For nearly 40 years, marine zoning has played an important role in managing the Great Barrier Reef.  Zoning today, however, has changed considerably since the first zoning plans were finalized in 1988. A recent study, led by Jon Day and published in the journal Aquatic Conservation, summarises numerous lessons learned from decades of applying zoning and outlines why zoning remains an important tool for marine conservation.

Effective MPA management requires a lot more than just a zoning plan. Zoning remains an important spatial management tool, but an effective combination of a range of complementary management tools (spatial and temporal), applied at a range of scales, provides an integrated but flexible approach necessary for effectively managing an MPA. 

Zoning was effectively the cornerstone for GBR management when the main threats in the 1970s and 1980s were unsustainable fishing practices, unregulated marine tourism, new types of aquaculture and increasing shipping. These threats were well addressed by the zoning plans that helped minimize conflicts between incompatible activities and regulated use to protect ecologically valuable or sensitive areas.

Today, however, the main threats to the GBR are quite different and most originate from outside. These include ocean warming and acidification from climate change, adverse water quality originating from upstream catchments, and unsustainable land use and coastal developments occurring adjacent to, but outside the Marine Park. Within-park zoning is not the most appropriate tool to address all these pressures, but zoning can help mitigate their effects and contribute to the Reef’s resilience.

If all the management layers that aim to address the myriad of management issues were applied in a single two-dimensional zoning plan, it would be extremely complex and confusing. Rather than a single management plan, a comprehensive three-dimensional management system exists in the GBR, comprising federal agency plans, State agency plans and other plans (e.g. fisheries management plans, port plans, etc). This full suite of management tools comprises a comprehensive management framework, integrated and coordinated across agencies and jurisdictions.

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