (JCU)
This project compares fish populations in Blue and Yellow Zones (where fishing is allowed) and in Green Zones on island fringing reefs.


Surveys are conducted at 100 sites located on reefs around Magnetic Island, the Palm Islands, the Whitsunday Islands and the Keppel Islands. Fifty of these sites are located in zones that have been and are still open to fishing, 32 sites are in areas that have been Green Zones since 1987, and another 18 sites are in zones that became Green 'no-take' Zones in July 2004. Additional sites will be added in 2008 north of Hinchinbrook Island and between the Whitsundays and Shoalwater Bay.


Divers conducting Underwater Visual Census (UVC) of fish species and benthic organisms


Each site is surveyed at the same time each year. At each site, the survey team carries out an underwater visual census (UVC). The UVC technique is a standard monitoring method used for global reef fish surveys.

This technique involves experienced SCUBA divers swimming along a 50m transect at certain depths, counting number of fish seen along each transect and recording their size.

Although 150 species of reef fish are surveyed, the analysis has been focused on coral trout (Plectropomus spp.), fishes that are coral trout prey, and fishes of particular interest such as stripey sea perch (Lutjanus carponotatus). The biological characteristics of the coral reef are also recorded.


This monitoring program was established between 1999 and 2002 in the established Green Zones and Blue Zones of the Palm, Whitsunday and Keppel Island groups.  Additional baseline surveys of all sites were completed between November 2003 and June 2004 before the new Zoning Plan came into effect.

This allows a comparison of fish populations before and after the Plan was introduced. Monitoring in some of these sites dates back to 1983, allowing scientists to compare current trends with trends seen over the last 20 years. Follow-up surveys were conducted at each site in 2006 and 2007. The fourth round of surveys will be conducted throughout 2008.

2. Mid-shelf and offshore reefs monitoring project (AIMS)


Figure 1: Map showing study sites. Pairs of Blue and Green Zones in five sectors make up the offshore design monitored by the AIMS. Inshore Blue and Green Zones are monitored by JCU


This project compares fish populations at sites in Blue Zones and new Green Zones on mid-shelf and offshore reefs.


Surveys are based on comparing pairs of reefs, with each pair being one Blue Zone reef and a nearby Green Zone reef.

Six reef pairs are located in each of the following regions, Cairns-Innisfail, Townsville, Mackay and the Swain reefs.

Four reef pairs are located in the Capricorn Bunker group totalling 56 reefs. Three sites are surveyed on each reef, totalling 168 sites across the Marine Park.


Each site is surveyed using the same underwater visual census (UVC) technique used in the near-shore reef monitoring project.

SCUBA divers swim along 50m transects at certain depths and count numbers of fish seen along each transect.

The analysis is focused on coral trout (Plectropomus spp.). Fish size and the biological characteristics of the coral reef at each site are also recorded.


The first round of surveys began in 2005, and surveys continued in different regions throughout 2006.


Region Timeline
Cairns-Innisfail October to December 2005
Townsville Seven reefs surveyed between November 2005 and July 2006
Mackay March to July 2006
Swains reefs Jan-06
Capricorn-Bunker Group March to May 2006


Surveying the remaining five reefs in the Townsville sector is planned.

3. Inter-reefal, shoal areas (AIMS/JCU joint project)

This project compares fish populations on shoals in Blue Zones and new Green Zones. Shoals are submerged features such as rocks, sponge gardens, patches of deep-water algae Halimeda or even patches of particular types of sand or gravel lying a few centimetres higher than the surrounding seabed.

This can make shoals very difficult to find and may be located in waters too deep to survey by SCUBA. Differences in their structure, size and topography may also affect the types of fish present, their numbers and their size.

This means that it is harder to identify suitable survey sites and different technology must be used to survey these fish populations.


The first step is to find pairs of shoal country sites that have similar characteristics and are in the same area but lie within different Marine Park zones.

Once located, the shoal sites need to be mapped to determine their physical characteristics. If mapping shows that the blue and green shoals have a similar structure and can be compared, they are listed as survey sites, and fish surveys can commence.

Shoal monitoring sites are currently being identified. Information has been collected from fishermen and scientists about where suitable shoals can be found.

Potential sites off Townsville (the Magnetic shoals) and Hinchinbrook Island (the Brook shoals) have been investigated and mapped. In the Magnetic and Brook shoals, three sites have been identified as Blue Zone survey sites and three as Green Zone survey sites. Sites in four other regions, off Cairns, Bowen, Rockhampton and Gladstone are being explored.


Magnetic and Brook shoals were surveyed in mid 2006 and the Cairns region was surveyed in December 2006. It is also planned to survey the remaining regions.


  • Shoal mapping: Potential shoal sites are located and mapped using a multibeam echo sounder. This instrument provides a high-resolution 3D map of the site showing topography to a scale of tens of centimetres.
  • Habitat characterisation - Physical features identified are explored with a drop camera to determine habitat and community structure. It is important that sites are similar both physically and biologically.
  • Fish census: Once shoals are mapped and characterised, fish populations are surveyed using a Baited Remote Underwater Video (BRUV). This equipment uses a fixed bait bag and underwater videos to record the types of fish and their approximate number. BRUVs can also be adapted with two cameras that allow fish size to be measured to an accuracy of 5mm.

Results so far

While it will take many years for the full effects of the rezoning to appear, some early effects have been observed.

Near-shore reefs

In the Whitsundays, coral trout density and biomass (an indicator of their average size) have increased by 1.7 times since the rezoning. Increases were only seen in Green Zones, suggesting that the change in zoning and not some other reef-wide factor had caused the increases. Data from the Palm Islands, the Keppel Islands and Magnetic Island are still being analysed.

Mid-shelf and offshore reefs

Surveys of twenty-five reef pairs in the Cairns-Innisfail, Mackay, Swains and Capricorn-Bunker reefs showed that while coral trout numbers and biomass varied between different regions, all regions showed the same trend, with trout numbers and biomass being between 1.3 and 1.7 times higher in Green Zones established in 2004 than in Blue Zones.

The researchers also found that at reefs where long-term data were available, trout numbers in Blue Zones were similar to those recorded over the last ten years. This indicates that the pattern has arisen from increases in trout numbers in Green Zones and not decreases in trout numbers in Blue Zones.

View the independent report, 'Surveys of the effects of the rezoning of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in 2004 on some fish species-preliminary findings'.

Results from the program have also been published as scientific papers in 2008:

  • Russ et al - 'Rapid increase in fish numbers follows the creation of the world's largest marine reserve network' in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Current Biology, Vol 18, 514-515
  • Sweatman H -No-take reserves protect coral reefs from predatory starfish Current Biology Vol 18, No 14.

Technical Information Sheets

  • Correcting misinformation, misunderstandings and providing the facts -
  • Lessons
  • Bringing the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park zoning into the 21st Century: an overview of the Representative Areas Program -
  • Breaking through the barriers -
  • RAP Brochure -
  • History
  • Draft Zoning Plan 2003 -
  • Regulatory Impact Statement -
  • General Documents
  • Zoning Television Commercial -
Updated 24 Aug 2022
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