The coastal pollution halo

Current or emerging issues paper
Dr Rob Fearon, Coastal CRC, Indooroopilly Queensland
prepared for the 2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee, 2006

This document was commissioned for the 2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee. This and other commissioned documents support the Committee's Report but are not part of it.


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Fearon R 2006, 'The coastal pollution halo' paper prepared for the 2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee, Department of the Environment and Heritage, Canberra,

The coastal pollution halo and coastal 'Dead Zones'

There is a faint and usually invisible halo encircling Australia. It is formed by sediments, organic matter and nutrients that colour our otherwise clear coastal waters. An amount of sediment and nutrients naturally washes into coastal waters every time it rains and the coastal halo is always stronger near the mouths of estuaries. When catchments are modified for urban or agricultural use, the volume of nutrients and sediments flowing to the coast usually increases. The difference between the background and the increased volumes resulting from human activity represents land-based pollution, one of the main threats to the coastal environment.

When this pollution combines with that from shipping and from deposition from the atmosphere, it can damage habitats and communities of animals and plants. Because this process occurs over long periods, some effects can be detected only through sensitive measurement. However, on occasion, parts of the coastal halo increase in intensity and the halo becomes visible to the naked eye.

The Australian halo

The presence of a halo can be illustrated by the distinct pattern in water quality across Moreton Bay. Waters in the west, close to human activities, contain sediments and nutrients but these pollutants decrease in concentration from west to east across the bay (Dennison and Abal 1999). This halo is often visible from the air, and sensitive measurements from satellite sensors show clearly how the pollutants hug the coast (Figure 1).

Visible areas of the Australian halo are often brown because sediments suspended in the water are the most obvious (Figure 2). However, population booms of microscopic marine organisms (plankton) may colour the halo green or red as they multiply rapidly in response to increased nutrients. Even when not visible to the naked eye, these organisms can be detected by sensitive handheld, airborne and satellite-based instruments.

While Australia's coastal halo is a natural phenomenon, increasing human pressures are creating a 'pollution halo', with associated negative environmental impacts. One example is when severely polluted waters produce eutrophication (Nixon 1995) which can cause the production of 'dead zones' (see Box 1).

Coastal dead zones in Australia

Only a few coastal 'dead zones' have been reported in Australian estuaries (see e.g. Turner et al 2004).  Even the two Australian incidences commonly cited in international reports (e.g. UNEP 2003) are not coastal 'dead zones' as defined in Box 1. One is a small freshwater lagoon that acts as a holding pond for a local sewage treatment plant (Donnelly et al 1999). The second reports low oxygen in an estuary where “enrichment and pollution effects are minimal” (Rainer and Fitzhardinge, 1981, 227).

This comparatively small number is odd given that despite a relatively small and highly dispersed population, our landuse activities and their potential impacts on estuaries are not dissimilar to other countries with many dead zones. An important mitigating factor is the degree of dilution and mixing in many of our estuaries.

Box 1: Dead zones

When excess nutrients flow into water bodies they fertilise microscopic organisms called plankton. The plankton eventually die and their remains sink and provide food for bottom-dwelling bacteria. In extreme cases, the resulting bacterial population explosions consume most (hypoxia) or all (anoxia) of the available oxygen causing animals, and the bacteria themselves to 'suffocate' and creating a dead zone (Joyce 2000).

Some areas have naturally low concentrations of oxygen, such as the oxygen minimum zones in some seas where exotic life has adapted to tolerate these conditions (Childress and Seibel 1998). In contrast, 'dead zones' are caused by human impacts and local organisms don't have time to adjust and either move away, or die. The zone is devoid of the organisms that would usually be expected to live there.

The most well known dead zones occur in the Gulf of Mexico, the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea but nearly 150 have been reported around the world (UNEP 2004). There is concern that such areas are increasing in number in estuaries and coastal waters world-wide, including in Australia (Boesch 2002; Rabalais et al 2002, Diaz et al 2003).

Stratification - the horizontal separation of a water body into an oxygenated upper layer and a potentially low-oxygen lower layer, is a prerequisite for the formation of dead zones (Diaz et al 2003). Stratification is caused by salt or temperature differences in two bodies of mixing water and is not common in well-mixed estuaries and Bays.

The most common types of estuary in Australia are tide-dominated (see ) meaning that they are well flushed by tides. For example, the majority of the estuaries in the north of Australia, many of which are also pristine or largely unmodified (Figure 3), are well mixed. In fact this is true even of the estuaries in the Great Barrier Reef catchment which have high concentrations of nutrients and sediments (Brodie, 2000; Haynes et al 2000; Reef Protection Steering Committee, 2003) and the highly-modified estuaries near urban centres. Because of this tidal flushing, stratification is rare and dead zones are unlikely.

In contrast, many estuaries in the south of Australia, are wave- or river-dominated and at times experience little tidal flushing and may even be intermittently closed to the sea. Many are highly modified (Figure 3) being subject to both urban and rural pressures. However, estuaries in the south east of Australia are usually shallow (less than 2 m deep) and at this depth, stratification is rare because the water is mixed by wind action. Although stratification and low oxygen is reported for some estuaries, dead zones are rare despite high inputs of pollution.

Similarly, the south of Australia and Tasmania has a number of highly-modified estuaries, but there are few incidences of stratification and thus few dead zones. In the south west, most estuaries are poorly mixed and increasing urban and agricultural pressures and concomitant nutrient and sediment loads have caused increasing algal blooms in a number of estuaries. Stratification is present in some estuaries and there is potential for increasing occurrence of dead zones.


Dead zones are not common in Australia and are unlikely to increase in all but a few of our coastal waterways. However, the Australian pollution halo is increasing due to increasing urban impacts and effects of agriculture.

These seemingly incongruous conclusions arise because the lack of dead zones results more from the nature of our coast than from any lack of urban or rural pressure. Indeed, although much of the Australian coast is subject to significantly better management practices than even in the 1970's and 1980's, improvements are not keeping pace with pressures. Without increased emphasis on coastal management it is likely that we will become more aware of the coastal pollution halo and of dead zones before the next national SoE report.


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