SYDNEY - Australia has welcomed a draft decision by the United Nations to keep the Great Barrier Reef off its endangered list, saying Saturday the move was an endorsement of the government's plans.
Climate change, poor water quality and impacts from port development have threatened the natural wonder, the world's biggest coral reef ecosystem, stoking fears the World Heritage Site could be formally listed as "in danger".
But in a draft decision released in Europe on Friday, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) said while the reef would remain under surveillance, it welcomed the government's 35-year plan to protect it.
"So in terms of the international response, this is an overwhelming endorsement," Environment Minister Greg Hunt said.
"But we want to make sure that we keep the pressure up on ourselves, and inviting a little bit of long-term international scrutiny, I think, is a very valuable thing." Hunt said UNESCO had recognised Australia's conservation efforts, including a recent ban on the century-old practice of dumping dredge waste - which conservationists says smothers corals and seagrasses - across most of the reef.
"The world has recognised that Australia has made huge steps in the last 12 months. More to be done, but this is a good result for the reef, it's a good result for Australia," he said.
Queensland state, the gateway to the reef, also welcomed the draft decision which comes after it promised to introduce laws to limit port development.
"The really good news here is that the scientists at the World Heritage Committee, the scientists at the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) have looked at our plan and said this will protect and improve the Great Barrier Reef," Queensland environment minister Steven Miles said.
Hunt said he planned to snorkel later Saturday at the reef, which covers a 348,000 square kilometre (134,000 square mile) area off Australia's east coast and contains some 2,500 individual reefs and teems with marine life.
"I'm going to snorkel this reef this afternoon just to have a moment to myself to recognise that whatever we do, nature does it better," he said.
The draft recommendation will be put to UNESCO's World Heritage Committee, which determines whether natural, cultural and historical sites should be included in its list and monitors their state of conservation, at its next session which begins in Bonn on June 28.