SYDNEY-Australia said it had made ‘substantial’ progress on UNESCO benchmarks for protection of the Great Barrier Reef Sunday in a report aimed at staving off a world heritage downgrade.

Environment Minister Greg Hunt said a progress report delivered to the world heritage committee ‘demonstrates unequivocally the government’s commitment to better managing and protecting this natural wonder’. Unesco has warned that without action on rampant coastal development and water quality the reef - which covers an area roughly the size of Italy or Japan - will be declared ‘World Heritage in Danger’ in June.

Hunt released Canberra’s latest state party report on the reef Sunday which he said showed significant progress was being made to address Unesco’s concerns. This was despite the government in December approving a massive coal port expansion in the region and the reef’s governing body - which is under investigation for its links to mining companies - green-lighting the dumping of up to three million cubic metres of dredge waste within its waters. Conservationists have warned it could hasten the demise of the reef, which is already considered to be in ‘poor’ health, with dredging smothering corals and seagrasses and exposing them to poisons and elevated levels of nutrients. ‘The report shows that the Great Barrier Reef’s outstanding universal value and integrity remain largely intact and Australia has made substantial progress and commitment.