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Coasts and Oceans


Key departmental publications, e.g. annual reports, budget papers and program guidelines are available in our online archive.

Much of the material listed on these archived web pages has been superseded, or served a particular purpose at a particular time. It may contain references to activities or policies that have no current application. Many archived documents may link to web pages that have moved or no longer exist, or may refer to other documents that are no longer available.

1 August 2008

Customs vessel protecting north-west marine environment

The sensitive marine environment around the Ashmore Reef and Cartier Island Marine Reserves is benefiting from the near-permanent presence of the Australian Government vessel Ashmore Guardian in the area.

The two marine reserves, covering an area of 750 km2, are about 320 km off the north-west coast of Australia but only 150 km south of the Indonesian Island of Roti.

Customs officers aboard the vessel have already distributed information to crew and passengers of over 50 Indonesian fishing vessels and four recreational sailing vessels around the marine reserves since it was deployed in April this year. Warnings have also been issued to crew of a number of traditional vessels found in the closed area of Ashmore Reserve.

After it was commissioned, Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts Peter Garrett said the presence of the Ashmore Guardian would be a great boost for monitoring and management of activities in the Ashmore Reef and Cartier Island Marine Reserves.

"These reserves are internationally significant coral ecosystems that are threatened by illegal fishing," Mr Garrett said.

"Turtles, dugongs, sharks and seabirds use these reserves for feeding and breeding and the presence of the Ashmore Guardian in the area will be an excellent deterrent against illegal fishing.

The Ashmore Guardian.

The Ashmore Guardian is now a permanent presence around the Australian Government's Ashmore Reef and Cartier Island Marine Reserves. Image courtesy of the Australian Customs Service.

"We know that illegal fishing for turtle, shark fins, sea cucumbers, trochus and giant clam shells has occurred in the area. The Ashmore Guardian will be a constant reminder of the Australian Government's determination to protect this remarkable environment."

Traditional Indonesian fishermen are allowed to fish in the area under a Memorandum of Understanding between Australia and Indonesia. However, traditional fishing in Ashmore Reserve is restricted to a small area and is for immediate consumption only. The 35 m, 339 tonne Ashmore Guardian is a specially modified commercial fleet support ship capable of carrying up to 10 Customs officers and other officials.

Since it was commissioned, the vessel has also been utilised by the Department to accommodate a researcher surveying sea snakes, known to be declining in the area, as well as launch a rat identification program following possible sightings of rats by Customs officers at Ashmore West Island.

Turtle and dugong project wins Banksia award

Minister for Environment Peter Garrett with this year's Banksia Indigenous Award Winners.

Minister for the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts Peter Garrett with this year's Banksia Indigenous Award winners. The group won for its North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance Dugong and Marine Turtle Project.

This year's Banksia Indigenous Award was won by the North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance (NAILSMA) for its Dugong and Marine Turtle Project.

The Banksia awards, over the past 19 years, have recognised many Australians for their efforts in making a positive contribution to the environment.

The Banksia Environmental Foundation, through the Awards program, aims to raise the profile of the current environmental issues facing Australia, and recognises those whose initiatives are an encouragement and example for others to follow.

The NAILSMA Dugong and Marine Turtle Project brings together Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders with scientists across northern Australia to better manage and protect marine turtles and dugongs.

Australia is a stronghold for these migratory species, and Indigenous people are the 'front-line' managers of the north Australian coast where dugong and turtle remain abundant.

Driven by indigenous people, the project creates new Indigenous ranger programs and supported communities to combine traditional knowledge with modern research and training. The project undertakes management activities such as mapping and monitoring populations and habitats, tracking turtle migrations by satellite, and develops turtle and dugong management plans.

The project supports Indigenous people across the region to share knowledge and experience with each other as well as other people across Australia and overseas through ranger exchanges and innovative communication tools like Message Disk-a DVD of audio-visual stories by Indigenous rangers.

Participants include the following rangers and communities: Bardi-Jawi rangers, Dhimurru rangers, li-Anthawirriyarra rangers, Wellesley Island rangers, Injinoo community, Lockhart community, Pormpuraaw rangers, Hopevale community, Mer (Murray) islanders and Erub (Darnley) islanders, Badu Islanders, Mabuiag islanders and St. Pauls community, Malu Kiai (Boigu) Islanders, Iama (Yam) islanders and the Kaurareg community.

Find out more about the project  

Revision of the National Ocean Disposal Guidelines for Dredged Material

Dredge vessel at Dampier.Image courtesy of DEWHA

Dredge vessel at Dampier. Image courtesy of DEWHA

The National Ocean Disposal Guidelines for Dredged Material are used by the Australian Government to assess applications for the disposal of dredged material under the Environment Protection (Sea Dumping) Act 1981, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975.

The Guidelines are under review to incorporate updates in the science of sediment quality assessment and legislative requirements. The revised Guidelines provide greater clarity for applicants and assessors and also include a new weight-of-evidence approach for contaminated material to determine suitability for ocean disposal. They are available for public comment at:

Comments are due by 26 September 2008. They should be submitted to:

or by mail to

The Director,
Ports and Marine Section,
Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts,
GPO Box 787,
Canberra ACT 2601

Deepest-ever images of Australian marine biodiversity

Fossil coral. Image courtesy of CSIRO

Fossil coral. Image courtesy of CSIRO

Scientists from CSIRO, the California Institute of Technology and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute have collected images 3000 m below the sea in the new Tasman Fracture Zone Commonwealth Marine Reserve, south of Tasmania. Hard corals were found as deep as 2300 m and soft corals as deep as they went.

The Autonomous Benthic Explorer (ABE), a robotic underwater camera, was used to photograph and survey at depths to 3000 m - well over a kilometre deeper than had previously been studied in Australian waters.

The ABE was deployed on six missions during a three-week cruise on the Southern Surveyor, reaching depths of 2960 m and taking more than 6000 photographs of the sea floor. The photographs are still being analysed in detail, but they already indicate sites from which fossil and sub-fossil corals can be collected for study, and show a rich ocean floor community well beyond depths expected.

Soft-corals were found as deep as ABE could dive, living in complete darkness at temperatures of 1-2º celcius. More than 1500 coral samples were collected from shallower depths (1000-1500 m) to begin analysing the age and growth of the reefs.

More samples from greater depths will be collected on a follow-up cruise in December 2008 using the US deep-sea vehicle, Jason. It is expected that Jason will sample to at least 4500 m, gaining even more information on biodiversity in these marine reserves.

Sound decisions for seabed sampling

Sea floor at 800m. Image courtesy of Australian Antarctic Division.

Sea floor image taken at 800m depth, on the edge of the continental slope. It shows a reef of cold water corals, gorgonians and sponges, providing habitat for a communities of fish, crustaceans and sea stars. Image courtesy of the Australian Antarctic Division.

High-resolution three-dimensional maps of the sea bed gave researchers a new window into the deep during the recent Collaborative East Antarctic Marine Census - a survey of oceans and sea life in Eastern Antarctica.

The 3D maps of the sea bed off eastern Antarctica were generated using the latest multibeam sonar data collected by previous research voyages. The maps provided an accurate picture of the depth and shape of the sea bed, allowing scientists to precisely target the sea bed with their sampling gear.

Multibeam or 'swath' sonars are advanced echosounders mounted on ships to accurately map vast areas of the sea bed. Unlike the more familiar 'singlebeam' echosounders, which transmit a single, narrow sound pulse directly under the vessel, multibeam echosounders transmit a wide fan of sound either side of the ship and receive multiple beams of sound reflected off the sea bed.

The result is a detailed 3D picture of the sea bed made up of millions of individual soundings, as clear as anything seen on land. Depending on the depth of the water, the technology can detect features as small as a brief case and has been a vital tool in detecting vulnerable marine ecosystems, such as seamounts, cold water corals, submarine vents, and even shipwrecks and other artificial structures.

In Antarctica, multibeam has been used to map the iceberg scours and deep glacial trenches, and to detect undersea moraines left by retreating glaciers.

The multibeam data, which is archived in digital files at Geoscience Australia, was combined in 3D visualisation software to provide a new, detailed view of the seascape below and maps for use in a geographic information system. For the CEAMARC voyage to the Terre Adélie and George V Land shelves, the 3D underwater landscape or 'seascape' maps were used to give precise locations for sampling different underwater habitats and provide a geological context to the survey area. Underwater cameras found a seascape that looked like rolling dunes, where most of the attached fauna was concentrated along the ridge tops.

The 3-D seascape maps were also invaluable decision-making tools for the CEAMARC survey.

The data was collected by the vessel OGS Explora in the summer of 2006/7 and made available by Dr Laura De Santis (Italian National Institute of Oceanography and Experimental Geophysics) to assist the CEAMARC project.

Read the full article on this project by Dr Robin Beaman in the latest Australian Antarctic Magazine, viewable online at 

Illegal commercial vessels seized

Customs detain an illegal fishing vessel.

Australian Customs officers detain an illegal fishing vessel in northern Australia. Image courtesy of Australian Customs.

Five commercial fishing vessels have been seized off Mackay and Gladstone as part a widespread investigation into illegal fishing in protected areas of the Great Barrier Reef.

The investigations by compliance officers from Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) followed tip-offs from people in the industry about illegal poaching by some operators.

Mick Bishop from GBRMPA said five commercial fishing dories were detected operating in no-take Green Zones in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park around Mackay and Gladstone. Search warrants were issued and the vessels were seized.

Mr Bishop said he believed most commercial operators were doing the right thing as they realised sustainable fishing was important to the future of their industry as well as the future of the marine resources.

"It's disappointing that some commercial operators are illegally fishing in Green Zones," he said.

"It undermines the efforts of those commercial operators who are following the rules and it undermines the environmental benefits that these no-take zones will have for fishing in the future."

Research findings announced by scientists in Townsville last week showed a spectacular recovery in coral trout numbers in protected areas on the Great Barrier Reef.

Researchers found coral trout numbers rebounded by 31 to 75 per cent on a majority of reefs closed to fishing for as little as one and half to two years. There has been a 57 per cent improvement in closed reefs offshore of Mackay.

Research Director of the Reef and Rainforest Research Centre Dr David Souter said the results were good news for both commercial and recreational fishers.

The research was conducted by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University and the Australian Institute of Marine Science and supported by the Australian Government's Marine and Tropical Sciences Research Facility.

Customs Coastwatch surveillance plays a major role in detecting commercial line fishers and GBRMPA now has a team of staff dedicated to detecting and investigating these offences.

Illegal fishing can be reported to GBRMPA on (07) 4726 0510 (business hours) and (07) 3830 8246 (after hours).

Reef “green zones” to thank for reduced starfish infestation

Crown of thorns starfish.

Crown of thorns starfish. Image courtesy of AIMS Long Term Monitoring Program.

Reefs where fishing is not allowed are much less prone to infestation by the devastating crown-of-thorns starfish, according to a new analysis of the Australian Institute of Marine Science's (AIMS) long-term surveys of the Great Barrier Reef.

AIMS scientist Dr Hugh Sweatman predicts in the latest issue of the journal Current Biology that any future waves of COTS outbreaks will not be as destructive as the three waves that have affected the Reef since 1960, because the area of no-take zones in the Marine Park was increased from 4.5 per cent of the Reef to 33 per cent in 2004.

No-take zones, regulated by the GBRMPA, are designated 'green zones', where no fishing is allowed.

The starfish is a major management problem on coral reefs from Central America to Kenya and the Red Sea. It is a voracious coral eater that wipes out nearly all coral on the reefs it infests. In the past 40 years it has caused much more damage to the Great Barrier Reef than storms or coral bleaching.

Waves of outbreaks last about 15 years, beginning in the northern reaches of the Marine Park before moving southward.

The recent Status Report on the Great Barrier Reef, released by AIMS' Long-Term Monitoring Program in June, reported that starfish outbreaks were at a 20-year low. This new analysis points to the starfish causing less damage in the future.

By comparing the frequency of starfish outbreaks on no-take reefs and on reefs where fishing was allowed, Dr Sweatman showed that there was a clear pattern.

"The relative frequency of outbreaks on reefs that were open to fishing was 3.75 times higher than that on no-take reefs in the mid-shelf region of the Marine Park, where most of the outbreaks occur," Dr Sweatman said. However, the ecological link between exploited fishes and starfish remains uncertain.

The reef fishes that fishermen target are unlikely to prey upon the starfish, but there may be several links in the ecological chain. More large, predatory fishes in no-take areas may reduce the numbers of smaller fishes, in turn reducing predation on invertebrate species such as worms and crustaceans that prey on very small juvenile starfish. This process remains to be fully researched.

Dr Sweatman said this finding boosted the scientific case for protection of reef ecosystems.

"This study provides an additional argument for establishment of effective marine protected areas wherever the starfish occurs, as refuges from exploitation and other threats and as sources for re-colonisation of damaged reefs to increase ecological resilience," he said.

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