Seagrass communities of the Great Barrier Reef and their desired state: applications for spatial planning and management

Carter, Alex, Coles, Rob, Rasheed, Michael, and Collier, Catherine J. (2021) Seagrass communities of the Great Barrier Reef and their desired state: applications for spatial planning and management. Report. Reef and Rainforest Research Centre, Cairns, QLD, Australia.

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The research program reported here evolved from an interest in developing ecologically relevant target criteria that, if met, correspond to desired ecological outcomes (e.g. desired state) for the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area (GBRWHA) and to achieving the overarching objective of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s Long-term Sustainability Plan.

The objective of the original National Environment Science Program (NESP) Tropical Water Quality Hub (TWQ) Project 3.2.1 Deriving ecologically relevant load targets to meet desired ecosystem condition for the Great Barrier Reef: a case study for seagrass meadows in the Burdekin region was to examine relationships between catchment inputs of sediment and seagrass desired state, and to compare these against the 2018 Water Quality Improvement Plan’s ecological targets. This objective was met using a case study in Cleveland Bay based on sediment loads from the Burdekin River and other smaller catchments that discharge into the bay (Collier et al., 2020).

The techniques developed in the Cleveland Bay case study are used in the present report at the scale of the whole GBRWHA for NESP TWQ Hub Project 5.4. To achieve this we followed three steps: (1) a consolidation and verification of seagrass data at the GBRWHA scale, (2) an analysis of the distribution of GBRWHA seagrass habitat and communities, and (3) an estimation of a desired state target for communities with sufficient data.

To achieve step 1, we compiled and standardised 35 years of seagrass survey data in a spatial database, including 81,387 georeferenced data points. Twelve seagrass species were recorded, the deepest of which (Halophila spinulosa) was found at 76 m. This database is a valuable resource that provides coastal managers, researchers and the global marine community with a long-term spatial resource describing seagrass populations from the mid1980s against which to benchmark change.

For step 2, we identified 88,331 km2 of potential seagrass habitat within the GBRWHA; 1,111 km2 in estuaries, 16,276 km2 in coastal areas, and 70,934 km2 in reef areas. Thirty-six seagrass community types were defined by species assemblages. The environmental conditions that structure the location and extent of these communities included depth, tidal exposure, latitude, current speed, benthic light, proportion of mud, water type, water temperature, salinity, and wind speed. Environmental parameters interact with the topography of the reef and changes in the coastal plain, its watersheds, and its development with latitude. We describe seagrass distributions and communities that are shaped by multiple combinations of these environmental complexities and how that may influence marine spatial planning and environmental protection initiatives (Chapter 3).

For step 3, we used more than 20 years of historical data (1995-2018) on seagrass biomass for the diverse seagrass communities of the GBRWHA to develop desired state benchmarks.

Of the 36 seagrass communities, desired state was identified for 25 of them, with the remainder having insufficient data. Desired state varied by more than one order of magnitude between community types, and was influenced by the mix of species in the communities and the range of environmental conditions that define community boundaries. We identified a historical, decadal-scale cycle of decline and recovery. Recovery to desired state has occurred for coastal intertidal communities following the most recent declines in 2008 - 2012. A number of the estuarine and coastal subtidal communities have not recovered to desired state biomass in recent years (Chapter 4).

This body of work provides a huge step forward in our understanding of the complexities of GBRWHA seagrass communities. We discuss the relevance of these research outputs to future marine spatial planning and management. This includes zoning in “representative areas”, hierarchical monitoring design (e.g. RIMReP), and the setting of ecologically relevant sediment load targets for desired state (e.g. Lambert et al., 2019). The updated seagrass data, seagrass distribution, community classification and desired state targets provides important new information for incorporation into marine spatial planning and management that is discussed in Chapter 5. These applications include: • Future assessments of non-reef habitats within the GBRWHA and GBRMP. • Assessing how risk and spatial protection intersect with seagrass communities and the role they play in protecting seagrass, e.g. Queensland State and Commonwealth marine parks, Fish Habitat Areas, Dugong Protected Areas, Port Exclusion Zones. • Expanding our spatial analysis to areas ecologically connected but outside of the GBRWHA such as Torres Strait, the Gulf of Carpentaria, and Fraser Island coast, where we already have seagrass data. • Designing a hierarchical seagrass monitoring design with coarse scales (intertidal, subtidal, estuary, coast, reef) and fine scales (36 communities). We have identified significant knowledge gaps that should guide future monitoring efforts (e.g. RIMReP and Queensland Land and Sea Ranger Program), including a lack of consistent and recent data for reef seagrass communities. • We identified communities where data is deficient, such as in estuaries where important seagrass communities have potential exposure to multiple threats for which more consistent environmental data would be valuable. • Identifying potential restoration sites.

Our work has highlighted the critical role of historical data in understanding spatial complexity and for making informed management decisions on the current state of seagrass in the GBRWHA. Our approach can be adapted for monitoring, management and assessment of pressures at other relevant scales and jurisdictions. Our results guide conservation planning through prioritisation of at-risk communities that are continuing to fail to attain desired state.

Item ID: 70840
Item Type: Report (Report)
ISBN: 978-1-925514-77-3
Keywords: seagrass, Great Barrier Reef, spatial, habitat
Copyright Information: Creative Commons Attribution 4.0
Funders: National Environmental Science Program (NESP) Tropical Water Quality (TWQ) Hub
Projects and Grants: NESP 5.4
Research Data:,,
Date Deposited: 23 Nov 2021 00:30
FoR Codes: 41 ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES > 4104 Environmental management > 410402 Environmental assessment and monitoring @ 50%
41 ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES > 4102 Ecological applications > 410203 Ecosystem function @ 50%
SEO Codes: 18 ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT > 1802 Coastal and estuarine systems and management > 180203 Coastal or estuarine biodiversity @ 50%
18 ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT > 1805 Marine systems and management > 180504 Marine biodiversity @ 50%
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