Department of the Environment

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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Much of the material listed on these archived web pages has been superseded, or served a particular purpose at a particular time.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.

Our Sea, Our Future
Major findings of the State of the Marine Environment Report for Australia

Compiled by Leon P. Zann
Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Townsville Queensland

Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories, Canberra (1995)
ISBN 0 642 17391 5

2. The social value of the coastal and marine environment to Australians - continued

Importance to Australia's general community

Australia is today a complex, dynamic multicultural society of mainly coastal peoples. Over a quarter of Australians live within three kilometres of the sea, three-quarters live within 50 kilometres of the coast, and Australians are increasingly moving to live along the seashores. The coast and sea are very important to the culture, lifestyle and social values and perceptions of Australians.(1), (23)

Social and cultural values of the marine environment

The beach and the marine environment are socially and culturally important to Australians. Australians live and play by the sea. The beach is one of our national icons and Australia has developed a characteristic beach sub-culture. The beach has become a cherished place and is entwined in the rites of passage of many Australians. The beach is the major centre for outdoor activities such as bathing, surfing, fishing, boating, exercising and just relaxing. The sea provides inspiration for Australian artists, writers and musicians, sailors and adventurers, and 'average Australians'.(23)

The 'average Australian' is increasingly concerned about the marine environment. Three-quarters of people polled in a recent public opinion poll said they were concerned about the environment in general. Their single most serious concern was the pollution of rivers, beaches, harbours and the sea. Recreational and commercial fishers, surfers and local residents have formed lobby groups to combat what they consider to be inappropriate coastal development and marine pollution(23). Young Australians in the Surfrider Foundation recently undertook their own independent survey of the state of over 400 surfing beaches around the country (p. 64)(47).

Despite the great importance of the coast and sea to Australians, social and cultural values and perceptions of the coast and sea are remarkably little documented, and are often not adequately considered in management plans and environmental impact studies.(23)

Heritage values

The coast and sea are important to the heritage of Australians. The natural beauty of seascapes, wild and remote coastlines and islands, Aboriginal dreaming sites, the landfalls of explorers, early settlements, historic buildings, holiday beaches and surfing meccas are important to our heritage. Under the sea lies another world: spectacular natural gems such as the Great Barrier Reef and Ningaloo Reef; Aboriginal dreaming sites, camp sites and other sites of cultural importance; and the remains of many shipwrecks.(24),(25)


Over 6,000 shipwrecks have occurred in Australian waters over the past four centuries. Many of these shipwrecks are of great historical and archaeological value. The seventeenth and eighteenth century Dutch ships in the west, the Pandora on the northern Great Barrier Reef, the Cato and Porpoise in the Coral sea, the German raider Emden on Cocos Island, and war wrecks such as the Japanese submarine I-124 in the Northern Territory trace the story of European exploration, settlement and defence of Australia.(24)

Because of widespread looting of historic shipwrecks by scuba divers, wrecks are now strictly protected by Commonwealth and State legislation. Australia is considered a world leader in underwater archaeology and the protection of shipwrecks. However, concern has now shifted away from protecting shipwrecks to the preservation of important portable items of our maritime heritage such as ship's journals, paintings, fishing equipment and vessels.(24)

coastal heritage

Australia's coastal strip also contains many places of maritime cultural heritage. These include sites of Aboriginal traditional, historic and archaeological significance. Important to non-indigenous Australians are the landfalls of early explorers; sites of first settlements; lighthouses and defence facilities; wharves, customs houses and other early buildings; national landmarks such as Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House; and social and recreational icons such as Bondi Beach, the Gold Coast and the surfers' mecca of Bell's Beach (Vic).(25)

As has been the case in the past, natural processes threaten some heritage sites: Aboriginal middens and European settlement sites may be washed away in high seas, and historic buildings deteriorate in salty environments. However, disturbances by humans are far more serious. Coastal ribbon development has destroyed many Aboriginal cultural sites, changed the character of rural lands, and significantly altered the natural landscapes. 'Modernisation' has significantly changed much of the original architecture and town layouts. While individual changes are sometimes minimal, cumulative effects may often be great.(25)

Australia's cultural heritage sites, particularly Aboriginal sites, are generally poorly documented. Criteria are needed to initially identify which non-indigenous sites should be classified as 'significant cultural heritage'. Their protection should then be included within management plans and environmental impact studies(25). The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) does not support the classification of indigenous sites by significance, other than by relevant indigenous persons or communities(84).

Community groups and marine conservation

Community conservation groups in Australia have been prominent in raising public awareness on issues affecting the marine environment, and in marine environmental conservation. The importance of conservation groups is now well recognised by government. Public opinion polls also show that they are considered more cost-effective, more responsive, more innovative, have excellent community networks and are more trusted by the Australian community than governments and the private sector.(26)

There are more than 280 conservation associations in Australia, many of which have a particular interest in coastal and marine issues. The Australian Conservation Foundation and Greenpeace have the largest membership. The Australian Littoral Society specialises in marine conservation and management.(26)

Concerns identified by the main conservation groups include coastal zone development, strip development and urban sprawl, effects of land use and clearing of catchments, mining, offshore petroleum exploration and production, general marine pollution, effects of fishing (both direct and indirect), degradation of beaches, and effects of tourism.(26)

Developing a community network for Ocean Rescue 2000

Because of the importance of community and user groups in marine environmental management, a national network of non government organisations with interests in the marine environment has been established in the Ocean Rescue 2000 program. The network includes community, industry and conservation groups and indigenous communities. It provides a means for consultation and dissemination of information between the government and non-government sectors.

Industry involvement in marine conservation

Australia's marine industries are increasingly involved in marine environmental conservation. Commercial fishing organisations in particular are active in fisheries habitat conservation and water quality management.

Ecotourism, a growth industry around Australia, depends on maintaining a high environmental quality. The tourism industry generally is increasingly recognising the importance of ecologically sustainable development (ESD)(61). For example, in Queensland, the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators is a major partner and financial contributor in a Cooperative Research Centre Program for the ESD of the Great Barrier Reef(29),(63).

The Australian Petroleum Exploration Association (APEA) recently co-funded an independent scientific review on effects of the offshore petroleum industry on the marine environment(37). In Western Australia, Western Australian Petroleum, Hadson Energy and Woodside Offshore Petroleum assist the Department of Conservation and Land Management in turtle surveys. In Victoria, BHP is funding research on potential impacts of offshore platforms on the southern right whale. In Tasmania where litter from fishing boats is a threat to seals and other wildlife, AMCOR Packaging has produced a plastic-free bait box for commercial fishers to reduce the problem(36).