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Resource Assessment Commission Coastal Zone Inquiry - Final Report November 1993

Resource Assessment Commission, November 1993
ISBN 0 64429457

Chapter 2 Resources, Values and Uses of the Coastal Zone - continued

2.4 Conservation reserves and areas of special significance

2.4.0 There are many land and marine conservation reserves in Australia's coastal zone. The major public land tenure class designated for this purpose is nature conservation reserves. About 10 per cent of Australia's coastal zone is currently reserved under this broad tenure, the large number of different types of reserves being administered by various Commonwealth, state and territory agencies (see RAC 1993m).

2.4.1 The present terrestrial conservation reserve system comprises about 34 categories of reserves, each state and territory having a variety of reserve types. Table 2.2 shows the number and area of terrestrial conservation reserves in the coastal zone of each state.

Table 2.2 Number and area of terrestrial conservation reserves within the coastal zone, by jurisdiction, 1993
Jurisdiction Number Area (km2) Per cent of coastal zone
New South Wales 256 17 882 15
Victoria 293 13 215 14
Queensland 403 27 098 10
Western Australia 502 55 071 11
South Australia 179 19 546 16
Tasmania 155 16 041 30
Northern Territory 11 13 774 7
Total 1 799 162 627 12
Source: RAC (1993m).
by jurisdiction, 1984 and 1992
Note: Estimates are based on the drainage basin definition of the coastal zone, and include all conservation reserves occurring landward of the high-water mark. Marine protected areas with a terrestrial component are also included, but overlap with Table 2.2 has been minimised.

2.4.2 The range of permissible uses of protected marine and estuarine areas in Australia is defined in legislation. The majority of marine and estuarine reserves are managed on a multiple-use zoning basis, less than 5 per cent being set aside solely for nature conservation (Mobbs 1989). The largest marine protected area-covering 34.5 million hectares-is the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, which was established by Commonwealth legislation in 1975. Table 2.3 shows the number and extent of marine protected areas in Australia in 1984 and 1992: in that time the number of reserves increased by about 36 per cent, increasing the area of reserves by about 15 per cent.

2.4.3 Many Inquiry participants expressed concern about the inadequacy of the current reserve system in representing the range of ecological communities of the coastal zone, especially the under-representation of temperate marine habitats. Although the percentage of the zone in reserves is in accord with internationally recognised minimum reserve conservation levels (IUCN et al. 1991), the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment, Recreation and the Arts has listed a number of coastal terrestrial ecosystems that in its view urgently require protection (HORSCERA 1991, p. 24). These are areas of coastal heath, coastal littoral forest, estuarine and brackish wetlands, and subtropical and temperate mangrove ecosystems.

Table 2.3 Number and area of marine protected areas in Australia
  Number Area (km2) Number Area (km2)
Jurisdiction 1984 1992 1984 1992
New South Wales 16 23 37 922
Victoria 20 29 50 518
Queensland 67 133 2 168 47 204
Western Australia 11 16 9 11 445
South Australia 52 56 211 364
Tasmania 15 26 487 610
Northern Territory 4 8 2 581 2 584
Commonwealth (a) 7 13 362 779 372 289
Total 192 304 368 322 435 937
(a) Includes Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
Source: Bleakly et al. (1993).

2.4.4 The coastal zone contains many areas included on the Register of the National Estate and the World Heritage List. These areas are subject to the provisions of Commonwealth legislation-the Australian Heritage Commission Act 1975 and the World Heritage Properties Conservation Act 1983. Just over half of all national estate places in the coastal zone are found in New South Wales and Victoria; less than 10 per cent are found in each of Queensland, South Australia and the Northern Territory. The majority of these places are historic sites in metropolitan areas; about two-thirds of them are in New South Wales and Victoria. Overall, about 60 per cent of registered coastal places are located in metropolitan areas. Most of the sites registered on the basis of natural attributes or their historic, spiritual or cultural importance to indigenous people are in nonmetropolitan areas (see RAC 1993m, sect. 5.2).

2.4.5 The World Heritage List is an inventory of places of outstanding universal value. Eight places that fall wholly or partly in the coastal zone are on the World Heritage List: the Great Barrier Reef, the Lord Howe Island Group, the Western Tasmania Wilderness National Parks, the Australian East Coast Temperate and Subtropical Rainforest Parks, the Wet Tropics of Queensland, Kakadu National Park, Shark Bay, and Fraser Island.

2.5 Effects of resource use

2.5.0 Although human activities have affected resources in the coastal zone for many centuries, particularly since European settlement, many changes in the type and intensity of coastal zone resource use have occurred in the last two decades as a result of increased urban development, changes in rural land uses and practices, rapid expansion of the tourism industry, and increasing recreational use. These changes have increased competition for the uses of many of the zone's resources and have resulted in some losses of environmental and cultural amenity.

Competition between resource users

2.5.1 Competition between resource users is a significant issue in the coastal zone. Building developments often have extensive land requirements in the most scenic or productive areas of the coastal zone and need access to infrastructure (roads, water, waste disposal, health and community services), recreation areas and commercial facilities. This results in competition with other land uses, particularly agriculture and conservation and in some cases tourism, mining and industrial activity. Increased building activity in the coastal zone can disrupt existing land uses and lifestyles. Property development imposes increased costs on local communities by generating demand for more infrastructure and services.

2.5.2 Urbanisation of the coast can adversely affect the fishing industry by destroying wetlands and polluting waterways. It may also constitute the greatest threat to significant indigenous cultural sites in the coastal zone.

2.5.3 Tourism and recreation activities in the zone generally require a combination of high environmental amenity and access to coastal sites, as well as infrastructure, capital investment and support facilities. These activities adversely affect amenity and diminish landscape values.

2.5.4 Mariculture developments are located in nearshore waters in harbours, bays, estuaries and other sheltered areas. They require high water quality, a sheltered location, ease of access, and proximity to processing plants, transport networks and markets. Mariculture can be adversely affected by other uses that diminish water quality, such as agriculture, industry and urban development. Mariculture can also compete with uses that have similar requirements, such as conservation, recreation, holiday homes, tourism and fishing.

2.5.5 In addition to the use of fisheries resources by the commercial fishing industry, an estimated $2.2 billion was spent on recreational fishing in Australia in 1984. Conflict frequently arises between the competing commercial and recreational fishing sectors, much of it centring on 'fish thieves' (unlicensed fishers who sell fish), gill netting in estuaries, freshwater fisheries and trawler by-catch (catch of non-targeted fish) (Australian Recreational and Sport Fishing Confederation, Submission 588). Conflict can also arise between both these sectors and indigenous communities, who may rely on local fisheries for food.

Degradation of species and habitats

2.5.6 Degradation of coastal habitats, through direct loss or alteration to their composition and structure, reduces their capacity to function effectively as ecosystems. These ecological functions include circulating mineral nutrients and energy, assimilating waste products, regulating the chemical balance of oceans, the atmosphere and soils, and maintaining biological diversity (de Groot 1992). Inquiry participants identified many ways in which coastal environments have been, and are continuing to be, lost and degraded. The Australian Nature Conservation Agency informed the Inquiry, Nationally, the coastal zone has the greatest density of threatened species. The coastal area from Cairns to Adelaide and especially the north-east NSW - south-east Queensland region is of particular concern. The eastern seaboard has the highest concentration of threatened land plants in the country, reflecting the extent of habitat loss as a result of agriculture, urbanisation and industry. (Submission 304)

2.5.7 Among the sources of coastal degradation identified by the Inquiry are the following:

2.5.8 To remain sustainable, fisheries stocks need to be maintained; although some Australian fisheries have been managed on a sustainable basis, many have not. The Review Committee on Marine Industries, Science and Technology found that the dominant trend in the status of fished stocks is a gradual decline in production since 1983-84, despite continued expansion of fishing activities into new fisheries and the application of improved fishing technology (DITAC 1989). The Bureau of Rural Resources found that several fisheries have been severely over fished and stock recovery remains in doubt (BRR 1992b).

2.5.9 Figure 2.6 shows the current status of Australia's wild fisheries resource: 59 per cent of fisheries are poorly understood and 32 per cent are over-exploited to some extent.

2.5.10 The final report of the Ecologically Sustainable Development Working Group on Fisheries stated, the current condition of Australia's fish stocks is the outcome of a century of interaction between governments and fishers (and other sectors having an impact on the resource), though the greatest threat to those stocks from over fishing has been over the last few decades ... If fish stocks are to be managed and remain ecologically sustainable for future generations, an incrementalist 'business-as-usual' view of the future will not suffice. It is clear that a new, more holistic approach, is required (ESD Working Group 1991a, p. 83).

2.5.11 Fishing practices can also degrade habitats. Some fisheries affect populations of non-commercial species through their harvesting practices-the unintended killing of dugongs and turtles in some trawling operations is an example and is causing great concern to indigenous communities in northern Australia.

2.5.12 Many Inquiry participants emphasised the importance of coastal wetlands, which include coastal estuarine habitats, coastal lakes, tidal flats, seagrass beds and mangroves. As important habitats for migratory species, as nursery sites for many marine species (including commercial and recreational species) and as valuable recreational assets, wetlands are regional repositories of biodiversity. Numerous participants drew attention, however, to past and continuing loss and degradation of coastal wetlands through in-fill for urban and agricultural development, including canal estates, through use of wetlands for industrial and domestic waste dumps, through pollution from run-off, and through inappropriate or conflicting uses of some habitats, resulting in weed invasions.

Figure 2.6

Figure 2.6 Resource status of Australian fisheries
Note: Percentages based on 100 major fishery groups.
Source: Kailola et al. (1993a).

2.5.13 The release of urban stormwater and sewage run-off (which is often high in nutrients, especially phosphorous and nitrogen) into inshore waters has led to excessive algal growth and significant losses of seagrass beds. There has been a reduction from 250 square kilometres to 72 square kilometres between 1973 and 1984 in the extent of seagrass beds in Westernport, Victoria, a loss of about 97 per cent of all seagrass beds in Cockburn Sound, Western Australia, between 1954 and 1978, and similar losses near urbanised coastal settlements in South Australia, New South Wales and Queensland (Brodie 1993).

2.5.14 There has been a significant reduction in areas of wetlands, particularly in urban and industrial areas; for example, 75 per cent of wetlands in the Swan coastal plain had been filled or drained by 1964 (Riggert 1974). Australia does not yet have a definitive inventory of its wetlands. In 1990 the Australian Nature Conservation Agency launched the Directory of Important Wetlands in Australia project, as part of the Oceania Wetland Inventory being undertaken by the International Waterfowl and Wetlands Research Bureau. Using the Ramsar Convention definition (see RAC 1993m), the Agency is currently compiling information received from all states and territories. It is anticipated that the Directory will be published in late 1993 and will contain descriptions of about 500 to 600 wetlands.


2.5.15 A large number of submissions to the Inquiry expressed concern about discharges from sewage outfalls, run-off and discharges from urban, industrial and agricultural activities, and sediment release from construction works and subdivision development.

2.5.16 The main sources and types of pollution in Australia's coastal zone are 'point source' pollution, which includes industrial effluents, rainwater run-off from urban areas, and sewage discharges; and 'non point source' (dispersed) pollution arising from activities such as land clearance, livestock production and agricultural activities, including the use of pesticides and fertilisers. The report of a recent study of sediments and nutrients in coastal catchments in Queensland illustrates the significance of nonpoint pollution sources. Box 2.4 presents a summary of the main findings of that study.

2.5.17 Most of the Australian marine environment is remote from high concentrations of population and heavy industry and is relatively uncontaminated by pollutants arising from human activities. There are, however, significant problems in relation to pollution of the coastal and marine environment at local and regional scales. Despite substantial reductions in pollution by heavy metals since the mid-1970s, levels remain high in a number of locations, mainly near industrial areas, including the Derwent River estuary in Tasmania and at Port Pirie in South Australia.

2.5.18 Contamination of coastal waters by nutrients and sediments derived from various land-based activities such as sewage discharge, land clearance and agricultural activities is a concern in many parts of Australia. Among the effects of this pollution are the loss of large areas of seagrass beds from coastal lagoons, bays and estuaries and blooms of algae in areas such as the Peel-Harvey estuary in Western Australia and the Hawkesbury-Nepean river systems in New South Wales. Sewage pollution of rivers and beaches remains a major problem in many urbanised parts of the coast (Brodie et al. 1990).

Box 2.4 Sediment and nutrients in Queensland coastal catchments
In 1990 the Queensland Minister for Primary Industries, in consultation with the Minister for Environment and Heritage, established an Advisory Committee on the Downstream Effects of Agricultural Practice to advise on the impact of agricultural practices on coastal zone ecosystems, including the Great Barrier Reef, and to recommend programs for reducing adverse effects. The Committee established a joint study based on 20 catchment groupings along the east coast of Queensland. The study found as follows:

Source: Moss et al. (1993)

2.5.19 The following are among the sources of pollution caused by land-based activities in the coastal zone:

2.5.20 Land use practices in many coastal catchments affect the water quality of downstream rivers and estuaries. Pollutants such as agricultural chemicals found in coastal streams are seriously affecting rivers and marine environments (see Box 2.4). Some pollutants have had serious effects such as the malformation and infection of edible marine species. Recent studies suggest that measures to minimise soil erosion from grazing lands will probably have the most immediate and beneficial effects in terms of reducing total export of sediments, nitrogen and phosphorus.

2.5.21 The Inquiry commissioned case studies of the extent of water pollution and associated water quality management in a number of river estuary systems, including the Hawkesbury-Nepean, Hunter and Derwent systems (see RAC 1993s). Box 2.5 compares the averaged measurements of specific pollutants in these river systems, with the water quality guidelines of the Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council.

2.5.22 Pollution from marine-based activities is also important. Among the principal sources of pollution caused by these activities are oil spills, dumping of dredged material, releases of sediments from mining and organic compounds associated with anti-fouling paints, ballast water discharges, and releases of sewage from vessels. Maritime transport activity around the Australian coast presents a continual risk of pollution of the marine environment by the various forms of liquid hydrocarbons, chemicals, bulk and packaged noxious substances, and waste products either carried or generated on board ships. Ship-sourced oil spills in ports are generally associated with berthing, bunkering and other terminal operations and discharges of oily water mixtures from the bilges of machinery spaces. Spills at sea can be caused by ship collisions, stranding or other accidents or by the deliberate discharge of oily mixtures from tanks or bilges. Spills occurring in harbours, estuaries or enclosed bays have greater potential to affect coastal activities and resources than spills in the open sea.

Box 2.5 Management of water quality
The Inquiry conducted five case studies to examine water quality in various catchments around Australia. The data gathered by the Inquiry were not intended to be comprehensive owing to the brevity of the studies and care must be exercised in interpreting them (see RAC 1993s). For example, some water quality figures are based on annual averages while others represent a single annual figure, making them only indicative of water quality in the river catchments.

Agricultural run-off: Hawkesbury-Nepean system
Nutrient levels (particularly phosphorus and nitrogen) in the Hawkesbury-Nepean system are primarily the result of agricultural and urban run-off and sewage treatment plant waste water discharge. Total phosphorus levels in the system ranged from 12 to 160 mg/L, in 1992-93, which is a little higher than the range recommended by ANZECC's water quality guidelines (10-100 mg/L) for aquatic ecosystem protection. The guidelines are a conservative limit, above which algal blooms have been known to occur. The levels of total nitrogen in the system range from 1000 to 2750 mg/L, which is significantly higher than those recommended by the guidelines (100-750 mg/L). The acceptable total levels of nitrogen, like phosphorus, may vary significantly according to site-specific conditions. River flow rates play an important role in determining the acceptable level of nutrients. Thus, parts of the system where flow rates are low may be able to sustain only low levels of agricultural run-off without the occurrence of algal blooms. This is particularly the case in summer, when flow rates are lower and a greater amount of sunlight is available. Flow rates are also affected by dams providing water to Sydney and irrigation for agriculture.

Heavy metals: Derwent River estuary
Significant levels of heavy metals have been found in water samples from the Derwent River estuary, including, cadmium, lead, mercury, copper and zinc. The occurrence of heavy metals in the River has been attributed to a zinc factory in the catchment area. Although the levels detected are well within ANZECC guidelines for drinking water, irrigation and livestock water, they are above the levels set for aquatic ecosystem protection. For example, the guidelines set a maximum concentration for lead at between 1 and 5 mg/L for ecosystem protection and the lead concentration in the Derwent River in 1986 was 6.4 mg/L. Similarly, the suggested mercury concentration is 0.1 mg/L, compared with 0.2 mg/L present in the River. If emissions of heavy metals into the River remain above ANZECC guidelines aquatic ecosystems may be at risk.

Salinity: Hunter River
Salinity levels in the Hunter River ranged from 350 to 1200 mS/cm in 1992-93, depending on location, which is higher than the advisory limits for some water uses (280-1500 mS/cm, depending on use) suggested in the ANZECC guidelines and higher than the New South Wales Environment Protection Agency's upper limit (700 mS/cm). The elevated salinity levels in parts of the River are mainly the result of two factors: waste water discharges from open-cut coal mining, and the reduction in river flow rates due to the extensive use of water for other uses, particularly power generation. Waste water discharges from mining in the area are particularly saline because of the high natural salinity characteristic of the area's geology. The process of electricity generation increases water salinity in waste water discharges because a proportion of the water used is released as steam. Power stations in the area divert more than one-third of the total yearly river flow of the Hunter region for use in electricity generation.

Note: mS = micro siemens-measure of conductivity.
mg = micrograms (10-9).
Source: ANZECC (1992a), RAC (1993s).

2.5.23 To date Australia has been fortunate in not having experienced any cataclysmic oil spills. The largest spill, the loss of some 17 000 tonnes of light crude oil from the Greek tanker Kirki off the coast of Western Australia in July 1991, resulted in relatively little environmental damage. Although reports of oil slicks at sea have been more frequent in the 1980s and early 1990s than in the 1970s, this may be due to the increasing number of ships using Australian waters or to increased surveillance and more conscientious reporting. The prevention and control of ship-sourced oil pollution is discussed in Chapter 15.

2.5.24 Approximately 66 million tonnes of ballast water are discharged in Australian ports each year, most of it having arrived in foreign cargo vessels (Jones 1991). Ballast water discharge has the potential to affect marine resources through the introduction of new species or disease, the release of contaminated sludges and sediments, and the promotion of algal blooms (OECD 1990b). There are already 14 established exotic species believed to have arrived in Australia in ballast water (Jones 1991). The implications of the introduction of such species and approaches to the handling of ballast water are discussed in Chapter 15.

Cultural heritage

2.5.25 'Cultural heritage' denotes places and things that have aesthetic, historic, scientific or social significance or other special value for future generations as well as the present community. 'Heritage' can refer to archaeological sites or buildings, or to the way in which 'natural' areas are interpreted as part of a way of life.

2.5.26 Many parts of the coastal zone are of significant cultural and spiritual importance to Australia's indigenous people: as the original occupants of the zone, these people have had a long and close association with coastal environments. Representatives of indigenous people expressed to the Inquiry concern about the adequacy of current arrangements for the protection and management of the coastal land, sea, sites and resources on which their cultures are based (see Chapter 10).

2.5.27 The main threats to many places of general cultural significance are urban development and subdivision. Many sites on the Register of the National Estate are conservation reserves or places within conservation reserves. Sites within conservation reserves are afforded some protection, but sites outside reserves may be vulnerable to degradation, frequently the result of a lack of knowledge and documentation. The Australian Heritage Commission informed the Inquiry that heritage values can be the cornerstone on which tourism is based and promoted, but that poorly managed tourism can also destroy heritage values (Submission 340).