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Department of the Environment and Heritage annual report 2005–06

Volume one
Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2006
ISSN 1441 9335

Legislation annual reports 2005-06 (continued)

Operation of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999

Introduction

This report describes the operation of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) from 1 July 2005 to 30 June 2006. This is the sixth annual report on the operation of the EPBC Act as required by section 516.

As in previous years, this report follows a format allowing examination of the operation of the EPBC Act against the key priorities in implementing the EPBC Act.

These priorities are:

Overview

The Australian Government, through the operation of the EPBC Act, continues to protect matters of national environmental significance—namely the ecological character of internationally important wetlands, nationally listed threatened species and ecological communities, listed migratory species, the Commonwealth marine environment, the values of world heritage properties, the values of national heritage places and protection of the environment from the impact of nuclear actions. In addition, the EPBC Act provides protection for the environment in relation to proposals involving Commonwealth land and regulates activities of Australian Government agencies that might significantly impact on the environment.

In 2005–06 the government implemented a range of new approaches to ensure the EPBC Act continues to be administered efficiently and effectively.

In September 2005, the department’s Approvals and Wildlife Division was restructured to provide for a more streamlined approach to decision-making under the EPBC Act. Significant upgrades were made to databases and websites supporting the EPBC Act, improving both public access to information and transparency of decision-making. The EPBC Act website was upgraded to improve useability, and simplify access to key information. A major website on whales and other cetaceans was launched (www.saveourwhales.gov.au), which included a new online database for sightings and strandings, and a section to meet the needs of school children. The referrals and assessments database was upgraded, improving access to public notices for industry sectors and other interested parties.

New EPBC Act policy statements were released to provide guidance on what should be referred to the minister for decision on whether assessment and approval are required under the EPBC Act. The policy statements addressed matters of national environmental significance and actions on, or impacting upon, Commonwealth land and actions by Commonwealth agencies. In 2006–07 further policy statements will be released providing more detailed guidance on individual species and ecological communities and for specific industry sectors.

The Australian Government reviewed its approach to regional marine planning. In order to further the government’s commitment to management of Australia’s oceans, the regional marine planning programme has been strengthened by bringing it directly under the EPBC Act, providing a focus on environmental protection and biodiversity and greater certainty for industry. Under the new approach, marine bioregional plans are being developed for Australia’s 14 million square kilometre ocean jurisdiction under section 176 of the EPBC Act. Marine bioregional plans focus on meeting Australian Government conservation and heritage responsibilities within Commonwealth waters. The plans will therefore be key documents guiding the minister, sectoral managers and industry on the key conservation issues and priorities in each marine region.

Defining and identifying an ecological community for listing under the EPBC Act has proven to be a complex task—definitions must be scientifically rigorous yet straightforward enough for the general community to use. To improve the clarity of definitions, a new approach was implemented in 2005–06 which takes into account the impact of degradation and regional variation in widespread ecological communities. The new approach involves tighter definition of ecological communities through the use of condition classes. This ensures that only the better condition classes are included in the definition of the listed ecological community for protection under the EPBC Act. Other lower quality degraded areas still qualify for potential recovery actions through established natural resource management programmes and recovery planning processes. On 17 May 2006, the white box–yellow box–Blakely’s red gum grassy woodland and derived native grassland ecological community was listed as critically endangered. This is the first broad-scale ecological community listed under the new approach to listing.

A significant achievement in 2005–06 was the conclusion of the first round of comprehensive fishery assessments under the EPBC Act on 1 December 2005. The fisheries were assessed against the Guidelines for the Ecologically Sustainable Management of Fisheries, with the outcomes published in detailed reports on the department’s website. During 2005–06 assessments were completed for 25 fisheries, including seven Australian Government-managed fisheries and 18 state-managed fisheries. This brings the cumulative number of fishery assessments completed since 2000 to 113. All fisheries assessed during the year received export approval. The outcome of the assessments included a broad range of recommendations that require Australian Government and state and territory fishery management agencies to demonstrate improved environmental performance and enhance the ecologically sustainable management of fisheries in the short to medium term.

This year the Administrative Appeals Tribunal delivered judgments in two cases involving challenges to decisions made under the EPBC Act. In April 2006 the tribunal confirmed the minister’s declaration that the Southern Bluefin Tuna Fishery is an approved wildlife trade operation in accordance with section 303FN of the EPBC Act. In the second case, the RSPCA (Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the Humane Society International applied to the tribunal for review of the decision to issue permits under section 303CG of the EPBC Act to Taronga Zoo and Melbourne Zoo for the import of Asian elephants from Thailand. On 6 February 2006 the tribunal decided to allow the import of the elephants subject to a number of additional welfare related conditions.

The department worked with the exotic bird keeping sector to address growing concerns about the management of illegal trade in exotic birds, in particular the onus under the EPBC Act on bird keepers to verify that birds in their possession are legally imported, or are the progeny of legally imported birds. In December 2005 the Exotic bird keepers Advisory Group was established with departmental support to prioritise and progress bird keeping issues. Through the advisory group, the department aims to remedy the lack of record keeping by bird keepers since the National Exotic Bird Registration Scheme closed in 2002.

The Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) was listed as vulnerable under the EPBC Act in 2005–06. The major threat to the species is devil facial tumour disease, a mysterious cancer which causes large tumours to grow on the face and neck of infected animals. The disease has been fatal in all cases recorded so far, and has caused a decline in the number of Tasmanian devils over the last decade, particularly in eastern Tasmania. Listing the Tasmanian devil as a threatened species complements the work being undertaken on the disease and promotes the species’ recovery through development of a recovery plan and enhancing the species’ legislative protection.

In 2005–06 the department received 341 referrals, of which 191 were deemed not to be controlled actions and required no further assessment. Seventy-eight referrals (71 after reconsideration) were deemed to be controlled actions requiring assessment and approval under the EPBC Act, and it was decided that a further 64 actions (67 after reconsideration) could proceed without approval if undertaken in a particular manner. Following assessment, 35 actions were approved with conditions designed to protect matters of national environmental significance and the environment. Two actions were not approved. The department also received 13 requests for advice under section 160 of the EPBC Act from Australian Government decision-makers.1

Overall the statutory timeframes for referral, assessment and approval decisions were met on 85 per cent of occasions, which is a decrease from the previous year2. This is indicative of the time required for decision-making on an increasing number of complex and sensitive proposed actions, and the increasing work resulting from actions referred in previous years now entering the approvals phase.

In December 2005 the first ever approvals bilateral agreement under the EPBC Act was entered into with the New South Wales Government for the Sydney Opera House. The agreement provides for the protection of the world heritage and national heritage values of the Sydney Opera House and aims to ensure an efficient, timely and effective process for environmental assessment and approval of actions in accordance with the management plan for the Sydney Opera House.

This year, 21 places were added to the National Heritage List, bringing the total places in the list to 31. Nine Commonwealth agencies completed their heritage strategies which were found by the minister to be of a satisfactory standard. In January 2006, the Australian Government lodged a nomination for the Sydney Opera House to be inscribed on the World Heritage List.


Footnotes:
1 Section 160 applies to certain Australian Government authorisations, such as providing foreign aid that is likely to have a significant impact on the environment.
2 A review of EPBC Act statistics undertaken after the 2004–05 reporting period revealed that 90 per cent of statutory timeframes were met, rather than 83 per cent as reported in the annual report.

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