SAWFISH and snubfin dolphins on the brink of extinction are top priority in a plan to restore degraded coral habitats and reconnect coastal ecosystems along the Great Barrier Reef.
The plan by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority comes as the CSIRO today will launch a report in Brisbane, warning increasing water temperatures are likely to send the reef's tropical fish southward.
The Marine Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation in Australia Report Card says climate change is having such a significant impact that there is striking evidence of extensive southward movements of tropical species.
It says there are declines in abundance of many temperate species and the first signs of the effect of ocean acidification on marine species with shells, something scientists have warned of for years.
Marine park authority chairman Dr Russell Reichelt said a dramatic 50 per cent loss of coral on inshore reefs had occurred from Cairns to Fraser Island, with more than a dozen marine species listed as highly vulnerable. He said the findings were part of a road map to protect the Reef's 2600km-long fragile ecosystem.
"There are no fishing dead spots, as such, but sadly the entire Reef system inshore and coral south of Cairns to Fraser Island is vulnerable," Dr Reichelt said.
"The GBR is the size of Italy and one-third is marine national park and two-thirds is open to fishing.
"It is these inshore areas where species and habitats are under the greatest pressure from a range of threats, including coastal development."
Coral reefs, islands, the lagoon floor, mangroves, open waters and seagrass meadows are identified as some of the habitats at-risk.
Dwarf minke whales, dugong, inshore dolphins, sharks, rays and snapper are some of the potentially at-risk species. Others include king and blue threadfin salmon, marine turtles, seabirds, sea snakes and grey mackerel.
Poor water quality because of catchment run-off, loss of habitat by port development and illegal fishing were taking a heavy toll. Dr Reichelt said the priority was to improve inshore biodiversity. The draft Great Barrier Reef Biodiversity Conservation Strategy 2012 is open to feedback until September 28.