WSSD - Australian National Assessment Report

Environment Australia
ISBN 0 642 54855 2

4. Thematic Review - Oceans

4.1 Context - Australia's ocean territories

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) Australia has sovereign rights over 11 million square kilometres of ocean, and up to 15 million square kilometres when the claimable continental shelf is determined. This area is nearly twice the landmass of Australia. It is one of the most diverse Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) in the world both in terms of its geographic spread and in its physical and biological diversity. It includes an almost complete range of oceanic realms - from the tropic to the Antarctic. It also borders the waters of five neighbouring nations. Federal Government responsibility extends from three nautical miles from the coastal baseline to the external boundaries of the Exclusive Economic Zone and continental shelf (200 nautical miles outside the territorial baseline). The area inside the three nautical mile zone generally falls within the primary jurisdiction of State and Territory Governments.

Australia's oceans are inhabited by 4,000 fish types of the 22,000 species known worldwide, and 30 of the world's 58 seagrass species. They include the largest area of coral reefs in the world. Such diversity brings with it the opportunity for Australia to greatly benefit from the rights we enjoy over these ocean resources. Australia earns AUD30 billion per annum in income from ocean based tourism and recreation, oil and gas production, shipping, fishing and aquaculture. Our marine areas are still in relatively good condition but are under increasing pressure both from a range or marine industries and from the cumulative impacts of activities in our coastal catchments.

Pressures from marine industries include overfishing and bycatch, damage to the sea floor from trawling and scallop dredging, impacts of exotic marine species resulting from introduction through ballast water and hull fouling, pollution from toxic anti-fouling paints and damage from anchors and moorings. Pressures from land-based activities include stormwater, sewage and soil erosion run-off, and the degradation of estuarine and coastal habitats (which can in turn impact on deep sea species and ecosystems).

In this demanding context, the question of how Australia can best manage ocean resources for the benefit of future and present generations of Australians is complex.

4.2 Policy integration - Australia's Oceans Policy

Australia's Oceans Policy was launched in December 1998. It sets out a framework to apply sustainable development principles to the management of Australia's oceans. The Policy's vision is: "healthy oceans: cared for, understood and used wisely for the benefit of all, now and in the future." It recognises the need to maintain both marine ecosystem health and the strong, diverse and internationally competitive marine industries that depend on the long-term ecological sustainability of the marine environment.

To integrate sustainable development into Australian oceans governance, regional marine plans are being developed. These plans will allow the integration of sectoral interests with conservation requirements. They will also provide the framework for a structured and orderly process to achieve the ecosystem-based allocation of resources within and between all sectors.

The plans are based on large marine ecosystems, extensive areas of ocean with relatively uniform ecosystem and ecological structures such as fish species distribution, topography and ocean currents. Large marine ecosystems are viewed within the planning process as whole working systems in which natural processes and human activities interact.

The plans will identify regional values and operational objectives that can be used both as input to the sectoral planning process and to assess and guide management of the combined impact of all sectoral activities on the region. The plans also have the potential to improve coordination between the Federal Government and the State and Territories so that jurisdictional boundaries do not hinder effective planning and management.

4.3 Institutional framework for Oceans Policy

The National Oceans Ministerial Board has primary responsibility for the implementation and further development of Australia's Oceans Policy. The Ministerial Board consists of the Commonwealth Ministers responsible for industry, resources, fisheries, science, tourism, shipping and the environment. The Minister for the Environment and Heritage chairs the Ministerial Board. Other Ministers can be brought into Board discussions as required, for example the Minister responsible for Indigenous affairs is invited to participate where relevant issues arise.

The Board has established the National Oceans Advisory Group - a non-government advisory body. The Advisory Group members were selected for their expertise in oceans governance issues, with backgrounds in maritime law, Indigenous issues, industry, science and conservation. The role of the Advisory Group is to provide the Board with independent views on a range of oceans governance issues, including the scope and effectiveness of the process for developing regional management plans.

The National Oceans Office is the lead Commonwealth agency with responsibility for supporting the National Oceans Ministerial Board to implement and further develop Australia's Oceans Policy. It also provides support to both the National Oceans Advisory Group and Regional Marine Plan Steering Committees. The Office also has the role of coordinating and leading other Government agencies responsible for ultimately implementing the Oceans Policy and acting as the main administrative coordination point between the Commonwealth, States and Territories on Oceans Policy implementation.

Regional Marine Plan Steering Committees have also been established to foster greater local stakeholder involvement. These Steering Committees, which include key non-government and government stakeholders, oversee development of Regional Marine Plans, working closely with the National Oceans Office. State and Territory Governments are encouraged to participate in the Steering Committees.

Box 8: Case Study: The South-east Regional Marine Plan

The first Regional Marine Plan is being developed for the South-east Marine Region of Australia. The South-east is a resource rich region with fishing, petroleum and shipping industries of major importance to the national economy. Broadly this covers the waters off south-eastern New South Wales, eastern South Australia, Victoria and Tasmania including Macquarie Island, the South Tasman Rise and the extended continental shelf - an area covering some two million square kilometres. The Region includes both inshore (State) waters (from the shore to three nautical miles outside the territorial baseline) and Commonwealth waters (from three to 200 nautical miles outside the territorial baseline), as well as the claimable continental shelf beyond the Exclusive Economic Zone. It is the first regional marine plan of this size anywhere in the world.

The National Oceans Office and Environment Australia commissioned Geoscience Australia (formerly the Australian Geological Survey Organisation) to undertake two seabed swath-mapping and geophysical surveys of the South-east Marine Region. Completed in early 2000, the surveys have provided important new scientific information on the seabed, and in particular to define jurisdiction limits under the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea. The Assessments Phase - a mechanism to increase our understanding and appreciation of the Region and defining what Australians want for the Region - is nearing completion.

In this phase, information on ecosystems and human activities were gathered for both State and Commonwealth waters across six areas:

  • biological and physical characteristics - identifying the key ecological characteristics in the Region, their linkages and interactions
  • uses within the South-east Marine Region - describing our knowledge of the nature and dimension of human uses and their relationship with each other
  • impacts on the ecosystem - providing an objective analysis of how activities can affect the Region's natural system.
  • community and cultural values - ensuring community wishes and aspirations are reflected in the planning process
  • Indigenous uses and values - gaining an understanding of and support for indigenous interests in the Region.
  • management and institutional arrangements - analysing current legislative and institutional frameworks to determine the best mechanism for implementing regional marine plans

From this shared understanding, the process will move forward to define a plan that maintains ocean health and supports competitive yet sustainable industries, as well as enhancing the enjoyment and sense of stewardship the people of Australia feel for the oceans. The Options Phase will commence in May 2002. During this phase, communities, industry and government will discuss the planning objectives, issues and concerns for the South-east Regional Marine Plan. At this point, sectoral representatives will develop a range of management options designed to achieve the objectives for the Plan.

4.3.1 Specific elements of Policy

Under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, a Commonwealth Marine Area, that is the marine environment occurring between the three nautical mile limit of a State or Territory and the outer limit of Australia's exclusive economic zone, is a matter of national environmental significance. With limited exceptions, actions likely to have a significant impact on matters of national environmental significance are subject to environmental impact assessment and require approval by the Federal Minister for the Environment and Heritage. The Act also provides for strategic assessments of the impacts of actions arising from policies, plans and programs. The Federal Government will undertake strategic environmental impact assessments of all new management plans for Federal Government fisheries and of all fisheries that do not have a management plan.

As part of the Regional Marine Planning Process, the development of a National Representative System of Marine Protected Areas is being accelerated. The Regional Marine Plans epitomise Australia's Ocean Policy and Australia's approach to sustainable development generally in that both the integration of environmental, economic and social concerns at every level of planning, and extensive public consultation, are built into the process.

Our understanding of both the marine resource base and the cumulative impacts of resource use is limited by our capacity to collect marine information. Funds are being provided to support rapid assessments of the biological resources of the ocean and of human impacts, and to develop sustainability indicators.

Box 9: Case study: Strategic Environmental Impact Assessment of the Bass Strait Central Zone Scallop and Heard Island and McDonald Islands fisheries

Following agreement with the Minister for the Environment and Heritage for the strategic assessment of the Bass Strait Central Zone Scallop and Heard Island and McDonald Islands fisheries, Terms of Reference were drafted and public comment sought on them.

The Terms or Reference covered:

  • a description of the Fishery;
  • a detailed description of the environment likely to be affected by the Fishery;
  • proposed management arrangements for the Fishery;
  • environmental assessment of the Fishery;
  • management measures and safeguards to ensure ecological sustainability; and
  • information sources.

A draft Strategic Assessment Report has been prepared by the Australian Fisheries Management Authority in accordance with the Terms of Reference. The assessment has been conducted according to the following Guidelines for the Ecologically Sustainable Management of Fisheries:

  • Principle 1: A fishery must be conducted in a manner that does not lead to over-fishing, or for those stocks that are over-fished, the fishery must be conducted such that there is a high degree of probability the stock(s) will recover.
    • Objective 1: The fishery shall be conducted at catch levels that maintain ecologically viable stock levels, at an agreed point or range, with acceptable levels of probability.
    • Objective 2: Where the fished stock(s) are below a defined reference point, the fishery will be managed to promote recovery to ecologically viable stock levels within nominated timeframes.
  • Principle 2: Fishing operations should be managed to minimise their impact on the structure, productivity, function and biological diversity of the ecosystem.
    • Objective 1: The fishery is conducted in a manner that does not threaten bycatch species.
    • Objective 2: The fishery is conducted in a manner that avoids mortality of, or injuries to, endangered, threatened or protected species and avoids or minimises impacts on threatened ecological communities.
    • Objective 3: The fishery is conducted in a manner that minimises the impact of fishing operations on the ecosystem generally.

For further information see:

4.4 Extension of this approach to the international scene

Australia has promoted many of the issues in the Oceans Policy document at international fora including development and implementation of a Global Representative System of Marine Protected Areas to address the unsustainable exploitation of marine living resources.

As mentioned above, consistent with the greater integration of objectives in Australia's domestic approaches to marine sustainability, over the last decade there has been a shift, both multilaterally and especially bilaterally, from assisting the more traditional fishery development to a more integrated management of the marine and coastal sector.

Box 10: Australian aid for sustainable oceans

Australian aid expenditure in the marine and coastal resources sector has grown steadily in recent years. Expenditure for 2001-2002 is estimated at AUD23.3 million. Australia has supported 105 aid projects relating to marine and coastal resources since 1992. There are four broad categories, or types of projects that have been supported: fisheries management; environmental planning and management; coastal infrastructure; and support for regional organisations.

Over the last decade Australia has provided development assistance, including indirect assistance through various multilateral organisations (the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, United Nations Environment Program and the Global Environment Facility), in excess of AUD140 million in a range of projects and programs, especially in the South Pacific region, to address degradation and promote sustainable use of the oceans.