In Brief | Coasts

State of the Environment 2011 Committee. Australia state of the environment 2011.
Independent report to the Australian Government Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities.
Canberra: DSEWPaC, 2011.

In Brief

This is a summary of Australia state of the environment 2011, which is an independent report presented to the Australian Government Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities by the State of the Environment 2011 Committee

Coasts

Main messages

Coastal regions are under pressure.

Our coasts, as well as being some of our most iconic natural areas, are some of Australia's most heavily settled areas. The major pressures on biodiversity, ecosystem processes and natural and cultural heritage along Australian coasts include urban expansion; modification of habitats by urban and commercial developments and nearshore mining and dredging; changed flows of rivers into estuaries and coastal environments; disturbance of acid sulfate soils; loss and fragmentation of native vegetation; increasing use of coastal areas for food production (aquaculture); fishing and intertidal harvesting; rapidly growing numbers of invasive species and pathogens; tension between the potential economic value of land, including areas that are suitable for intensive agriculture, and its conservation; modest budgets for management of reserved lands; degrading conditions that affect buildings (e.g. wind, salt, inundation); low levels of recognition of what is culturally significant; and decline in connections between Indigenous people and coastal places.

Some trends in land use and management practices have reduced some pressures.

These include expansion of conservation and Indigenous areas, decline in the extent of native forest managed for wood production and a corresponding increase in the extent managed for conservation, and improvements in land-management practices that have reduced the flows of sediments and chemicals to the coast during major rainfall events.

There are examples of promising responses to coastal challenges by governments, working individually and together, but outcomes for some major issues are still far from ideal.

Local governments are expressing concern about the lack of guidelines, standards and national strategic approaches to address coastal development, growing populations and environmental impacts. There is significant uncertainty about how species and ecological systems will be affected by climate change. The recent independent review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) recommended a range of changes to the Act that would allow it to be applied more strategically and at ecosystem and landscape scales. Many of these recommendations have been accepted by the Australian Government. It remains to be seen whether action is sufficient and soon enough to allow assessment and successful management of the cumulative effects of small developments along the coastal strip.

Debate about coastal governance and management advanced with a 2009 report from the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Climate Change, Water, Environment and the Arts.

The report, Managing our coastal zone in a changing climate: the time to act is now, noted that there is limited national collaboration and cooperation to achieve consistencies, efficiencies and agreements on issues such as variation in planning laws, capacities of local councils, monitoring coastal habitat change and legal liabilities. The report made 47 recommendations to address these issues. Most of these have been noted or accepted in principle by the Australian Government. As with responses to the review of the EPBC Act, the quality and timeliness of actions will be critical if existing challenges to coastal sustainability are to be addressed and looming ones prepared for.

The major emerging risks that remain incompletely addressed for Australia's coasts are those relating to climate change, especially sea level rise, and demographic change. The future of coastal Australia will depend largely on how rapidly these changes occur, how extreme they are, and how Australians prepare for and respond to them.

Awareness is growing that ecological, social, economic and cultural issues are interlinked and cannot be addressed separately. The future of our coasts depends on whether government and governance arrangements can be developed that allow a much more strategic approach to managing coastal resources, over spatial scales that match the scale of the challenges. Desirable futures are most likely if major reform of coastal governance is achieved in the next decade or sooner, which is possible, but not guaranteed.

State and trends

Our coastal regions bring together many of the issues identified for other areas of the environment.

For inland waters, issues relevant to coasts include coastal river and estuary pollution, desalination, seawater intrusion, and impacts of water abstraction (removal) on flora and fauna. Overall, the management of coastal waters has improved greatly in Australia in the past decade, including some high-profile programs to ensure river and estuary health in metropolitan areas (e.g. Hobart and Brisbane). Widespread drought has increased tensions over water use, including in coastal areas, and this is likely to be an important consideration for coastal management in the future.

For land, major trends in land use that have both negative and positive impacts on coastal Australia include urban expansion in capital cities and major regional coastal cities, changed flow in rivers that influences freshwater and nutrient flows to estuaries and coastal environments, expansion of conservation and Indigenous areas, declines in the extent of native forest managed for wood production and increases in the extent managed for conservation, and improvements in land-management practices that have reduced the flows of sediments and chemicals to the coast during major rainfall events. Disturbance of acid sulfate soils remains a major consequence of coastal development, with significant environmental, economic and social costs to coastal communities.

For vegetation, impacts on the coastal strip are highly variable around Australia's coastline. Native vegetation ranges from very heavily cleared, with less than 10% remaining, in parts of Victoria and South Australia, through 31—50% remaining in large parts of the southwestern and north-eastern coastal areas, to 71—100% remaining for most of northern Australia. The greatest reductions in native vegetation extent have been in eastern, south–eastern and south–western Australia.

For biodiversity, many plant and animal species are threatened by activities associated with Australia's coast–based population. The introduction of weeds and pest species has also contributed to national reductions in biodiversity, and in marine, estuarine and coastal productivity.

For the marine environment, there has been significant modification of coastal habitats by urban and catchment development, marinas, breakwaters, island reclamation projects, coastal and nearshore mining and dredging, harbours and shipping channels. A particular concern is the incremental nature of coastal development, which reduces the abundance of native vegetation and breaks down connectivity among remnant habitat patches. There has also been an increase in impacts of invasive species, including threats from pathogens.

For heritage, our coastal areas include many important wetlands, places of importance in the traditional culture and practices of Indigenous people, buildings associated with early European colonisation, historically important shipwrecks, threatened species and communities, and other places of natural heritage significance. Issues relevant to heritage on our coasts include degrading conditions (e.g. wind, salt, inundation), low levels of understanding of what is significant, a decline in connections between Indigenous people and coastal places, progressive loss of habitat, tension between the potential economic value of land and its conservation, and modest budgets for management of reserved lands.

Pressures

Major drivers of environmental change—climate change, population growth and economic growth—result in a range of pressures on our coasts. Events associated with climate variations have been major pressures on coasts over the past decade. Concern about coastal population growth has also been increasing for several decades. Urbanisation and coastal development for farming and industry are major pressures on habitats, biodiversity, water resources, air quality and heritage. The 2006 State of the Environment report concluded that 'most, if not all, of the issues identified and assessed in both the 1996 and the 2001 national state of the environment reports still remain to be resolved'.

Globally, the threat of rising sea levels as a result of climate change is one of the most concerning pressures on coastal communities, potentially affecting economic, social, cultural and environmental assets and processes. In Australia, a sea level rise of one metre or more during this century is plausible, and several hundred thousand homes are potentially at risk of inundation. Rising sea levels will also result in greater wave action on the shore, leading to increased rates of coastal erosion, particularly during extreme weather events, which are increasing in frequency. The capacity for coastal species to migrate inland to higher ground is limited in many parts of Australia by both the natural limits to the coastal plains and human-built structures such as seawalls, beach groynes and offshore reefs. Direct impacts on cultural sites, including many of significance to Indigenous people, are also possible. One of the major determinants of the future of Australia's coasts is how extreme and rapid the effects of climate change will be on coastal Australia.

Effectiveness of management

Recent research comparing Australian coastal governance with examples elsewhere in the world has concluded that, in many parts of Australia, the ability to adapt to emerging pressures, especially climate change, is low and declining. Recommendations include: (a) allocate authority and resources between levels of governance according to their effectiveness; (b) strengthen development rules and incentives to relocate as an unwanted threshold is approached; (c) allow for uncertainties by enabling rules and incentives to be changed when circumstances change; (d) reassign public and private benefits, costs, risks, uncertainties and responsibilities from governments to beneficiaries of development; and (e) see catastrophes as opportunities for change, not signals to automatically rebuild.

Local governments have also expressed concern about the lack of guidelines, standards and national strategic approaches to addressing coastal development, growing populations and environmental impacts. The concern among many stakeholders is that coastal development has proceeded in a piecemeal, uncoordinated way, risking the degradation of coastal assets before they are fully assessed or objectives set for their management. So concerned were coastal councils around Australia that, in 2004, they formed the National Sea Change Taskforce. The taskforce has been very active in developing and promoting solutions to state and Australian governments.

This debate took an important step forward in 2009, when the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Climate Change, Water, Environment and the Arts handed down its report, Managing our coastal zone in a changing climate: the time to act is now. The report made 47 recommendations to address the lack of national collaboration and cooperation in coastal management. In addition, the recent independent review of the EPBC Act recommended changes to the Act that would allow it to be applied more strategically and at ecosystem and landscape scales. Most of the recommendations from these reports have been noted or accepted in principle by the Australian Government.

Outlook

Desirable futures—that is, futures in which harmony exists between the demands that humans place on coastal environments and the sustainability of coastal ecosystems—are most likely if major reform of coastal governance is achieved in the next decade or sooner, so that strategic action can be taken to identify and prepare for risks from sea level rise. Whether through incentives, regulation or both, coastal communities will need to consider ecological and other infrastructure and services in relation to population size. These changes will be important in addressing pollution, waste, recreation, tourism, invasive species and other pressures on coastal environments. Another requirement will be improved information on which species and ecosystems are being affected, and are likely to be affected, by human activities on coasts. The advanced level of dialogue and tangible plans for action that have been put forward are a good start towards desirable coastal futures. The quality and timeliness of actions will be critical if existing challenges to coastal sustainability are to be addressed and looming ones prepared for.