Ports and Shipping

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. There are 12 trading ports along the GBR coast.


The ports at Townsville, Abbot Point, Hay Point, Mackay, and Gladstone facilitate the ongoing trade of major regional bulk commodities, including resources and agricultural products, and other goods to the global market. The ports at Quintell Beach, Cape Flattery, Cairns, Cooktown, Mourilyan, Lucinda and Rockhampton, trade resources, agricultural products, fertiliser and other general cargo, and also accommodate tourism and cruise ships.


In 2017/18, the ports operating along the GBR coast represented export trade of approximately $59.4 billion, which is 80% of the total export trade value from all Queensland ports (Qld Statistician, 2018).


For an overview on ports and shipping in the GBR, refer to QRC’s factsheet Working Alongside the Great Barrier Reef – Ports and Shipping.


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:

  • Defines four priority ports, including:
    • Townsville;
    • Abbot Point;
    • Hay Point and Mackay; and
    • Gladstone.
  • 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 the expansion of existing port facilities in the GBR World Heritage Area outside the priority ports; and
  • Prohibits the sea-based disposal of port-related capital dredge material within the GBR World Heritage Area.

In 2017/18, the priority ports combined made up the majority of export trade along the GBR coast and Queensland more broadly, which was valued at approximately $59.2 billion. This represented 80% of the total throughput of all Queensland ports (Qld Statistician, 2018).


The Act requires Port Master Plans to be developed for priority ports to create a balance between environmental considerations and the optimisation and ongoing development of critical infrastructure within port limits. It is intended to preserve areas for future essentials that a growing port will require, such as corridors for roads, rail and power lines, while protecting sensitive environmental areas.


A master plan is required for each priority port modelled around the Queensland Government’s Guideline: master planning for priority ports with consideration to the individual circumstances of each priority port and surrounding areas.


In November 2018, the master plan and master planned area for the priority Port of Gladstone was released. Gladstone is the first priority port to have a master plan prepared and finalised.


The priority Port of Townsville draft master plan and supporting documentation was released in November 2018 for public consultation. The Queensland Government is currently considering submissions received in preparing the final master plan, which is anticipated to be released in 2019. In addition, preliminary master planning processes for the priority Port of Hay Point/Mackay are currently underway.


A review of each priority port master plan must be undertaken at a minimum of every 10 years in accordance with the Sustainable Ports Development Act 2015.



As an island nation that relies on sea trade, dredging is needed to establish and/or maintain channels and berths to safely receive ships. Dredging involves the excavation or removal of material from the bed of a watercourse or body.


There are two types of dredging:

  • Capital dredging, which creates new channels and berths in generally undisturbed areas or establishes deeper access; and
  • Maintenance dredging, which maintains access to existing channels and berths by removing accumulated material naturally transported by waves, currents, or flow.

In June 2015, the Commonwealth Government established a new regulation under the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Regulations 1983, which banned the disposal of capital dredge material in the GBR Marine Park. This was followed by the inclusion of similar provisions under the Queensland Sustainable Ports Development Act 2015 in November 2015. The Act also prohibited major capital dredging for the development of new or the expansion of existing port facilities in the GBR World Heritage Area outside the priority ports.


Consistent with the Queensland Government’s Maintenance Dredging Strategy for the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area Ports (Maintenance Dredging Strategy), maintenance dredging is limited to the approved dimensions of port infrastructure to ensure efficient shipping access and the optimisation of port operations. Any increase in channel or berth dredging areas and depths is to only occur as a result of approved capital dredging within the boundaries of the priority ports following the assessment of future maintenance dredging needs and disposal options.


Applications for maintenance dredging and disposal within the GBR Marine Park or World Heritage Area must undergo a comprehensive environmental assessment and permit approval process prior to works commencing. Proposals must be consistent with the Maintenance Dredging Strategy and abide by the London Protocol and National Assessment Guidelines for Dredging 2009.


While applications for capital dredging within priority ports are still accepted, proposals must demonstrate how excavated material is reclaimed or disposed on land where it is environmentally safe to do so.


Ports along the GBR coast undertake a risk-based approach in managing impacts of their dredging activities in compliance with the existing regulatory process. This generally involves identification and consideration of the environmental values present at a port and surrounding areas, assessment of the risks of significant residual impacts associated with dredging and continuous improvement or adaptive management based on previous and ongoing monitoring programs.


Ports are also working with Government and other stakeholders, as part of a commitment in the Reef 2050 Plan, to identify the sediment characteristics at priority ports. Understanding natural sediment movement pathways and contributions:

  • Helps identify the impacts on existing operations and environmental values; and
  • Better informs future planning of dredging and other activities that could minimise the need for dredging.



Once leaving a port, ships travelling through the GBR Marine Park must:

  • Navigate within designated shipping areas;
  • Report their intended passage to the authorities; and
  • Demonstrate a marine pilot has joined the vessel (where relevant) to work with the ship’s master and ensure safe passage.

Ship movements are managed by the world’s most advanced maritime safety surveillance system – the GBR and Torres Strait Vessel Traffic Service (REEFVTS). The real-time system, which is similar to the way air traffic control operates, is designed to:

  • Enhance navigational safety by providing shipping with improved information on potential traffic conflicts and other hazards;
  • Minimise the risk of accident and pollution in the marine environment; and
  • Help coordinate and facilitate a rapid response in the event of a safety or pollution incident.



REEFVTS is operated under joint arrangements between the Australian Maritime Safety Authority and Maritime Safety Queensland.


Following the commencement of REEFVTS in 2004, there has been a steady increase in shipping movements within the GBR Marine Park. In 2017, 11,412 voyages to and from trading ports along the GBR coast occurred within the Marine Park and Torres Strait region; a 4% increase since 2015 (Qld Govt, 2017).  Nevertheless, REEFVTS has been effective in managing shipping in the GBR Marine Park. No incidents have occurred within the coverage area of the system since coming into operation.


The only incident to occur in recent years was the grounding of the Chinese-registered bulk carrier, Shen Neng I, on 3 April 2010 at Douglas Shoal north-east of Gladstone. The vessel was laden with coal and fuel oil bound for China. At the time, this area was outside of the coverage of REEFVTS, which ran from the Torres Strait to south of Mackay, missing the southern part of the GBR. The vessel severely damaged approximately 115,000m2 of coral through direct impact and contamination from anti-foulant paint. No coal or oil spill occurred.


In response to the grounding, the Queensland and Commonwealth Governments extended the coverage of REEFVTS further south to the GBR Marine Park boundary.  The owner and insurers of the Shen Neng I later accepted responsibility to pay for damages cause to the shoal. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is currently leading the Douglas Shoal environmental remediation project to clean up the site.


To continue to strengthen ship safety and environment protection in the GBR:

  • REEFVTS is to be upgraded with new state-of-the-art real time ship tracking software and rebranded as the Vessel Traffic Services Decision Support Tool (VTS-DST). This is to be implemented in a staged approach over the next two years; and
  • Ports are working with Government and other relevant stakeholders to deliver on related Reef 2050 Plan actions, including implementation of the North East Shipping Management Plan.

The North East Shipping Management Plan work program aims to:

  • Manage future increases in shipping traffic;
  • Ensure the safety of shipping; and
  • Prevent ship-sourced pollution and other environmental impacts in the GBR, Torres Strait and Coral Sea regions.



Queensland Government Statistician’s Office (2018) Trade data – overseas exports by port of loading, commodity (3-digit SITC revision 4) and country of destination, Queensland and Australia, 2007–08 to 2017–18 (preliminary)

Queensland Government (2017) Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait Shipping Statistics, December 2017