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Keeping public opinion flowing for Reef interventions

By Amy Edwards

July 16, 2018

People snorkelling on reef in front of island
The Great Barrier Reef is a global icon and an important Australian economic, social and environmental asset. Image: Shutterstock

All Australians have a view and a stake in the fate of the Great Barrier Reef. So it’s not surprising the concept of social licence has now moved into this significant marine space.

This $56 billion Australian icon is an important economic, social and environmental asset and is a passionate subject not only for those living near the Reef and those whose livelihoods depend on it, but to the Australian public at large.

Spanning more than 2,300 km, the Reef is the world’s largest living structure, and one of Australia’s most significant fish nurseries and habitats. So as scientists set out to tackle the range of pressures on the Reef; from deteriorating water quality to rising water temperatures, increasing ocean acidification and Crown of Thorns Starfish, the voices of the Australian public are being heard loud and clear.

Social licence: no longer a mining issue

CSIRO Responsible Innovation Initiative Leader Justine Lacey says social licence or ‘social acceptability’ has been popularised in the last 20 years in corporate settings – mainly in the mining and extractive sectors but also in the forestry sector.

“So it has a legacy of being associated with how acceptable people find different forms of resource development and extraction for the most part,” she says.

“It has since expanded into the marine space; initially to address the extraction of marine resources but also management of conservation and biodiversity issues. There is an imperative to take action to protect and restore the Reef, the question is how we go about it.”

Lacey and fellow CSIRO senior research scientist Bruce Taylor will speak about social acceptability and the role it will play in the restoration of the Reef at The Great Barrier Reef Restoration Symposium being held in Cairns from today (16 July) until Wednesday (18 July).

“Everyone we speak to recognises there’s an urgency to act. People are looking for, in essence, the vision. They what to know the big picture of what we want to achieve,” Taylor says.

Spiky starfish on coral underwater
Crown of Thorns Starfish are one of the major threats to the Reef. Image: Christopher Doropoulos

Gauging important public opinion about restoring the Reef

Both Lacey and Taylor are conducting their social research under the Federal Government’s Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program (RRAP) and in collaboration with Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS), James Cook University (JCU), Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and University of Queensland (UQ). Key researchers include Profs Karen Hussey and Brent Ritchie (UQ); Dr Maxine Newlands and Prof Stewart Lockie (JCU); and Dr Karen Vella (QUT).

Coordinated by AIMS, the RRAP brings together Australia’s leading experts to develop a range of interventions to protect the Reef. It is currently in its $6 million scoping phase which includes reviewing existing reef research and technology and consulting with industry and the community. It aims to identify and prioritise the research and development projects to begin from 2019.

“We can’t proceed with the science until the community agrees we are heading in the right direction,” Taylor says.

“Certainly there’s a moral obligation to incorporate people’s knowledge and needs when we undertake research on the Reef but there’s also a benefit to the program in terms of drawing on that local knowledge.”

Both Lacey and Taylor and collaborators are coordinating a national survey titled Understanding Australian Attitudes to Managing the Great Barrier Reef. The survey canvasses 3,000 people from the national population and 1500 from communities living alongside the Reef. Respondents are being asked questions such as: What are the perceived threats to the Reef, how do you feel about how it is currently being managed and what do you think needs to be done? The survey is expected to reach public participants by the end of July with some preliminary analysis by late August.The researchers are also conducting a number of in-depth interviews with representatives from the tourism industry, advisory groups, dive operators and environmental NGOs working on the Reef.

“The reef matters to a lot of different people for a lot of different reasons ranging from livelihood values to cultural, Indigenous and iconic importance. Decisions on what we do and how we do it could potentially have material consequences for people,” Taylor says.

Orange fish on coral reef
The Reef is the world’s largest living structure, and one of Australia’s most significant fish nurseries and habitats. Image: Shutterstock

Sharing responsibility

Lacey believes that when it comes to developing the new technology for Reef restoration, public attitudes and input are important but scientists, reef managers and a range of other stakeholders also have an obligation to reflect more critically on their own responsive stewardship of science and innovation.

“When talking about social licence and the Reef, it’s not just about getting public permission, the responsibility involves many hands,” she says

AIMS executive director, and RRAP director, David Mead says the challenge in designing effective reef restoration techniques was two-fold.

“We need to identify and develop new technology that shows great promise – for it to become viable, and we need to develop methods to affordably scale-up the technology for a significant positive impact,” he says.

“I think people will be surprised by the new and innovative solutions being considered.”

Now and into the future

The consideration of people’s views and opinions on the research being conducted will be an ongoing process.

“It’s not a stop, go thing where you tick a box. It’s an ongoing constructive conversation with community and stakeholders over years,” Taylor says.

“We will need to consider their issues, harness their knowledge and work in a collaborative way with the community at large.”


The Great Barrier Reef Restoration Symposium, July 16-18, will bring together more than 200 experts and stakeholders from around the world, to share reef restoration successes, cutting edge research and thinking.

The Symposium is a collaboration between the Tropical Water Quality Hub (TWQ) of the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Program (NESP) and the  Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program (RRAP), with funding support from the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators (AMPTO) and the Reef and Rainforest Research Centre (RRRC). Additional partners include James Cook University, Reef Ecologic and the Reef Restoration Foundation.

For the program and further information: www.GBRrestorationsymposium.org

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