A sea turtle swims through coral off Lady Elliot Island in Australia's Great Barrier Reef. IBTimes/ Felipe Bascunan

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park dAuthority, or GBRMPA, was established in 1974 to manage the world’s largest living organism and protect it from a growing list of threats. So when it announced last Friday that it would allow 3 million cubic meters of dredge spoil to be dumped beside the Reef to expand a coal port, many environmentalists were shocked.

“This is a sad day for the Reef and anyone who cares about its future,” said Richard Leck of the World Wildlife Fund’s Great Barrier Reef campaign. “Across the board, people expect [the GBRMPA] to defend the Reef, not approve its destruction.”

Felicity Wishart of the Australian Marine Conservation Society said she laid the blame on the federal government and federal environment minister, who had already approved the dredging in December. “All of the government’s talk and all of its actions move in opposite directions,” she said. “The health of the reef is very poor and I find it terrifying because I ask myself: Where is the accountability? If the Australian government won’t stand up for the reef, then who will? I guess it’s going to have to be ordinary Australians -- and I think that’s exactly what you’re seeing now.”

GBRMPA, whose board is currently under investigation for links to the mining industry, saw its Facebook page bombarded with negative comments over the weekend as people questioned how the very association charged with protecting the Great Barrier Reef could “cave to political pressure.”

Many feared the dredge dumping could be the final straw for UNESCO, which has threatened to place the Great Barrier Reef on its “danger list” later this year unless the Australian government can prove it’s committed to protecting its most famous World Heritage Site. UNESCO said in meetings last June that one of its biggest concerns was the effect of numerous resource projects slated for the Reef’s coast. Friday’s announcement could pave the way for Abbot Point to become the world’s largest coal port.

“We find ourselves very much between a rock and a hard place,” Wishart said of the UNESCO fears. “While a reprimand from UNESCO could lead to a wake-up call, fundamentally, we feel it would damage the tourism industry and Australia’s reputation. It could also undermine the efforts to ensure the Reef is properly protected by making people fatalistic. The last thing we want is for people to believe that there is nothing they can do to save the Great Barrier Reef.”

The GBRMPA, for its part, has remained adamant that the Great Barrier Reef is not endangered by its decision. It said it approved the application by North Queensland Bulk Ports to dispose of dredge spoil at Abbot Point “after rigorous assessment” and was sure the Reef would remain a great natural wonder into the future.

“This approval is in line with the agency’s view that port development along the Great Barrier Reef coastline should be limited to existing ports,” Authority Chairman Russell Reichelt said in a statement. “As a deepwater port that has been in operation for nearly 30 years, Abbot Point is better placed than other ports along the Great Barrier Reef coastline to undertake expansion as the capital and maintenance dredging required will be significantly less than what would be required in other areas.”

The GBRMPA noted that 47 strict environmental conditions would “help protect coral reefs, fish habitat and the Catalina WWI wreck, while recognizing that the Marine Park is a multiple-use area which provides for a range of activities including tourism, fishing and shipping.”

Those conditions include a long-term water quality monitoring plan, testing of the dredge spoils before dumping, and a requirement to prevent any harm to the environmental, cultural and heritage values of any areas beyond 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) from the disposal site.

The GBRMPA said it was important to note that there is no hard coral or seagrass within the disposal site. But environmentalists argue that the GBRMPA’s own studies suggest dredge spoil can travel as far as 80 kilometers. Wishart said fine sediments can stay suspended in the water for days, weeks or even months, depending on the conditions, and starve corals of light.

Tourism operators in the Whitsunday Islands, a popular Australian retreat just south of the proposed dump site, have already vowed to sue the GBRMPA over fears of increased shipping (Greenpeace believes as many as 320 additional ships could cross the Reef each year, escalating the chances of a shipping accident), long-term damage to the Reef and poor visibility for divers and snorkelers, among other concerns.

“The Whitsundays is south of the dumping point they are talking about, and the main current on the Reef runs north to south. We are really, really concerned about this. The jewel in the crown of tourism is the Whitsunday Islands and here they are saying ‘let’s trash it’,” Colin McKenzie, president of the Association of Marine Park Tour Operators, said in an interview with Fairfax Radio.

“We will take it to [Environment Minister Greg] Hunt, we will appeal this to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, we will take it to court if we have to,” he added. “I think the GBRMPA is in breach of their own act and that will be how we are trying to challenge this.”

Economists estimate the Great Barrier Reef contributes $6.4 billion a year to Australia and employs more than 60,000 people. But the 2,600-kilometer (1,680-mile) network of interconnected reef systems faces increasing pressure from climate change, land-based pollution and outbreaks of the coral-gobbling crow-of-thorns starfish.

Environmentalists say the biggest irony is that the Great Barrier Reef is both one of the world’s most famous natural icons and one of its busiest coal shipping lanes -- ushering the nonrenewable energy source off to Asia to be burned, release greenhouse gasses into the air, warm the oceans and further damage a reef that some scientists fear could disappear within our lifetime.