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Oceans Facts and Figures

A report commissioned by Environment Australia October 1997

Commonwealth of Australia
ISBN 0 642 54548 0

Contents

Executive Summary

Acronyms

1. The Wild Sea

2. Habitats and Inhabitants

3. Ocean Resources

4. Using the Ocean

5. Maritime Industries

References

Executive summary

What constitutes Australia's oceans has begun to take on new meaning for many Australians. This is due in large part to a growing knowledge and understanding of marine environments and their life-sustaining importance.

The majority of the earth's surface is covered by oceans. It is a massive sink that regulates the earth's climate and provides a basis for cleansing the land and atmosphere. The ocean is both separate from and connected to the land; processes on the land directly affect the ocean and conditions in the ocean ultimately influence life on the land.

For Australia, the declaration of the 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which came into force in November 1994, has brought with it new responsibilities for managing its ocean territories. It has also brought new and exciting economic opportunities and community interest in the marine environment continues to grow. For these reasons there is a need to develop better long-term plans and capabilities for sustainable use of our oceans.

Around the globe oceans have suffered neglect and coordinated efforts are needed to address many of the problems. Oceans have been seen as both dumping grounds and as an endless resource. In some instances this is still the case. On the other hand, protected and properly managed, the oceans may hold the key to future prosperity for many nations, particularly Australia whose EEZ is one of the largest in the world, covering 11 million square kms.

Australia is one of only a handful of megadiverse nations and its ocean waters contain a comprehensive array of habitats and forms of marine life. These begin at the ocean's edge, along a spectacular coastline of international renown. Our ocean waters span the full range of climatic zones, providing a home to a rich and wide diversity of species, in many cases unparalleled on earth. There are around 4000 species of fish, the largest number of seagrasses found anywhere, and one of the largest and most species diverse areas of mangrove. Among our natural assets is the largest coral reef system on the planet, the Great Barrier Reef. At the unexplored depths of the ocean it is now expected that even more living treasures could be found.

Compared with other countries Australia's marine environments are in good health, although there are areas of concern. Australia can boast of some pristine marine environments, but these tend to be well away from cities. It is in the waters next to major centres of population that most problems exist, whether from sewage outfalls or pollution in the form of heavy metals and oil.

There is also a general decline in coastal and marine water quality due to increased sedimentation and nutrient levels associated with poor catchment management on the land. This can have a serious impact on marine habitats, leading to the destruction of seagrasses (an important fish habitat) and threatening inshore corals in the wet tropics. The overuse of marine resources, either through overfishing or from the spread of coastal developments, is also a critical issue.

The causes of these problems are complex and are often seen to relate to poor planning and poor coordination between government agencies responsible for coastal and marine management. A further obstacle to reversing the decline of marine resources and environments is that their real value is not well recognised in conventional economics. Access and use of coastal and marine resources is normally provided free of charge and so these `environmental assets' tend to be undervalued and often over-exploited. At the same time it is difficult to put a dollar and cents value on the aesthetic and even spiritual gains that many people derive from the sea.

Increasing community concern about the environment has helped to raise the alarm about the state of marine environments all around the globe. For Australia to move forward to develop and exploit sustainably its coastal zones and ocean territories responsibly there needs to be further research, more strategic thinking and increased cooperation and coordination of effort by marine policy and decision makers at all levels of government.

Increasing community concern about the environment has helped to raise the alarm about the state of marine environments all around the globe. For Australia to move forward to develop and exploit sustainably its coastal zones and ocean territories responsibly there needs to be further research, more strategic thinking and increased cooperation and coordination of effort by marine policy and decision makers at all levels of government.

It is estimated that between 1987 to 1994 marine industries grew from $16 billion to $30 billion to represent 8 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and showing a real growth of 8 to 10 per cent per annum over recent years. Australia is well placed to be part of an expected international growth in marine industries and to supply a growing demand for marine goods and services, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region. With sustained future growth it is estimated that the value of marine industries could rise to $50 to $80 billion by the year 2 000.

Areas where Australia's industry strengths match growing demand include marine science and technology, training, tourism, recreation, seafood, offshore oil and gas production and elements of shipping.

Australia also has a substantial level of expertise in coastal engineering and management and marine environmental services that is now being exported. There is also potential growth in areas such as marine biotechnology, seabed mining and alternative energy.

Australia has a strong skill base necessary for marine industry development and a substantial research infrastructure that can support the development of leading edge technologies. These will provide the keys to Australia gaining some edge in the growing international marketplace for marine based goods and services.

Each marine industry sector has its own opportunities and challenges. A common thread throughout is the need for improved resource management and the provision of better base-line information. A clean marine environment is just as critical to attracting tourists to areas such as the Great Barrier Reef, as it is to maintaining fish stocks, developing new aquaculture projects, or marketing lobsters in Japan.

There is a critical need for information, from basic studies into the state of fish stocks through to finding better ways of controlling exotic marine organisms in ballast waters. More needs to be known about how it may be possible to extract energy, rare minerals, or even new pharmaceutical compounds, from the ocean and how new technologies can be created to improve methods of extracting oil and gas from the deep seabed.

It is often said that the oceans offer many new opportunities, but these will need to be explored and developed through substantial capital investment, research and development (R&D) and commercial risk taking. There is also a need for better policies, as current approaches tend to be fragmented with decision-making occurring across many levels of government.

The following chapters provide a broad overview of the main physical and biological features of Australia's ocean territories, and briefly review Australia's marine resources and their economic and other uses.

Acronyms

EEZ
Exclusive Economic Zone

GBR
Great Barrier Reef

GDP
Gross Domestic Product

MPA
Marine Protected Areas

OECD
Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development

R&D
Research and Development

TBT
Tributyltin