Ports and Shipping

GBR coastal zone ports are pivotal to Queensland and Australia’s economic well-being

Our ports, some of which operate adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) Marine Park, are a gateway to domestic and international trade, connecting Australia to the world. Working alongside the GBR demands meticulous care when planning all developments, but especially ports. Where impacts may occur, rigorous environmental assessments are compulsory under Queensland and Commonwealth laws and then monitored closely.


For a trading nation that is also an island, working ports are essential. They must also be safe. Ports need channels and berths with sufficient clearance to safely received and accommodate ships. Maintenance dredging, to keep shipping channels open, is essential practice for working ports around the world. Capital dredging is required for the development of new terminals and associated shipping channels.


Dredging occurs in shallower port areas and never on the GBR. Naturally occurring deep and wide shipping channels throughout the GBR accommodate ship movements and will never be dredged. Port dredging is governed by strict international and national protocols and environmental conditions to minimise impacts.


Sustainable Ports Development Act 2015


The Sustainable Ports Development Act 2015 commenced on 20 November 2015. It implements a number of Queensland’s port related actions from the Reef 2050 Long Term Sustainability Plan (Reef 2050 Plan) to further regulate development in and surrounding existing port limits.


The Act achieves the following:

  • Restricts new port development in and adjoining the GBR World Heritage Area to within current port limits and outside Commonwealth and State marine parks;
  • Prohibits major capital dredging for the development of new or expansion of existing port facilities in the GBR World Heritage Area outside the priority ports of Gladstone, Hay Point/Mackay, Abbott Point and Townsville;
  • Prohibits the sea-based disposal of port-related capital dredge material within the GBR World Heritage Area.

The priority ports at Townsville, Abbot Point, Hay Point, Mackay and Gladstone facilitate the ongoing trade of major regional bulk commodities, including resources (e.g. coal and minerals) and agricultural (e.g. sugar and cattle) products, to the global market. In 2014-15, combined, these ports represented export trade worth $AU32.4 billion and 69 percent of the total throughput of all Queensland ports[1].


Port master plans are to be developed for priority ports, which will seek to optimise the use of infrastructure and address operational, economic, environmental and community relationships, as well as supply chains and surrounding land uses. Queensland’s Department of State Development is leading priority port master planning and is working closely with port authorities, local governments and other key stakeholders.


The Act supports development at the Port of Cairns where it does not impact the GBR World Heritage Area. It allows limited port-related capital dredging in the Port of Cairns inner harbour in line with specific restrictions.


Maintenance dredging will be managed under an alternative mechanism given such dredging is carried out to ensure the safe and effective ongoing operation of a port, which falls under the scope of other legislation. Currently the Queensland’s Department of Transport and Main Roads is developing a State-wide maintenance dredging strategy in line with specific Reef 2050 actions.


[1] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Foreign Trade (unpublished data) Overseas export of goods by port, value, Queensland ports, 2004-05 to 2014-15