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.
At a glance
Australia's oceans and coastal marine ecosystems are overall in good condition and have experienced only gradual decline, although there are many coastal areas where conditions are already poor or very poor. Indeed, some of the world’s worst examples of impacts from pollution can be found in Australian waters. Australia is leading the world in many areas of marine management, but we have basked in the luxury that resilience has been high because pressures have been low. Now there are strong signals that many systems and resources have reached their finite limit, and pressures are building to levels at which impacts can be easily seen in each of our ocean regions. We need our oceans and coastal ecosystems to continue to sustain and inspire Australia’s future, as they have in our past. The lessons from overseas are stark—continuing business as usual will result in loss and decay.
Our ocean and coastal ecosystems are used by everybody but are the primary responsibility of nobody. They are consequently suffering from ‘death by a thousand cuts’. The often-identified need for the integration of marine management is now critical and urgent. The most significant and urgent challenge for policy makers is to establish an effective set of national arrangements to connect national and international policies with state and local management activities, and to involve communities and the private sector. Marine ecosystems and the environment are naturally dynamic—change is their byline. We have linked our communities to many of the assets and resources offered by coastal waters and estuaries, and we have built our communities on their shores. Now that they are recognisably changing, and we can detect the early signs of accelerating change, we must prepare ourselves to adapt to these changes.
Nearshore development proceeds apace, replacing vegetated landscapes with hard surfaces and converting marine habitats into new land. Land-based sources of pollution and expanding pressure on coastal lands continue to be significant concerns, despite strong improvements in land-use planning and the management of many pollution point sources. Fishing has reduced most populations of sought-after species to low levels, mainly in previous decades, and these persistent low population levels probably have significant flow-on consequences for the resilience and persistence of marine biodiversity in the inshore waters. The major looming threat for our oceans and coastal waterways is the changing global climate, which is creating significant changes in ecosystems and biodiversity, shorelines and coastal lands, and our wealth generation from the oceans. Climate change is also threatening the existence of our coral reefs at their present-day scale and grandeur (particularly in the east region). A proliferation of oil and gas exploration and extraction, together with mining, wave energy and desalination systems, and other shoreline industries, will not only generate wealth but also bring a new set of major risks to our waters that will need intensive strategic and regional management.
This is particularly true for the north-west region, which is under intense development pressures from the resource extraction sectors (oil and gas, mining, fishing, shipping). The national demand for port capacity is forecast by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences to double each coming decade to service growth in cities and the mining sector. Only the marine values and assets of the north region remain relatively pristine; however, even there, mining and the damming of rivers are beginning to become more substantial regional pressures. The south-east region remains under the greatest stress, with a legacy of impacts from a wide variety of sources, and is suffering the greatest impacts from climate change—the East Australian Current is changing its pattern of extension into Tasmanian waters, with an intensification of gyres (circular currents), and is becoming warmer and saltier. There has been substantial coastal retreat (loss of coastal land due to higher sea levels) in areas such as Corner Inlet; urchin barrens (where unchecked urchin populations are so dense that they consume all vegetation) have expanded; and there have been major changes in cold-water algal beds caused by the changes in water temperature. The recent blooms of the zooplankton Noctiluca, extending its range from the east region, raises the spectre of regime shift (the rapid and complete reorganisation of an ecosystem from one relatively stable state to another)—this species has rapidly become the dominant grazer in Tasmanian marine waters in recent years, with uncertain ecological consequences.
The interaction of accelerating changes in atmospheric and ocean climate with existing land uses, fishing systems, shoreline industries and new risks has raised the management stakes to an unprecedented level. There is a plethora of responses to this situation, many of which are achieving good outcomes; some are even reducing pressures and holding aspects of the ecosystems and biodiversity in good condition. These are a necessary but insufficient response. The evidence is that the fractured, weakly coordinated and poorly integrated management systems that we have currently deployed will inevitably result in accelerating degradation of the unique values of our oceans and coastal ecosystems, spreading outwards from the current centres of local environment degradation where system complexity is highest. The early signals of such decline are now evident across a number of areas of our coastal waters. The experience of the Oceans Policy of 1998 demonstrates the major challenge of achieving a truly national approach to address the drivers of decline in Australia’s marine ecosystems.
The overall outlook for Australia's marine environment is uncertain—most aspects are currently not in decline, and those that are declining have moderately well understood underlying pressures and drivers. Of those assets and values that are already in poor condition, very few are recovering. But perhaps most critical of all, there are several important uncertainties that are yet to be addressed, most notably our own ability to design and deliver good, effective and efficient multilevel governance (including information and reporting systems) to address the known threats and accelerating risks to our unique marine environment.
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