Measuring the immeasurable: How the Great Barrier Reef was valued

Great Barrier Reef
Chris Sheedy By Chris Sheedy, CA Today

9 November 2017

A group of researchers from Deloitte have put a value on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, a natural wonder that is under threat. Chris Sheedy investigates how audit is making important issues tangible.

Australians have long known that their national treasure, the Great Barrier Reef (GBR), is under threat. Two years of coral bleaching and major weather events have left parts of the GBR barren, devoid of the colour and plentiful sea-life that gave the reef its character, but what is the actual price we pay for potentially letting it slip away?

Government policies around shipping and dredging, in order to create and expand ports and transport endless loads of coal from Queensland mines to the rest of the world, are also playing their part in the GBR’s destruction.

A passionate groundswell of support has developed to save the GBR, one of the world’s seven natural wonders, which some describe as the world’s largest living organism.

It is true that it is completely unique in our world; a 2300-kilometre stretch of 3000 reefs and 1000 islands, famously the only natural wonder visible from space.

The Deloitte team, who provide a yearly pro-bono audit service to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, describe its size as 348,000 square kilometres, greater than the UK, the Netherlands and Switzerland put together.

Importantly, they also put a dollar value on the reef, which they say is the single largest contributor to Australia’s economy and to the nation’s international brand.

Coral reef diver

What’s the Reef worth?

Basic figures around direct value from the Great Barrier Reef to Australia’s economy came to $6.4 billion and 64,000 jobs, but that is only on the surface, according to Deloitte.

For instance, to 65% of people around the world, the Great Barrier Reef is Australia’s most iconic natural site, and 61% of people feel it is vital to the planet. Two-thirds of people would pay to protect the reef, with 52% of people saying it is morally and ethically right to pay for its protection.

Taking into account the social, economic and iconic value, Deloitte came up with the figure of $56 billion. In the 2015/16 financial year alone, tourism related to the Great Barrier Reef added $5.7 billion to the Australian economy, fishing related to the reef added $162 million, recreation contributed $346 million and scientific research was worth $182 million.

Who picks up the bill?

Research indicates that some citizens would be willing to pay towards protection of the GBR, but what of the people who say they would not be willing to pay? Are they against the reef and supportive of some other form of development? Not at all, said Deloitte team:

“The 46% of Australians, and 37% of international respondents, who were not willing pay to protect the GBR indicated they simply could not afford it. This reason was often accompanied by commentary around a desire to be able to pay for the GBR’s protection, but practical budgetary constraints or other financial priorities prevented them.”

Reasons for people not paying included:

  • Belief that funding should come from another source
  • Not enough information to decide
  • Being prepared to pay for the GBR’s protection, but not in the form of a levy or charge
  • International respondents indicated they felt only Australians should only pay.

Only a very small proportion of respondents, between 2-3%, said that the GBR was not personally important to them or that they didn’t believe it was under threat.

GBR fish

What about Australia’s other icons?

If the GBR is the big drawcard in the minds of international visitors, and potential visitors, to Australia, what are the others? A past study by Deloitte revealed the top three icons are ‘the Rock, the Reef and the House’.

So while the Great Barrier Reef takes top spot, the Sydney Opera House and Uluru are also important visual symbols. And that’s why the Reef needs better care, the Deloitte team argues.

“With great brand value comes great responsibility,” they explained. “Whether the GBR is regarded as the property of its traditional owners, of humankind as a whole, or whether it is considered beyond ‘ownership’, Australia as a nation is legally considered its owner, and morally, its custodian. Accordingly, the way in which Australia responds to threats to the health of the GBR will influence Australia’s brand.

“If the brand of the GBR is damaged or destroyed, so too will Australia’s brand reputation suffer as a vibrant, healthy and invigorating destination, famed for its outdoor lifestyle and natural assets.”

About the author

Chris Sheedy is one of Australia’s busiest and most successful freelance writers. He has been published regularly in the Sydney Morning HeraldVirgin Australia VoyeurThe Australian MagazineGQIn The BlackCadillac, Management Today, Men’s Fitness and countless other big-brand publications. He is frequently commissioned to carry out copywriting and corporate writing projects for organisations, including banks, universities, television networks, restaurant chains and major charities, through his business The Hard Word.


  • Business
  • Australia

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