We have compiled some answers for the 2017 report card and other frequently asked questions. If you require further information, please get in touch. 

2017 Report Card

Cyclone Debbie made landfall near Airlie Beach in the Whitsundays on the 28th of March 2017. The 2017 report card includes data from July 2016 to June 2017, reflecting pre and post-cyclone conditions.

The effects of Cyclone Debbie were captured at some seagrass and inshore coral sites, resulting in reduced scores, but the full picture of potential cyclonic impacts will be captured in future report cards. This is because water quality data only captures three months of post-cyclone conditions compared to 9 months of pre-cyclone conditions, so grades are weighted towards pre-cyclone conditions. It is also possible that the water quality scores underestimate the full impacts of Severe Tropical Cyclone Debbie as turbidity loggers at some sites were lost or damaged due to the cyclone.

Data for some indicators were collected before the cyclone hit (for example offshore coral and seagrass in the northern inshore zone) and for other indicators, data is not assessed annually (for example habitat and hydrology in basins and estuaries) so grades do not reflect potential impacts of the cyclone.

To see how the region has responded to the cyclone, read our Special Feature on Cyclone Debbie.

Any changes in grades for basins and estuaries in the 2017 report card are driven by changes in water quality because the condition of habitat and hydrology and fish communities are only updated every three to four years.

The Pioneer basin has been close to the boundary between the D and the C grade since 2015. In the 2017 report card, it was only a small decline in water quality, possibly driven by the wetter year, that has pushed this basin into the D grade.

The generally good scores in the estuary systems reflect the typical effect of large rainfall events flushing pollutants out of estuaries. The Region’s estuaries are also short systems and experience large tidal ranges, which means that pollutants normally flush through them rapidly.

Carmila Creek estuary was the only estuary where water quality was in poor condition in the 2017 report card. This was driven by high chlorophyll-a concentrations and super-saturated concentrations of dissolved oxygen. Super-saturation can occur through the rapid growth of algae releasing oxygen through photosynthesis. This rapid growth of algae can also lead to the high chlorophyll-a concentrations. This is the second year that high chlorophyll-a has been identified in this estuary, highlighting a need for further investigation, especially if high chlorophyll-a concentrations continue to be detected in future report cards.

Overall seagrass index scores in the Northern and Whitsunday inshore zones in the 2017 could be perceived to be at odds with corresponding indicator scores. This is not an error in calculation, but a consequence of combining data from two different programs with different scoring approaches into the same reporting product.

Importantly, to combine these programs the seagrass index score is derived from averaging site/meadow scores from within a zone, not averaging the indicator scores within a zone.

A key difference between the two programs is that they derive site/meadow scores differently; the MMP takes the average of the indicator scores while the QPSMP takes a conservative approach and allocates the lowest of the indicator scores to the site/meadow.

For the Northern zone where scores are calculated from QPSMP data, this has led to indicator scores that are good and very good, but a moderate final seagrass index. In comparison, in the Whitsundays, where the scores are calculated from MMP data, there was no data for reproductive effort and nutrient status indicators at a number of sites, meaning the final site/meadow scores (and hence the final seagrass index scores) are weighted towards the score of the remaining indicator, abundance.

Differences between Great Barrier Reef and regional report cards

The geographical area of the Mackay-Whitsunday report card includes the Don, Proserpine, O’Connell, Pioneer, and Plane river basins. The Mackay-Whitsunday report card also reports on offshore and inshore waters separately and divides the inshore area into four separate zones; the Northern, Whitsunday, Central and Southern zones. In comparison, the GBR report card does not include the Don basin nor offshore waters when referring to the Mackay Whitsunday region, and reports on the inshore zone as a whole.

The Great Barrier Reef (GBR) report card reports on the entire GBR system and measures progress towards the goals and targets of the Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan (which replaces the Reef Water Quality Protection Plan 2013). The Mackay-Whitsunday report card is just one of the regional report cards along the coast of the GBR that gathers datasets from various programs and can report on the health of our waterways and ecosystems at a local level. Being able to understand the health of local ecosystems alongside local community values enables management priorities and actions to occur at a regional scale. Our Partnership is a group of 25 organisations that use the report card to help direct action and funding toward keeping our waterways and ecosystems healthy!

Watch our video to understand how our report card works and where we fit in amongst other Great Barrier Reef reporting.

The Paddock to Reef Integrated Monitoring, Modelling and Reporting Program (Paddock to Reef) was established in 2009 and is a collaboration including governments, industry bodies, regional natural resource management bodies, landholders and research organisations. The program collects and integrates data on agricultural management practices, catchment indicators, catchment loads and the health of the Great Barrier Reef.

The Mackay-Whitsunday report card draws on data from the Paddock to Reef Program to report on seagrass, coral and water quality in our inshore marine zones, water quality in our catchments, and management practice of our sugarcane, grazing and horticulture industries.

In river basins (also sometimes called catchments), the Mackay-Whitsunday report card reports pollutants, including Dissolved Inorganic Nitrogen (DIN), sediment, and pesticides as one index, ‘water quality’, based on the annual concentration of these pollutants in the waterways. This is different to the GBR report card which reports these same pollutants as estimates of the annual average reduction in human caused DIN, sediment and pesticide loads at the end of catchments (an annual load delivered to the marine environment), which is based on modelling. Catchment loads are in indication of the mass of pollutants entering the GBR over time, where as measuring the concentration of pollutants via water quality sampling gives a snapshot of waterway health at that one location at that time. Even though the same pollutants are being reported in catchments, the two report cards are not reporting them in the same way and therefore they cannot be expected to match, nor can they be directly compared.

Watch our video to understand why we produce a report card, how our report card works and where we fit in amongst other Great Barrier Reef reporting.

Management practice data is reported at the region level, but because the Mackay-Whitsunday report card includes the Don basin (meaning it is not the same as the Mackay-Whitsunday Natural Resource Management region), this can mean that management practice data may be different to the GBR report card. The GBR report card does not include the Don basin when reporting the Mackay-Whitsunday-Isaac region. This is particularly relevant to grazing and horticulture management practice reporting. Because there is minimal horticulture in the Proserpine, O’Connell, Pioneer, and Plane basins, horticulture is not reported in the Mackay Whitsunday region for the GBR report card. However, horticulture is a key land use in the Don basin, which means it is included in the Mackay-Whitsunday report card.

The Mackay-Whitsunday report card draws on data from more than one program to report on condition of our inshore zones. This includes the Abbot Point and Mackay and Hay Point ambient monitoring programs, commissioned by North Queensland Bulk Ports, for seagrass, coral, and water quality. This data is combined with Paddock to Reef seagrass, coral, and water quality data to calculate condition scores for the four inshore zones. In addition, data is separated differently to the GBR report card and reported in four separate inshore marine zones. This can mean that scores for seagrass, coral, and water quality in the Mackay-Whitsunday report card do not always exactly match the scores in the Mackay Whitsunday region in the GBR report card.

Mackay-Whitsunday report card questions

At the indicator level, the amount of data (sample size) needed to obtain an indicator score is considered on a case-by-case basis by data providers and the experts in the TWG. If the sample size is considered inadequate the indicator will not be scored.

To aggregate indicators into category and index scores, decision rules were developed for the minimum proportion of information required:

  • ≥ 50% of measured indicators to generate the indicator category score (where relevant)
  • ≥ 60% of indicator categories to generate an index score *

Overall scores for reporting zones are presented in the report card, even if not all indices are available.

*Due to the interim approach for reporting the seagrass index, which incorporates two separate programs (each reporting three of their own specific indicators), there needed to be a separate decision rule for generating seagrass index scores. For more information please refer to the technical reports.

Two separate indicators of fish community health are measured to provide a condition score:

  • Native species richness (number of native fish species in a sample); and
  • Abundance of pest fish (proportion of a sample that is pest fish)

Fish are sampled by electrofishing. To derive a fish score, samples from the 2015/16 year were compared to what is ‘expected’ in a minimally disturbed reference stream with similar landscape attributes. ‘Expected’ fish are modelled from fish sampling data provided by Catchment Solutions, Reef Catchments, and the Department of Science, Information Technology and Innovation.

Currently, the types of species (composition) that are observed during the sampling are not considered when determining a condition score. More work will be undertaken in the future to improve the ‘expected’ model and examine how fish community health can incorporate species composition in the overall score.

The method for reporting pesticides is different in freshwater/estuarine waterways compared to in the marine environment. The “multisubstance-Potentially Affected Fraction” (ms-PAF) method is used in freshwater/estuarine waterways and the “PSII herbicide equivalent concentration” (PSII-HEq) method is used in the marine environment.

It is expected that reporting pesticides in the inshore marine zones will move to using the ms-PAF method by the release of the 2019 report card. This will allow for direct comparison of scores between basins, estuaries and inshore marine zones.

Priority aquatic ecosystem indicators that are suitable for measuring waterway health were selected based on the relevant values and pressures in the Region. Each indicator has a relevant benchmark that signals if it is in very good or very poor condition. Regional data for each indicator is compared to benchmarks using a specific methodology to produce a score. Scores correspond to one of five condition grades: Very Good (A), Good (B), Moderate (C), Poor (D), Very Poor (E). Scores for each indicator are rolled up into categories and indices, and these scores are used to produce an overall score for an individual reporting zone in the Region.

The Technical Working Group (TWG) has worked to ensure the report card indicators and scoring methods are based on the best available science, are locally relevant, reflect changes to waterway health, and are consistent with other report card programs across Queensland where applicable.

A number of projects are underway to fill current data gaps or to expand on existing programs:

  • A project has been completed to develop appropriate indicators and methodology to report freshwater flows in our freshwater basins and estuaries, in collaboration with the Wet Tropics Healthy Waterways Partnership. This will allow the flow indicator, reported in the habitat and hydrology index, to be reported in the next report card for the first time in the 2018 report card.
  • The Partnership established a new annual monitoring program for water quality, seagrass and coral in the southern marine inshore zone in September 2017.
    • Water quality data from this monitoring program will contribute to the first scores for the southern marine zone in the 2018 report card.
    • Coral survey data will contribute to scores in the southern marine inshore zone in the 2019 report card.
    • Seagrass survey data will contribute to scores in the southern marine inshore zone in the 2022 report card.
  • Additional end of system water quality monitoring sites at the Don River, Proserpine River, O’Connell River and Plane Creek have been established since December 2016 as part of the expansion of the DSITI Great Barrier Reef Catchment Loads Monitoring Program.
    • Water quality data has been reported for the first time in the Don basin and pesticide data in the Proserpine basins in the 2017 report card.
    • Data from the new O’Connell River and Plane Creek sites will improve our understanding of water quality in the O’Connell and Plane basins. Thus, there will be improved confidence in water quality results in these basin.
  • Funding has been secured over five-years through the Queensland Government’s Reef Water Quality Program to support monitoring for the Mackay Whitsunday and Wet Tropics regional report cards. This will ensure that the existing estuarine and freshwater water quality monitoring is maintained and where possible expanded, and that freshwater fish assessments are continued in future report cards.
  • Additional pesticide monitoring in estuaries is being undertaken in the 2018/19 wet season. This will mean pesticide scores in estuaries will be based on 18 wet season samples in the 2019 report card (currently scores are based on just 4 wet season samples). This will improve confidence in estuary reporting.
  • Where possible, the Partnership is working with relevant citizen science organisations and initiatives to include relevant datasets in future report cards. For more information about citizen science organisations in the GBR Region click here.
  • The Partnership is working within a number of the Reef 2050 Integrated Monitoring and Modelling Reporting Program’s (RIMMReP) working groups, including the Human Dimensions group, to develop suitable indicators/monitoring programs that can be used in future report cards. The Human Dimensions group covers social, economic, governance and cultural heritage components of the Reef 2050 Plan. Here is more information on the RIMMReP.
  • Future report cards will likely utilise a series of updated stewardship frameworks to assess our non-agricultural industries in the Region. An independent review of the current frameworks utilised for the 2014-2017 report cards was undertaken in 2017. The results of this review will be used to refine and improve the stewardship assessment frameworks utilised for future report cards.

Every time an observation is made (data is collected) or a score is calculated, there is potential for error. Data confidence helps to describe how confident managers and experts are in the methods of data collection and analysis that are used to produce an indicator score reported in the report card. Confidence surrounding the report card grades is measured on a five-point scale. This tells us how confident we are, from very low to very high, that the calculated grade reflects the true condition of the indicator. Here is more information on data confidence.

Cultural Heritage site assessments were undertaken in 2016 and were reported on in the 2015 report card. Assessments were undertaken in the St Helens zone, Cape Hillsborough zone and Whitsunday, Hook and South Molle Islands zones. In total, 21 sites were assessed across the three zones. This included shell middens, rock shelters, fish traps, quarries and paintings. Zones were scored against spiritual/social values, scientific values, physical condition, protection of sites and cultural maintenance indicators. Cultural heritage site assessments were undertaken again 2018 and will be released in the 2018 report card (released in 2019). For more information please visit the Cultural Heritage Assessments page.

Currently, the pesticides indicator includes measurements of the concentration of herbicides in the water column that impact on plant photosynthesis (food production). These herbicides can impact aquatic plants and corals, so it is important to measure them in our waterways. Other pesticides, like insecticides and fungicides, will be included in our reporting as our understanding improves of how they impact on plant and animal species in our waterways.

We define stewardship as “responsible and sustainable use and protection of our water resources, waterways and catchments to enhance the social, cultural, environmental and economic values of the Region”.

The Partnership assesses annually how our regional industries are performing against stewardship criteria. Stewardship is important to include in our annual report cards as it provides information on the actions landholders and organisations in the Region are implementing that will provide benefits to ecosystems.

Each year we assess management efforts by our major non-agricultural industries that maintain or improve the condition of our waterways. These efforts are scored across three activity groups (administration, operations, and development) and across three management themes (planning, implementation, and outcome). Data is collected via questionnaires to a series of organisations/companies from each industry. Information in the public domain such as management plans, as well as compliance data (with confidential information removed) is also added to the data pool for each industry. A stewardship score is then calculated for each management theme and activity group for each industry across four categories: ineffective, partially effective, effective and very effective management practices. Here is further information on the method involved in calculating the scores.

In agriculture, frameworks that have been developed, reviewed, and endorsed by industry are currently available for grazing, sugarcane, and horticulture and are based on the joint Australian and Queensland Government’s Paddock to Reef reporting that uses “Water Quality Risk frameworks” (previously “ABCD Frameworks”). Here is further information on the agricultural stewardship scores for our Region, including how are calculated and how results for 2015/16 compare to other regions. Interested in the cane industry specifically? View a flyer recently released in Billet magazine in Mackay.

An indicator is the measured feature in the ecosystem (e.g. particulate nitrogen); an indicator category is generated by combining one or more related indicators (e.g. the category ‘nutrients’ is made up of particulate nitrogen and particulate phosphorus); an index is generated by combining related categories (e.g. the index ‘water quality’ is made up of nutrients, water clarity, chlorophyll-a and pesticides); the overall score is generated by one or more index (e.g. water quality, coral, seagrass and fish indices can make up an inshore marine zone score).

Indicators, categories and indices are displayed in a ‘coaster’ to demonstrate which indicators are aggregated to produce category and index scores.


The ms-PAF method, used in freshwater and estuarine waterways, reports the impact of pesticides by reporting on the percentage of species affected by the toxicity of a mixture of pesticides. The PSII-HEq method reports directly on the toxicity of the pesticides in a mixture instead of on the percentage of species that would be affected by the pesticides.

The newer multisubstance-Potentially Affected Fraction (ms-PAF) method has been developed so it can measure the impact of all pesticides in a mixture, regardless of whether they affect organisms in different ways (e.g. this method can account for chemicals that impact cell division and chemicals that impact photosynthesis).

The ms-PAF method estimates the ecological risk of a chemical on an aquatic ecosystem by determining the percentage of species that would potentially be affected by a given concentration of a pesticide. When multiple pesticides are detected, the percentage of species affected by the pesticides are added together. Currently, in freshwater and estuarine systems only herbicides that impact on photosynthesis are reported using the ms-PAF method. For these herbicides only species that photosynthesise (such as micro-algae and seagrasses) are used to assess the potential impact of these herbicides, as these are the most sensitive group of organisms to these herbicides. As our understanding of the toxicity of other pesticides expands, these pesticides will progressively be included in reporting.

The 2017 report card reports on thirteen herbicides that impact photosynthesis (ametryn, atrazine, diuron, hexazinone, tebuthiuron, bromacil, fluometuron, metribuzin, prometryn, propazine, simazine, terbuthylazine, terbutryn).

In future report cards, ms-PAF will assess up to 28 of the pesticides detected in the Region, including herbicides, insecticides and fungicides.

The PSII herbicide equivalent concentration (PSII-HEq) method measures the toxicity of photo-system II herbicides in a mixture. These herbicides impact on plant photosynthesis (food production). The method assumes that the herbicides act together in the receiving environment (e.g. cumulatively) resulting in more environmental harm. To calculate PSII-HEq each herbicide is compared to a reference PSII herbicide: diuron. As a reference chemical, diuron is given a value of 1. If another pesticide is more potent than diuron it is given a value of more than 1 and if another pesticide is less potent than diuron it is given a value of less than 1. Toxicity is then calculated from a whole water sample by multiplying the value assigned to each herbicide by its respective concentration. These values are added together to produce the final toxicity score. This method is widely used and simple to calculate, however it is limited by the fact that it can only account for chemicals that impact aquatic organisms in the same manner (e.g. chemicals that impact the photosynthetic process at the same point such as PSII herbicides).

It is expected that reporting pesticides in the inshore marine zones will move to using the ms-PAF method by the release of the 2019 report card. This will allow for direct comparison of scores between basins, estuaries and inshore marine zones.

Annual reporting covers a full year stretching from July of one year to June of the next. This timeline for annual reporting has been selected because it takes into account the dry and wet season cycle, ensuring that each wet season is included in one reporting period.

Grey areas indicate where there is a data gap. There are a number of reasons why there are data gaps in the report card. Importantly, data used for the report card must be collected and analysed in a scientifically robust manner. In some cases, data may be available on a particular indicator, but a significant body of work may still be required to ensure that is reported in a suitable format for the report card (e.g. flow indicators across the freshwater and estuarine zones). In other circumstances, there might be multiple programs collecting data and work needs to be done to ensure data between programs is consistent and comparable (e.g. data gaps for fish across the Region). However, for a number of situations throughout the Mackay-Whitsunday Region, there are no monitoring programs in place and the condition of the indicators is completely unknown (e.g. in the southern inshore marine zone).

New data for water quality in the Don basin and pesticides in the Proserpine basin was available for the 2017 report card. This is an important step towards filling data gaps and improving the understanding of water quality in the Mackay-Whitsunday Region.

A monitoring program has been established, funded by the Partnership, in the southern inshore marine zone for water quality, seagrass and coral. Water quality for the southern inshore marine zone will be released in the 2018 report card. A flow indicator across freshwater and estuaries has now been established and will also be released in the 2018 report card. Adding to our knowledge demonstrates the Partnership’s commitment to improving the Region’s report card by filling data gaps and subsequently providing a better understanding of the ecological condition of the Region’s local ecosystems.

In preparation for a report card, data needs be collated and validated, and undergoes comprehensive analysis before it is ready to be released in the report card. This takes   six to nine months, depending on the data set. Time is also needed to review the processes for collecting data, along with the data itself. This process is undertaken by both the Technical Working Group, and the Reef Independent Science Panel.

The Partnership is committed to reducing the time between data collection and report card release, to improve the timeliness and relevance of the report card. Our 2018 report card (released in 2019) has an improved release timeframe, cutting 4 months off the report card process, and is expected to be released in June 2019.

There are currently two different seagrass monitoring programs in the Mackay-Whitsunday region: the Marine Monitoring Program (MMP) and the Queensland Ports Seagrass Monitoring Program (QPSMP). The two programs have different aims, which means that they do not measure the same seagrass attributes nor do they use the same methodologies.

The QPSMP measures seagrass composition, area and biomass indicators while the MMP reports abundance, reproduction and nutrient status indicators. The seagrass scores in the 2015-2017 report cards are based on an interim approach to reporting seagrass condition that uses the indicators from both of the programs. Indicator scores are averaged at the site level and then the average of the site scores provide an overall seagrass score. Work is underway to completely integrate the data from the two programs so that the same indicators are used to report seagrass across the reporting zones in subsequent report cards.

Where confidence is not high (a score of three or lower), results should be viewed with caution. An example of this is for water quality in the freshwater river basins, which has a confidence score of three. This is because the overall score for water quality is derived from only one site per river basin. Even though samples are taken monthly from these sites, caution should be used when interpreting results as the site sampled might not represent the rest of the waterways in the basin (for example water quality in the upper sections of a waterway may be in better condition than in the lower section where a sample site is located and vice versa). For more information see our confidence page and the interactive results page, where confidence for each indicator is shown.

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