SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia has to take swift action to protect the Great Barrier Reef, a UNESCO World Heritage site, amid significant threats from industrial projects as a February deadline looms, environmental groups say.
Heralded as one of the seven natural wonders of the world, the reef is home to 400 types of coral, 240 species of birds and 1,500 species of fish. It is worth A$6 billion annually to the local economy in tourism.
UNESCO warned Australia last June over development on the reef, and the United Nations has said that the area could be listed as "in danger" if there is no evidence of progress by Feb 1.
"Australia's most important environmental asset is under serious threat from existing and proposed industrialization along the Queensland coast," said Felicity Wishart, campaign director for the coalition composed of WWF Australia and the Australian Marine Conservation Society, on Wednesday.
Coal is one of Australia's top export earners and the state of Queensland is the country's largest coal producer. The reef faces growing threat from shipping driven by these project expansions.
"The reef has an international reputation, it is loved globally," Wishart told reporters. "That's a really alarming international black mark that we could be tracking towards if we don't lift our game."
UNESCO, which gave the reef World Heritage status in 1991, has made a number of proposals to the national and Queensland state government on managing the reef, such as halting further port construction and limiting ship numbers.
A spokesman for the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities in Canberra said the government was assessing key issues facing the reef.
"The Australian government is committed to ensuring the best possible protection and management for the reef," the spokesman said in an email, adding that the government had acknowledged UNESCO's recommendations.
"Any major development that could impact on the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area would only be approved with the most robust conditions that ensure high environmental standards are met."
The environmental campaign hopes to place the reef on the political agenda this year when Australians are due for a federal election.
(Reporting By Thuy Ong, editing by Elaine Lies)