Coasts and oceans: Responses to pressures

Independent report to the Australian Government Minister for the Environment and Heritage
Beeton RJS (Bob), Buckley Kristal I, Jones Gary J, Morgan Denise, Reichelt Russell E, Trewin Dennis
(2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee), 2006

6.3 Responses to pressures

Great Barrier Reef Marine Park
One-quarter of Queensland’s land area drains directly into the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park  through some 26 major river catchments. These catchments are largely agricultural, and 80 per cent of the coastal strip facing the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area supports dryland agricultural production. Most of the rest is used for intensive agriculture, which involves high levels of fertilisers and pesticides. With the added effects of urban development and aquaculture, water quality in the marine park is under considerable pressure.

Raised concentrations of sediments  and nutrients  have long been regarded as the principal water quality threats to the Great Barrier Reef. The threat from other pollutants such as persistent pesticides  has been more recently recognised. Agriculture is the major human-induced source of excess nutrients, sediments and pesticides on the Great Barrier Reef.

Urban waste and stormwater discharges, and the impacts of aquaculture, are locally important. These threats are compounded by high rainfall and erosion rates  in the wet tropics region of the North Queensland coast.

The potential impacts of pollution on the Great Barrier Reef range from reduced growth and reproduction in reef animals and plants, to major shifts in the community structure and functioning of coral reef and seagrass ecosystems. Coastal and nearshore coral reefs and seagrass communities adjacent to human settlement are most at risk from pollutants contained in runoff from the mainland. Declining ecosystem health in estuarine and nearshore areas will affect the biodiversity and other values of the Great Barrier Reef (see ‘Natural and cultural heritage’) (GBRMPA 2004).

There are many local and regional initiatives to reduce the pressures of urban development on the coast; many of them are partnerships between local community, local government, non-government organisations, state or territory governments and the Australian Government. For example, coastal management planning activities in some of the states have given rise to in-depth inquiries and strategies (such as the New South Wales Inquiry into Infrastructure Provision in Coastal Growth Areas and the Victorian Coastal Spaces Initiative). The sign-on of the majority of the states and the Northern Territory to the national coastal framework, developed by the Intergovernmental Coastal Advisory Group, and facilitated by the Australian Government, is also evidence of a coordinated attempt to manage the impacts on Australia’s coastal areas.

The National Sea Change Taskforce is one example of a regional initiative that is facing the challenge of managing the pressures that come with increased coastal development. Made up of 70 local government councils, the taskforce has already identified the key social, economic and environmental planning issues facing coastal ‘sea change’ communities; documented the range of governance, environmental and other challenges; and reviewed current responses to the issues (National Sea Change Taskforce 2005).

The Moreton Bay Waterways and Catchment Partnership aims to develop a coordinated regional strategy to protect Queensland’s waterways (see http://www.healthywaterways.org/index.html >). This is one of the best available examples of local governments, with the help of the state and Australian governments, working with community, research organisations, Indigenous communities and industry.

The Australian Government has responded to marine environmental issues in several ways, including developing Australia’s Oceans Policy, further implementing the National Representative System of Marine Protected Areas, and supporting programmes of the NHT. In total, Australia’s current marine protected area estate , including state and territory protected areas and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, comprises more than 360 individual areas covering more than half a million square kilometres.

Australia’s Oceans Policy is designed to improve outcomes in marine conservation and sustainable use in the Commonwealth-managed offshore regions. Its force is seen in the process of regional marine planning, which is occurring progressively across each of the major marine regions of Australia. One plan has already been completed for the South-East Marine Region (in May 2004), and two more are underway, one in northern Australia and the other in south-west Western Australia.

As a result of the marine planning process, the South-East Marine Protected Area network was proposed in December 2005 to give Australia about one-third of the world’s marine protected regions by area. The network contains representative examples of the major seafloor habitats across 2 million square kilometres of offshore waters in the South-East Marine Region. It is the first temperate waters system of its kind. In 2004, the area of highly protected zones of the Great Barrier Reef was increased from 4 per cent to 33 per cent of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. This makes the Great Barrier Reef one of the world’s largest marine protected areas, reflecting its global significance as a high-diversity coral reef system. In addition, a Reef Water Quality Protection Plan has been agreed to by both the Australian and Queensland governments.

These moves are to be applauded, but cooperation in marine management between all levels of government is crucial. All the states and the Northern Territory manage vast coastal marine areas with exceptional biodiversity values. For example, Western Australia’s marine jurisdiction comprises 18 bioregions covering about 126 000 square kilometres of mainly shallow coastal waters along 13 000 kilometres of coastline. This area hosts marine components of extreme global biodiversity value, including about 20 000 square kilometres of the world’s most diverse seagrass beds, about 2500 square kilometres of mangrove forests, one of the world’s largest fringing coral reef ecosystems (Ningaloo Reef is some 300 kilometres long) and one of the world’s most southern, high-diversity coral reef systems in the Abrolhos Islands.

In conjunction with protection of marine areas, the Australian Government has introduced a $220 million structural adjustment programme  that aims to take a large percentage of the fishing effort permanently out of several Commonwealth-managed fisheries, so that stocks have the opportunity to recover from their currently overfished condition. Combined with state moves to address overfishing, this programme will phase-out a large portion of the fishing industry, which will have a significant effect on coastal lifestyles and associated heritage values. Also, efforts to secure the future of the Patagonian Toothfish stocks around Australia’s Macquarie Island were boosted in early 2006 through a management plan that limited the total allowable catch to 380 tonnes, but illegal foreign fishing operations continue to place this species under pressure on a global scale.

There have been some major, positive steps in the last few years, with many state and territory governments declaring marine protected areas (Figure 27). In 2004, the Queensland Government created a zoning plan in the nearshore waters adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Around 14 per cent of the state’s marine park is no-take, but the exact area has not been quantified. Western Australia has declared a third of Ningaloo Reef as highly protected. In 2002, Victoria became the first state in Australia to create a representative system of marine national parks. Covering 5.3 per cent of Victoria’s waters, the parks are all fully protected from fishing and mining.

New South Wales has also expanded its marine protected area estate with the declaration of the Batemans Marine Park in 2006. This is the third in a series of new marine parks established since 2001, and there is now a chain of six multiple-use marine parks stretching along the state’s coastline, incorporating one-third of its waters. During this same period, extensive public consultation has informed the successful development and establishment of zoning plans for four of these marine parks, and a process has been put in place to finalise zoning for the remaining two in 2006.

Tourism, fishing and shipping are closely regulated in marine parks and sensitive areas such as the Great Barrier Reef. The increase in the adoption of environmental management systems by sections of the fishing industry since 2001 is a positive trend that should be encouraged.

Key points

  • Australia still does not have a comprehensive, nationally consistent system for measuring the condition and trends of its coasts and ocean ecosystems and the key resources they support.
  • While still uncertain, the current forecasts of climate change suggest that increasing ocean temperatures will cause major impacts on coral reefs and that changing ocean circulation patterns are likely to affect cold water, and thus planning for adaptation to climate variability should be a priority.
  • Because Australian marine ecosystems remain at risk from exotic species being brought into Australian waters on ships’ hulls and discharged in ballast water, measures to restrict transfer must continue both internationally and domestically.
  • Trends in the status of fisheries’ resources and in the bycatch are negative, and efforts to reverse these trends, such as improving management plans and introducing environmental management systems, should be enhanced and then communicated to the public to ensure progress is measured and evaluated.
  • While there are no surprises or new issues since 2001, the need to resolve existing problems remains as strong as ever in order to stem the slow decline of environmental quality.