SYDNEY (AFP) - Australia said Thursday it will ban the dumping of dredging waste on most of the Great Barrier Reef in a move welcomed by environmentalists as a first step towards a total halt.
The plan, announced by Environment Minister Greg Hunt at the once-a-decade World Parks Congress in Sydney, came as the Australian government said it would set aside A$700,000 (S$787,000) to fund a clean-up of marine debris in the reef area.
A further A$6 million in funding was also unveiled by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop on Thursday to support the sustainable use of Coral Triangle waters by South East Asian countries Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, the Solomon Islands and Timor Leste.
Hunt said his government would enshrine in law the ban on the dumping of dredge spoil - waste material left over from port expansion, digging out harbours, rivers and other waterways - in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
"We will use the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority Act... to put in place this ban in legislative form," Hunt told reporters.
Conservationists claim dumping the waste in marine park waters would hasten the demise of the reef, with dredging smothering corals and seagrasses and exposing them to poisons and elevated levels of nutrients.
The dumping of dredge waste is already banned in the marine park, which encompasses about 99 per cent of the World Heritage-listed natural wonder.
The marine park encompasses about 99 per cent of the World Heritage-listed natural wonder.
The additional one per cent outside the marine park but within the heritage-listed area - about 3,600 sq km - is managed by the Queensland state government and includes most islands and ports, as well as lakes and other waterways.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) welcomed Hunt's plan, describing it as an "important step towards a complete halt to this damaging practice".
But the environmental organisation urged the minister to go a step further and prohibit the dumping of dredge soil throughout the World Heritage Area, and not just within the marine park.
"More than 80 per cent of dumping since 2010 has occurred outside the marine park but within the World Heritage Area where it can easily drift onto coral and seagrass," WWF Australia's chief executive Dermot O'Gorman said.
"As we get closer to (the World Heritage Committee meeting in June), we urge the government to build on this and announce a full ban on dumping in the entire Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area."
Australia has come under scrutiny from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) over the reef's health.
Unesco threatened to put the reef on its World Heritage in danger list, but has delayed taking action until Feb 1, 2015 to allow Australia to submit a report on what it is doing to protect the bio-diverse site.
Canberra has since released a draft 2050 plan to protect the reef, while the Queensland government says it will now consider only onshore plans to dump dredge waste from the port development at Abbot Point, on the Barrier Reef coast.
A marine dumping proposal was previously approved for the development, which is part of a major India-backed mine expansion.