Marine bioregional planning

North Marine Region

Marine bioregional plan for the North Marine Region - Draft for Consultation

Prepared under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999

The public consultation period on the North draft Marine Bioregional Plan is now closed.

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Contents

THIS DRAFT PLAN DOES NOT INCLUDE THE PROPOSED COMMONWEALTH MARINE RESERVES FOR THE REGION. THESE ARE ADDRESSED IN A SEPARATE CONSULTATION DOCUMENT


Ministerial Foreword

Draft North Marine Bioregional Plan

For generations, Australians have understood the need to preserve precious areas on land as national parks. Our oceans contain many iconic, precious and fragile sites that deserve protection too.

Australia has the third largest marine area of any nation in the world. Our marine region runs from the coral rich tropical seas of the north to the subantarctic waters of the Southern Ocean.

Our oceans cover almost 16 million square kilometres - twice the size of our continental landmass. Much of the shelf waters off the western coast of north Queensland and the Northern Territory are at depths of less than 70 metres, including in the shallow, semi enclosed sea of the Gulf of Carpentaria.

The North Marine Region provides a globally important stronghold for threatened species including turtles and sawfish. Six of the seven species of marine turtle are known to inhabit the region. Northern Australian waters support the last healthy populations of sawfish species found anywhere in the world. The region is inhabited by the Australian snubfin dolphin, which is only found in the waters of the Australian continental shelf and is among the six most important dugong habitats in Australia.

Our marine environment is under long term pressure from climate change, marine industries and pollution.

We know that Australia's oceans are a direct link for trade with the world. Our commercial and recreational fishing and energy sectors help to drive economic and social prosperity in communities throughout the nation.

But we also know that Australians need their oceans to be healthy if they are going to provide us with fish to eat, a place to fish, sustainable tourism opportunities and a place for families to enjoy for generations to come.

That's why the Gillard Government has committed to developing plans to manage our oceans better and is creating a national network of Commonwealth marine reserves.

These plans are being developed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 and backed by the best available science.

In this draft plan for the North Marine Region, you will find information about the extraordinary array of marine life and ecosystems in this part of Australia.

This draft plan will be open for community input for the next three months and I encourage you to have your say. The feedback the government receives during this time will help finalise this plan and inform the government's decision on the proposed network of marine reserves in the region.

We have a once in a generation opportunity to put in place the measures needed to protect our precious marine environment for future generations.

Tony Burke
Minister for the Environment

Have your say

The release of the draft North Marine Bioregional Plan marks the start of the formal public consultation period on both the draft plan and the North Commonwealth Marine Reserve Network proposal. Members of the public will have 90 days in which to submit comments on both the draft plan and the proposed network.

The Australian Government Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities invites public feedback on the draft North Marine Bioregional Plan and the proposed marine reserve network.

There are three ways to submit feedback:

Further details about the public consultation process and opportunities to be involved are available at www.environment.gov.au/coasts/mbp/north/index.html. The website also contains fact sheets on specific items of interest and answers to a number of frequently asked questions. If you have any questions about how to make a submission or on any other aspect of the marine bioregional planning process, please email North.MarinePlan@environment.gov.au or telephone 1800 069 352.

1 THE NORTH MARINE BIOREGIONAL PLAN

1.1 Goal of the plan

The North Marine Bioregional Plan has been prepared under section 176 of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). The plan aims to strengthen the operation of the EPBC Act in the Commonwealth marine area of the North Marine Region to help ensure that the marine environment of the region remains healthy and resilient.

The bioregional plan describes the marine environment and conservation values (protected species, protected places and key ecological features) of the North Marine Region, sets out broad objectives for its biodiversity, identifies regional priorities, and outlines strategies and actions to achieve these.

1.2 Scope of the plan

This plan is for the North Marine Region, which covers the Commonwealth marine area extending from west Cape York Peninsula to the Northern Territory - Western Australia border. The Commonwealth marine area starts at the outer edge of state waters, usually 3 nautical miles (5.5 kilometres) from the shore (territorial sea baseline), and extends to the outer boundary of Australia's exclusive economic zone, up to 200 nautical miles from the territorial sea baseline. Section 24 of the EPBC Act defines the Commonwealth marine area.

The plan does not cover state or territory waters but, where relevant, does include information about inshore environments and the way they interact with species and habitats of the Commonwealth marine area.

Under section 176 of the EPBC Act, once a bioregional plan has been made, the minister responsible for the environment must have regard to it when making any decision under the Act to which this plan is relevant. However, the plan does not otherwise alter the scope of the minister's statutory responsibilities, nor does it narrow the matters the minister is required to take into account or may wish to take into account in making decisions. The EPBC Act provides that this plan is not a legislative instrument.

1.3 Objectives of the plan

Consistent with the objectives of the EPBC Act, and in the context of the principles for ecologically sustainable development as defined in the Act, the North Marine Bioregional Plan sets the following objectives for the North Marine Region:

1.4 Contents of the plan and supporting information resources

Part 2 of the plan describes the conservation values of the region (see Section 1.5 for the definition). Part 3 introduces the regional conservation priorities (see Section 1.5 of the Overview) and outlines strategies and actions to address them.

Schedule 1 presents a full description of the pressures on the conservation values of the North Marine Region that are assessed as being of concern or of potential concern (see Section 2.2 of the Overview). Schedule 2 provides specific advice on matters of national environmental significance in the region.

A series of information resources has been produced to support implementation of this plan. Conservation value report cards summarise the most up to date scientific information on the distribution, conservation status, vulnerabilities, pressures and management of the Commonwealth marine environment, cetaceans, dugongs, seabirds, reptiles, sharks, bony fish and protected places.

A conservation values atlas presents a series of maps detailing the location and spatial extent of conservation values (where sufficient information exists to do so). The atlas is available at www.environment.gov.au/coasts/mbp/north/index.html.

These resources will be updated as significant new information becomes available.

Additionally, the bioregional profile www.environment.gov.au/coasts/mbp/north/index.html for the North Marine Region is an important reference document. It provides a full description of the region with comprehensive scientific reference lists.

1.5 Definitions

Biologically important areas: These are areas where aggregations of individuals of a protected species display biologically important behaviour, such as breeding, foraging, resting or migration. Biologically important areas are those parts of a region that are particularly important for the protection and conservation of protected species. Regional advice (Schedule 2 of the plan) often relates to these areas because of their known relevance to a protected species. Regional advice focused on these areas should not be construed to mean that legislative obligations do not apply outside these areas. Biologically important areas should not be confused with 'critical habitat' as defined in the EPBC Act (see below).

Commonwealth marine environment: Section 24 of the EPBC Act defines a Commonwealth marine area. Under the Act, the environment in a Commonwealth marine area is a matter of national environmental significance (see below, and sections 23 and 24A of the EPBC Act). In this plan, the 'Commonwealth marine environment' refers to the environment in a Commonwealth marine area.

Conservation values: For the purpose of marine bioregional planning, conservation values are defined as those elements of the region that are either specifically protected under the EPBC Act, have heritage values for the purposes of the EPBC Act, or have been identified through the planning process as key ecological features in the Commonwealth marine environment. Although key ecological features are not specifically protected under the EPBC Act, the marine environment as a whole is a matter of national environmental significance under the Act. Key ecological features are identified as conservation values within the Commonwealth marine environment to help inform decisions about the marine environment.

Critical habitat: A register of critical habitat is maintained under the EPBC Act. The register lists habitats considered critical to the survival of a listed threatened species or listed threatened ecological community. Once a habitat is listed in the register, the habitat is protected when it is in or on a Commonwealth area, and the EPBC Act makes it an offence for a person to take an action that the person knows significantly damages or will significantly damage critical habitat.

Ecologically significant population: This definition applies to species listed as migratory. In accordance with the EPBC Act Policy Statement 1.1: Significant impact guidelines - matters of national environmental significance, for listed migratory species, consideration should be given to whether an ecologically significant proportion of a population is found in the area. Whether the species in the area represents an ecologically significant proportion of a population needs to be determined on a case by case basis, as different species have different life histories and populations. Some key factors that should be considered include the species' population status, genetic distinctiveness and species specific behavioural patterns.

Environment minister/environment department: The minister and department administering the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

Important population: This definition relates to populations of species listed as vulnerable. An important population is a population that is necessary for a species' long term survival and recovery. This may include populations identified as such in recovery plans, and/or populations that are:

This definition is consistent with that provided in the EPBC Act Policy Statement 1.1: Significant impact guidelines - matters of national environmental significance. In accordance with these guidelines, in determining the significance of an impact on a vulnerable listed species, consideration should be given to whether an important population is found in the area.

Key ecological features: Key ecological features are elements of the Commonwealth marine environment that, based on current scientific understanding, are considered to be of regional importance for either the region's biodiversity or ecosystem function and integrity.

For the purpose of marine bioregional planning, key ecological features of the marine environment meet one or more of the following criteria:

Matters of national environmental significance: The matters of national environmental significance protected under the EPBC Act are:

Additionally, nuclear actions, including uranium mines, are a matter of national environmental significance.

Population: A population of a species is defined under the EPBC Act as an occurrence of the species in a particular area. In relation to critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable threatened species, occurrences include but are not limited to:

Protected places: Protected places are those protected under the EPBC Act as matters of national environmental significance (places listed as world heritage properties, national heritage places or wetlands of international importance), Commonwealth marine reserves and places deemed to have heritage value in the Commonwealth marine environment (such as places on the Commonwealth Heritage List or shipwrecks under the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976).

Protected species: Species protected under the EPBC Act are commonly referred to as protected species. Under the Act, protected species can be listed as threatened, migratory or marine species. All cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) are protected under the EPBC Act in the Australian Whale Sanctuary (and, to some extent, beyond its outer limits). It is an offence to kill, injure, take, trade, keep or move a listed species without authorisation.

Those protected species that are threatened species listed as critically endangered, endangered, vulnerable or migratory are matters of national environmental significance.

Species that do not fall in one of the two categories above and that are:

2 THE NORTH MARINE REGION AND ITS CONSERVATION VALUES

The North Marine Region comprises Commonwealth waters from west Cape York Peninsula to the Northern Territory - Western Australia border (Figure 2.1). The region covers approximately 625 689 square kilometres of tropical waters in the Gulf of Carpentaria and Arafura and Timor seas, and abuts the coastal waters of Queensland and the Northern Territory.

Figure 2.1: The North Marine Region

Figure 2.1: The North Marine Region

The main physical features of the region are:

The remainder of this chapter describes the conservation values of the North Marine Region, including the Commonwealth marine environment, protected species and protected places.

2.1 Conservation values - the Commonwealth marine environment

Biodiversity

By global standards, the marine environment of the North Marine Region is known for its high diversity of tropical species but relatively low endemism (i.e. species that are found nowhere else in the world) in contrast with the relatively isolated southern Australian marine fauna, which has high species endemism. Regions particularly rich in biodiversity include the Gulf of Carpentaria coastal zone, plateaux and saddle north-west of the Wellesley Islands, and the submerged coral reefs of the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Several factors contribute to the high level of biodiversity and low endemism in the region. These factors include the vast species-rich biogeographic ocean zone stretching from the western Pacific to the east coast of Africa where, apart from small stretches of deep ocean in the Arafura and Timor seas, there are thought to be few physical barriers to species dispersal. Most species endemic to the region lack a long-lived pelagic (open sea) larval stage that enables them to cross deeper waters.

The North Marine Region is increasingly recognised as an area of global conservation significance for marine species and as an aggregation area and staging point for migratory birds. Waters in and/or adjacent to the region provide important bird, marine turtle and dugong breeding, feeding and nursery sites. Six of the world's seven species of marine turtle are found in the region and all are listed as endangered or vulnerable under the EPBC Act. The Australian snubfin dolphin, a resident in the region, is endemic to the Australian continental shelf and is found along the Northern Territory coastline. Other protected species known to occur in the region include sawfish, 28 of the 35 known Australian species of sea snakes, the saltwater crocodile, and a vast array of seahorse and pipefish species. The coral reef systems of the region support some endemic species, however, flora and fauna are generally typical of oceanic reefs in the Indo-west Pacific region. Coral, invertebrates and phytoplankton are all highly diverse, while fish such as snapper, emperor and grouper are common higher-order predators of coral and rocky reef habitats.

The most significant known influence on ecosystem structure and function in the North Marine Region is the sea level across the region, which has periodically oscillated during recent geological times. Around 20 000 years ago much of the Gulf of Carpentaria was a shallow brackish lake. Present ocean levels became relatively stable only in the past 6000 years. As a consequence, the region is a relatively new marine environment and many species may still be colonising it. Today, the Gulf of Carpentaria is a semi-enclosed sea bordered by the Torres Strait to the east and by a sill extending from the Wessel Islands in the west to Papua New Guinea in the north, both of which limit the movement of water between the Gulf and the neighbouring Coral and Arafura seas. The Gulf of Carpentaria seabed is mostly flat with waters increasing in depth gradually by about one metre every kilometre, creating a shallow coastal zone up to 20 kilometres wide. Other factors that influence the ecosystems in the Gulf of Carpentaria include complex and varied winds and tides and striking seasonal weather patterns.

The North Marine Region is influenced primarily by tidal flows and less by ocean currents. The net tidal flows that occur over time drive longer-term transport patterns through the region. The movement of tidal waters across the northern Australian marine environment is complex due to the barrier of islands and submerged reefs in the Torres Strait that hinder tidal energy entering from the Coral Sea. Currents that have some minor influence in the region include the Indonesian Throughflow and the South Equatorial Current. The Indonesian Throughflow brings warm water of lower salinity from the tropical western Pacific Ocean between the Indonesian islands to the Indo-Australian basin in the north-west of the region. The influence of the South Equatorial Current in the region is marginal, although the strength of its influence varies with the season.

Key ecological features

Key ecological features are elements of the Commonwealth marine environment in the North Marine Region that, based on current scientific understanding, are considered to be of regional importance for either the region's biodiversity or ecosystem function and integrity. They may be physical features or species (see Table 2.1 and Figure 2.2).

Table 2.1: Key ecological features of the North Marine Region
Feature Description
Pinnacles of the Bonaparte Basin

Values: Unique seafloor feature with ecological properties of regional significance.

Covering more than 520 km2 within the Bonaparte Basin, this feature contains the largest concentration of pinnacles along the Australian margin. The pinnacles of the Bonaparte Basin are thought to be the eroded remnants of underlying strata; it is likely that the vertical walls generate local upwelling of nutrient-rich water, leading to phytoplankton productivity that attracts aggregations of planktivorous and predatory fish, seabirds and foraging turtles.

Carbonate bank and terrace and system of the Van Diemen Rise

Values: Unique seafloor feature with ecological properties of regional significance.

The terrace and bank system of the Van Diemen Rise is part of the larger system associated with the Sahul Banks to the north and Londonderry Rise to the east; it is characterised by terrace, banks, channels and valleys. The variability in water depth and substrate composition may contribute to the presence of unique ecosystems in the channels. Species present include sponges, soft corals and other sessile filter feeders associated with hard substrate sediments of the deep channels; epifauna and infauna include polychaetes and ascidians. Olive ridley turtles, sea snakes and sharks are also found associated with this feature.

Shelf break and slope of the Arafura Shelf

Values: Unique seafloor feature with ecological properties of regional significance.

The shelf break and slope of the Arafura Shelf is characterised by continental slope and patch reefs and hard substrate pinnacles. The ecosystem processes of the feature are largely unknown in the region; however, the Indonesian Throughflow and surface wind-driven circulation are likely to influence nutrients, pelagic dispersal and species and biological productivity in the region. Biota associated with the feature is largely of Timor - Indonesian Malay affinity.

Tributary canyons of the Arafura Depression

Values: Unique seafloor feature with ecological properties of regional significance.

The tributary canyons are approximately 80-100 m deep and 20 km wide. The largest of the canyons extend some 400 km from Cape Wessel into the Arafura Depression, and are the remnants of a drowned river system that existed during the Pleistocene era. Sediments in this feature are mainly calcium-carbonate rich, although sediment type varies from sandy substrate to soft muddy sediments and hard, rocky substrate. Marine turtles, deep sea sponges, barnacles and stalked crinoids have all been identified in the area.

Gulf of Carpentaria basin

Values: Regional importance for biodiversity and aggregations of marine life.

The Gulf of Carpentaria basin is one of the few remaining near-pristine marine environments in the world. Primary productivity in the Gulf of Carpentaria basin is mainly driven by cyanobacteria that fix nitrogen, but is also strongly influenced by seasonal processes. The soft sediments of the basin are characterised by moderately abundant and diverse communities of infauna and mobile epifauna dominated by polychaetes, crustaceans, molluscs and echinoderms. The basin also supports assemblages of pelagic fish species including planktivorous and schooling fish, with top predators such as shark, snapper, tuna and mackerel.

Plateaux and saddle north-west of the Wellesley Islands

Values: High aggregations of marine life, biodiversity and endemism.

Abundance and species density are high in the plateaux and saddle as a result of increased biological productivity associated with habitats rather than currents. Submerged reefs support corals that are typical of northern Australia, including corals that have bleach-resistant zooxanthellae; and particular reef fish species that are different to those found elsewhere in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Species present include marine turtles and reef fish such as coral trout, cod, mackerel and shark. Seabirds frequent the plateaux and saddle, most likely due to the presence of predictable food resources for feeding offspring.

Submerged coral reefs of the Gulf of Carpentaria

Values: High aggregations of marine life, biodiversity and endemism.

The submerged coral reefs of the Gulf of Carpentaria are characterised by submerged patch, platform and barrier reefs that form a broken margin around the perimeter of the Gulf of Carpentaria basin, rising from the sea floor at depths of 30-50 m. These reefs provide breeding and aggregation areas for many fish species including mackerel and snapper, and offer refuges for sea snakes and apex predators such as sharks. Coral trout species that inhabit the submerged reefs are smaller than those found in the Great Barrier Reef and may prove to be an endemic subspecies.

Gulf of Carpentaria coastal zone

Values: High productivity, aggregations of marine life, biodiversity and endemism.

Nutrient inflow from rivers adjacent to the North Marine Region generates higher productivity and more diverse and abundant biota within the Gulf of Carpentaria coastal zone than elsewhere in the region. The coastal zone is near pristine and supports many protected species such as marine turtles, dugongs and sawfish. Ecosystem processes and connectivity remain intact; river flows are mostly uninterrupted by artificial barriers and healthy, diverse estuarine and coastal ecosystems support many species that move between freshwater and saltwater environments.

Figure 2.2: Key ecological features in the North Marine Region

Figure 2.2: Key ecological features in the North Marine Region

Further information on the North Marine Region's key ecological features is available in the Commonwealth marine environment report card (www.environment.gov.au/coasts/mbp/north/index.html).

2.2 Conservation values - protected species

The North Marine Region is an important area for protected species (for definition see Section 1.5). Under the EPBC Act, species can be listed as threatened, migratory, cetacean or marine.

Threatened species are, in broad terms, species that have been identified as being in danger of becoming extinct. Species may be listed in the following categories:

Migratory species are species that are listed under:

Further information on the CMS, JAMBA, CAMBA and ROKAMBA is provided at www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/migratory/index.html.

Cetaceans - all cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) are protected under the EPBC Act in the Australian Whale Sanctuary (and, to some extent, beyond its outer limits).

Marine species belong to taxa that the Australian Government has recognised as requiring protection to ensure their long-term conservation, in accordance with the EPBC Act (ss. 248-250). Listed marine species occurring in the North Marine Region include species of:

Protected species can be listed under more than one category.

Under the EPBC Act, species listed as threatened or migratory are matters of national environmental significance (although species listed as extinct or conservation dependent are not matters of national environmental significance - see Section 1.5). Information about species that occur in the region and are matters of national environmental significance is provided in Schedule 2.

Many of the species listed under the EPBC Act are also protected under state legislation. For example, loggerhead turtles are protected under the EPBC Act and under Queensland and Northern Territory legislation.

The lists of protected species established under the EPBC Act are updated periodically. This plan refers to the current lists of protected species in the region included in the conservation values report cards at www.environment.gov.au/coasts/mbp/north/index.html. The report cards include detailed information about species groups and species distribution and ecology in the North Marine Region.

Based on current data and expert advice, biologically important areas (for definition see Section 1.5) are defined for some protected species. Biologically important areas and the data underpinning them are available in the North Marine Conservation Values Atlas at www.environment.gov.au/coasts/mbp/north/index.html.

2.3 Conservation values - protected places

Protected places are areas protected under the EPBC Act as matters of national environmental significance (places listed as world heritage properties, national heritage places or wetlands of international importance), Commonwealth marine reserves or places deemed to have heritage value in the Commonwealth marine environment (such as places on the Commonwealth Heritage List or shipwrecks under the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976).

There is one historic shipwreck in the region (Figure 2.3):

Figure 2.3: Protected places in the North Marine Region

Figure 2.3: Protected places in the North Marine Region

3 REGIONAL PRIORITIES, STRATEGIES AND ACTIONS

Section 176 of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) provides for a bioregional plan to identify objectives for the biodiversity and other values of a region and to include priorities to achieve these objectives. The objectives for this plan are set out in Section 1.3. They are:

In the context of these objectives, Part 3:

3.1 Regional priorities

Regional priorities are key areas of focus that have been identified to inform decision-making about marine conservation and planning, as well as industry development and other human activities. The regional priorities provide context for implementing the government's statutory responsibilities, such as recovery planning for threatened species and the development and implementation of threat abatement measures. They also point to where future government initiatives and future investments in marine conservation, including in research and monitoring, would be best directed.

The identification of the regional priorities has been guided by the outcomes of the pressure analysis. This analysis considered factors such as the conservation status of conservation values, the location and extent of pressures and the expected impacts arising from conservation value-pressure interactions. In identifying regional priorities, consideration has been given to the following criteria:

Pressures

For the purpose of this plan, pressures are defined broadly as human-driven processes and events that do or can detrimentally affect the region's conservation values. These pressures were assessed during the development of this plan. In the assessment process, pressures were classified as of concern, of potential concern, of less concern and not of concern. The assessment process is described in Section 2.2 of the Overview of marine bioregional plans, and details of the outcomes are included in Schedule 1 to this plan.

There are two main sources of pressures in the North Marine Region: those associated directly with anthropogenic (human) activities and those related to climate change.

Anthropogenic pressures on marine ecosystems and biodiversity in the North Marine Region are, by global standards, low. This is partly due to the relatively low levels of marine resource use and low coastal population pressure across the region (exceptions being in proximity to the large urban centre of Darwin), and partly due to Australia's generally sound management of the marine environment.

A number of sources of pressures nevertheless exist in the region. The main drivers and sources of pressure on conservation values in the North Marine Region are:

Only a subset of conservation values and pressures assessed as being of concern or of potential concern has been identified as regional priorities. Generally, when a pressure affects multiple values and its effects are of concern for at least some of these values, then the pressure is identified as a regional priority. Similarly, if a conservation value is, or is likely to be, affected detrimentally by multiple pressures, and at least one of the pressures has been assessed as of concern, it is considered to be a regional priority. Other key considerations in determining pressure-based regional priorities included issues of scale, legislative responsibility, conservation status, effectiveness of existing management, and level of uncertainty about distribution, abundance and status of conservation values and the pressures acting on them.

North Marine Region priorities

This plan identifies 12 regional priorities for the North Marine Region: 6 conservation values and 6 pressures.

Tables 3.1 and 3.2 provide more information on the regional priorities identified for the North Marine Region. Further details on the conservation values of the North Marine Region and the pressures facing them, and relevant references, are available in Schedule 1 of this plan and the conservation value report cards (www.environment.gov.au/coasts/mbp/north/index.html).

Building on the regional priority analyses, available information and existing administrative guidelines, this plan provides advice to assist decision-makers, marine industries and other users to understand and meet the obligations that exist with respect to these priorities under the EPBC Act (see Schedule 2).

Table 3.1: Conservation values of regional priority for the North Marine Region

Conservation value Rationale (why it's a priority) Focus for conservation effort

1 Marine turtles

Flatback turtle

Green turtle

Hawksbill turtle

Leatherback turtle (EPBC Act listed as vulnerable, migratory and marine)

Loggerhead turtle

Olive ridley turtle

(EPBC Act listed as endangered, migratory and marine)

Six of the seven species of marine turtle in the world are known to inhabit the North Marine Region. All six species are listed as threatened under the EPBC Act, and have important breeding, nesting and/or feeding areas in or adjacent to the North Marine Region. In particular, the region supports globally significant populations of green, hawksbill, olive ridley and flatback turtles.

In the North Marine Region, the pressures assessed as of concern for marine turtles are invasive species and marine debris. The pressures assessed as of potential concern for marine turtles are sea level rise, changes in sea temperature, bycatch (commercial fishing), extraction of living resources (Indigenous harvest), noise pollution (seismic exploration) and light pollution (offshore activities).

The conservation status of marine turtles, the significance of the North Marine Region to their recovery and the pressures facing them in the region make the species group a priority for conservation effort.

Ongoing:
Collaborate with government and non-government organisations through international agreements, such as the Memorandum of Understanding on the Conservation and Management of Marine Turtles and Their Habitats of the Indian Ocean and South-East Asia, to conserve marine turtles and manage the pressures on them.

Coordinate marine turtle species recovery efforts across relevant agencies and through community partnerships.

Short term:
Increase collaboration with relevant agencies and industries to improve the understanding of industry impacts on marine turtles in the North Marine Region.

Improve reporting of interactions between industry and marine turtles and develop improved mitigation measures.

Medium term:
Increase understanding of marine turtles and the pressures facing them in the North Marine Region, particularly by supporting research into biologically important areas for marine turtles and the potential impacts of climate change-related pressures.

2 Inshore dolphins (3 species)

Australian snubfin dolphin

Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin (EPBC Act listed as cetacean and migratory)

Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin (EPBC Act listed as cetacean and migratory [Arafura/Timor Sea populations])

The Australian snubfin dolphin, Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin and Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin are known to occur in the North Marine Region. All three species are listed as migratory and cetacean under the EPBC Act. These species rely on the waters of the North Marine Region and adjacent coastal areas for breeding and foraging.

The Australian snubfin dolphin and Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin occur mostly in shallow waters up to 10 km from the coast and 20 km from the nearest river mouth. Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins tend to occur in deeper, more open coastal waters, primarily in continental shelf waters (up to 200 m deep), including coastal areas around oceanic islands.

The species' vulnerability to pressures is intensified due to their life history characteristics (they are long-lived, females take many years to reach sexual maturity and they have a low rate of reproduction) and their small and fragmented populations. In the North Marine Region, the pressure assessed as of concern for inshore dolphins is physical habitat modification (onshore and offshore construction). The pressures assessed as of potential concern for inshore dolphins are bycatch (commercial fishing), marine debris, noise pollution (onshore and offshore construction; shipping), changes in sea temperature, ocean acidification, sea level rise (Australian snubfin dolphin only), chemical pollution (onshore and offshore mining) and physical habitat modification (dredging).

The conservation status of inshore dolphins, the significance of the North Marine Region to their survival (especially given their limited and fragmented ranges) and the pressures facing them in the region make the species a priority for conservation effort.

Short term:
Increase collaboration with relevant agencies and industries to improve the understanding of industry impacts on inshore dolphins in the North Marine Region.

Improve reporting of interactions between industry and inshore dolphins and develop improved mitigation measures.

Medium term:
Increase understanding of inshore dolphins and the pressures facing them in the North Marine Region, particularly by supporting research into biologically important areas for inshore dolphins and the potential impacts of climate change-related pressures.

3 Sawfishes and river sharks (5 species)

Dwarf sawfish

Freshwater sawfish

Green sawfish (EPBC Act listed as vulnerable) Northern river shark (EPBC Act listed as endangered)

Speartooth shark (EPBC Act listed as critically endangered)

Five species of sawfish and river shark listed under the EPBC Act are known to occur in the North Marine Region. While relatively little is known about the distribution and abundance of sawfishes and river sharks in northern Australian waters, the North Marine Region is considered an important area for the species group as the region and adjacent waters contain nationally and globally significant populations of sawfish and river shark species.

Biologically, sawfishes and river sharks are characterised by their late age at maturity, slow growth rate, low fecundity, longevity and low rate of natural mortality, all of which result in low rates of reproduction and capacity to withstand human-induced pressures. In the North Marine Region, the pressures assessed as of concern for sawfishes and river sharks are bycatch (commercial fishing; recreational fishing), extraction of living resources (illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing) and changes in hydrological regimes. The pressures assessed as of potential concern for sawfishes and river sharks are sea level rise, changes in sea temperature, marine debris, extraction of living resources (commercial fishing [freshwater sawfish only]; Indigenous harvest) and chemical pollution (onshore and offshore mining).

Research into the distribution, population size, population trends and factors influencing recovery of these species has been undertaken but significant gaps in knowledge on sawfish and river shark species in northern Australia remain. These knowledge gaps, along with the conservation status of sawfishes and river sharks, the significance of the North Marine Region to their recovery, and the pressures facing them in the region, make the species group a priority for conservation effort.

Short term:
Collaborate with government and non-government organisations through domestic, regional and international arrangements to reduce the occurrence of illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing in the North Marine Region.

Coordinate sawfish and river shark species recovery efforts across relevant agencies and partnerships with communities through the development and implementation of a recovery plan for sawfish and river shark species.

Increase collaboration with relevant agencies and industries to improve understanding of industry impacts on sawfishes and river sharks in the North Marine Region. Improve reporting of interactions between industry and these species and develop improved mitigation measures.

Medium term:
Increase understanding of sawfishes and river sharks and the pressures facing them in the North Marine Region, particularly by supporting research into biologically important areas for sawfishes and river sharks and the potential impacts of climate change-related pressures.

4 Dugong
(EPBC Act listed as migratory and marine)

A significant proportion of the world's dugongs occur in the North Marine Region and adjacent coastal waters. Dugongs are vulnerable to human-induced impacts as a result of their biological characteristics, such as their longevity (up to 70 years), long gestation (12-14 months), litter sizes of one, long intervals between births (up to 2.5 years) and late age at sexual maturity (6-17 years). In the North Marine Region, the pressures assessed as of potential concern for dugong are bycatch (commercial fishing), extraction of living resources (Indigenous harvest; illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing), marine debris, sea level rise, changes in sea temperature and physical habitat modification (storm events).

The conservation status of dugongs, the significance of the North Marine Region to their survival and the pressures facing them in the region make the species a priority for conservation effort.

Ongoing:
Collaborate with other range states under the Memorandum of Understanding on the Conservation and Management of Dugongs and Their Habitats throughout Their Range (made under the auspices of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species).

Short term:
Collaborate with government and non-government organisations through domestic, regional and international arrangements to reduce the occurrence of illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing in the North Marine Region.

Increase collaboration with relevant agencies and industries to improve the understanding of industry impacts on dugongs in the North Marine Region.

Improve reporting of interactions between industry and dugongs and develop improved mitigation measures.

Medium term:
Increase understanding of dugongs and the pressures facing them in the North Marine Region, particularly by supporting research into biologically important areas for dugongs and the potential impacts of climate change-related pressures.

5 Sea snakes

(EPBC Act listed as marine)

The North Marine Region is an important area for sea snakes. Nineteen species are known to occur in the region; all are listed as marine species under the EPBC Act.

Sea snakes are vulnerable to human-induced pressures because of their slow growth rates and low fecundity. In the North Marine Region, the pressure assessed as of concern for sea snakes is bycatch (commercial fishing). The pressures assessed as of potential concern for sea snakes are physical habitat modification (dredging), changes in sea temperature and ocean acidification.

The conservation status of sea snakes, the significance of the North Marine Region to their survival and the pressures facing them in the region make the species a priority for conservation effort.

Short term:
Increase collaboration with relevant agencies and industries to improve the understanding of industry impacts on sea snakes in the North Marine Region.

Improve reporting of bycatch interactions between industry and sea snakes and develop improved mitigation measures.

Medium term:
Increase understanding of sea snakes and the pressures facing them in the North Marine Region, particularly by supporting research into biologically important areas for sea snakes and the potential impacts of climate change-related pressures.

6 Gulf of Carpentaria coastal zone

(Key ecological feature)

The Gulf of Carpentaria coastal zone is a key ecological feature of the North Marine Region due to its productivity, presence of aggregations of marine life (including several endemic species) and comparatively high biodiversity. Nutrient inflow from rivers leads to higher productivity and more diverse and abundant biota in this area than elsewhere in the North Marine Region.

In the North Marine Region, the pressure assessed as of concern for the Gulf of Carpentaria coastal zone is marine debris. The pressures assessed as of potential concern for the Gulf of Carpentaria coastal zone are physical habitat modification (offshore construction), extraction of living resources (illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing), changes in hydrological regimes, sea level rise, changes in sea temperature, ocean acidification and physical habitat modification (storm events).

The Gulf of Carpentaria coastal zone is a priority for conservation efforts because it is a key ecological feature that supports diverse marine life, that is facing pressures assessed as of concern and of potential concern, and about which there is a lack of data.

Ongoing:
Collaborate with relevant agencies and partner with coastal communities on environmental protection efforts to manage marine debris. Collaborate with government and non-government organisations through domestic, regional and international arrangements to reduce the occurrence of illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing in the North Marine Region. Collaborate with government and non-government organisations through international agreements to manage marine debris and reduce its occurrence in the North Marine Region.

Short term:
Increase collaboration with relevant agencies and industries to improve the understanding of industry impacts on the Gulf of Carpentaria coastal zone and develop improved mitigation measures.

Medium term:
Increase understanding of the Gulf of Carpentaria coastal zone and the pressures facing it, particularly by supporting research into the potential impacts of climate change-related pressures.

EPBC Act = Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act 1999

Table 3.2: Pressures of regional priority for the North Marine Region

Pressurea Rationale (why it's a priority) Focus for conservation effort

7 Marine debris

Injury and fatality to vertebrate marine life caused by ingestion of, or entanglement in, harmful marine debris is a listed key threatening process under the EPBC Act.

In the North Marine Region, interactions with marine debris are assessed as of concern for marine turtles, the Gulf of Carpentaria basin, plateaux and saddle north-west of the Wellesley Islands, and the Gulf of Carpentaria coastal zone. Interactions with marine debris are assessed as of potential concern for inshore dolphins, dugongs, sawfishes and river sharks, and the submerged reefs of the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Marine debris is a priority for conservation efforts in the North Marine Region because it is considered of concern or of potential concern for multiple conservation values, because of the vulnerability of the region to the pressure and because it is listed under the EPBC Act as a key threatening process.

Ongoing:
Coordinate environmental protection efforts across relevant agencies and partner with coastal communities to implement actions in the Marine Debris Threat Abatement Plan to manage marine debris and mitigate its impacts on conservation values in the North Marine Region.

Collaborate with government and non-government organisations through international agreements to manage marine debris and reduce its occurrence in the North Marine Region.

Collaborate with fisheries management agencies, the fishing industry and other relevant industries to improve understanding of marine debris and address its cumulative effects on the conservation values of the North Marine Region.

Medium term:
Increase understanding of the causes of marine debris in the North Marine Region and its impacts on conservation values.

8 Bycatch

In the North Marine Region, interactions with bycatch are assessed as of concern for sawfishes and river sharks and sea snakes. Interactions with bycatch are assessed as of potential concern for flatback turtles, olive ridley turtles, leatherback turtles, dugongs, inshore dolphins, ribboned sea dragons, pipehorses, Indonesian pipefish and long-nosed pipefish.

Bycatch is a priority for conservation effort in the North Marine Region because it is of concern or of potential concern for multiple conservation values, and because the region is vulnerable to the widespread pressure.

Ongoing:
Collaborate with relevant agencies on environmental protection efforts to manage bycatch and mitigate its impacts on conservation values in the North Marine Region.

Collaborate with government and non-government organisations through international agreements to manage illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing and reduce its occurrence in the North Marine Region.

Short term:
Collaborate with fisheries management agencies, the fishing industry and other relevant industries to improve understanding of bycatch and address its cumulative effects on the conservation values of the North Marine Region.

Medium term:
Increase understanding of the levels and causes of bycatch in the North Marine Region and its impacts on conservation values.

9 Extraction of living resources (illegal, unreported
and unregulated fishing)

In the North Marine Region, extraction of living resources (illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing) is assessed as of concern for sawfishes and river sharks. Extraction of living resources (illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing) is assessed as of potential concern for dugongs and all eight key ecological features of the region.

Extraction of living resources is a priority for conservation effort in the North Marine Region because it is of concern or of potential concern for multiple conservation values, and because the region is vulnerable to the pressure.

Ongoing:
Collaborate with government and non-government organisations through international agreements to manage illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing and reduce its occurrence in the North Marine Region.

Medium term:
Increase understanding of the levels of extraction of living resources in the North Marine Region and its impacts on conservation values.

10 Physical habitat modification

In the North Marine Region, physical habitat modification is assessed as of concern for inshore dolphins, and of potential concern for sea snakes, seahorses and pipefishes, the tributary canyons of the Arafura Depression and the Gulf of Carpentaria coastal zone.

Physical habitat modification is a priority for conservation effort in the North Marine Region because it is of concern or of potential concern for multiple conservation values, it is likely to increase in the region and it is likely to have cumulative impacts on a range of conservation value.

Ongoing:
Collaborate with relevant agencies on environmental protection efforts to manage physical habitat modification and mitigate the impacts on conservation values in the North Marine Region.

Short term:
Increase collaboration with relevant industries to improve the understanding of physical habitat modification and its impacts in the North Marine Region and develop improved mitigation measures.

Medium term:
Increase understanding of the causes of physical habitat modification in the North Marine Region and the impacts on conservation values.

11 Climate change

Climate change-related pressures such as sea level rise, changes in sea temperature, ocean acidification and changes in oceanography are predicted to increase in the North Marine Region. For example, average sea level is predicted to rise between 0.5m and 1.0 m by 2100, relative to 2000 levels.

In the North Marine Region, pressures related to climate change are assessed as of potential concern for sawfishes and river sharks, sea snakes, marine turtles, dugongs, inshore dolphins, seabirds, saltwater crocodiles, the Florence D shipwreck and all eight key ecological features of the region.

Climate change is a priority for conservation effort in the North Marine Region because it is assessed as of potential concern for multiple conservation values, pressures associated with it are likely to increase and because there is a significant gap in knowledge about how the pressure will impact the conservation values of the region.

Ongoing:
Collaborate with relevant agencies on environmental protection efforts to manage climate change-related pressures and mitigate their impacts on conservation values in the North Marine Region.

Short term:
Increase collaboration with relevant industries to improve the understanding of climate change and its impacts on conservation values in the North Marine Region and develop improved mitigation measures.

Medium term:
Increase understanding of climate change in the North Marine Region and the impacts on conservation values.

12 Changes in hydrological regimes

The North Marine Region is vulnerable to changes in hydrological regimes due to its reliance upon the large number of estuaries and waterways that feed into the Gulf of Carpentaria and the waters adjacent to the Northern Territory coastline. Australian tropical rivers have highly energetic, episodic flows related to the monsoonal wet season that transport sediments downstream with little trapping of materials in waterways. Changes in hydrological regimes can cause siltation, changes to saltwater intrusion, and a reduction in connectivity and cues between estuary and offshore waters.

In the North Marine Region, changes in hydrological regimes are assessed as of potential concern for sawfishes and river sharks and the Gulf of Carpentaria coastal zone.

Changes in hydrological regimes are a priority for conservation effort in the North Marine Region because it is assessed as of potential concern for multiple conservation values and is likely to increase in the region and in areas adjacent to the region.

Ongoing:
Collaborate with relevant agencies on environmental protection efforts to manage changes in hydrological regimes in coastal areas adjacent to the North Marine Region and mitigate their impacts on conservation values in the region.

Short term:
Increase collaboration with relevant industries to improve the understanding of changes in hydrological regimes and their impacts on conservation values in the North Marine Region and develop improved mitigation measures.

Medium term:
Increase understanding of changes in hydrological regimes in the North Marine Region and the impacts on conservation values.

EPBC Act = Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act 1999
a Similar pressures have been amalgamated where appropriate to form pressures of regional priority. For example, the pressures of bycatch from commercial fishing and bycatch from recreational fishing have been combined to form the regional priority of bycatch. More detailed information on the analysis of pressures can be found in Schedule 1 of this plan and in the conservation value report cards (www.environment.gov.au/coasts/mbp/north/index.html).

3.2 Strategies and actions

The bioregional plan for the North Marine Region includes eight strategies to address its priorities:

Strategy A:

Increase collaboration with relevant research organisations to inform and influence research priorities and to increase the uptake of research findings to inform management and administrative decision-making.

Strategy B:

Establish and manage a Commonwealth marine reserve network in the North Marine Region as part of a national representative system of marine protected areas

Strategy C:

Provide relevant, accessible and evidence-based information to support decision-making with respect to development proposals that come under the jurisdiction of the EPBC Act.

Strategy D:

Increase collaboration with fisheries management agencies and the fishing industry to improve the understanding of fisheries impacts and address the cumulative effects of fisheries on the region's key ecological features and protected species.

Strategy E:

Develop partnerships with relevant industries to increase understanding of the impacts of anthropogenic disturbance on the region's key ecological features and protected species.

Strategy F:

Develop targeted collaborative programs to coordinate species recovery and environmental protection efforts across Australian Government and state and territory agencies with responsibilities for the marine environment.

Strategy G:

Improve monitoring, evaluation and reporting on ecosystem health in the marine environment.

Strategy H:

Participate in international efforts to manage conservation values and pressures of regional priority.

Within each strategy, actions have been designed to address one or more of the regional priorities. A few actions are not linked directly to regional priorities but have been included as enabling actions - that is, they provide the necessary foundation and/or mechanisms for addressing the regional priorities in a coordinated, effective and efficient way.

Actions under the strategies are classified in terms of their implementation timeframe:

Strategy A: Increase collaboration with relevant research organisations to inform and influence research priorities and to increase the uptake of research findings to inform management and administrative decision-making

Strategy B: Establish and manage a Commonwealth marine reserve network in the North Marine Region as part of the national representative system of marine protected areas

Strategy C: Provide relevant, accessible and evidence-based information to support decision-making with respect to development proposals that come under the jurisdiction of the EPBC Act

Strategy D: Increase collaboration with fisheries management agencies and the fishing industry to improve the understanding of fisheries impacts and address the cumulative effects of fisheries on the region's key ecological features and protected species

Strategy E: Develop partnerships with relevant industries to increase understanding of the impacts of anthropogenic disturbance on the region's key ecological features and protected species

Strategy F: Develop targeted collaborative programs to coordinate species recovery and environmental protection efforts across Australian Government, and state and territory agencies with responsibilities for the marine environment

Strategy G: Improve monitoring, evaluation and reporting on ecosystem health in the marine environment

Strategy H: Participate in international efforts to manage conservation values and pressures of regional priority

Draft Plan cover graphic

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Last updated: Monday, 27-Aug-2012 11:23:52 EST