At a glance

The contribution of the marine environment to the economy is projected to continue to grow 3 times faster than Australia’s gross domestic product in the next decade. It is in Australia’s interest that our ocean ecosystems continue to bring economic, cultural and social benefits that can be sustained into the future.

The outlook for the marine environment is mixed. The trends of many marine environmental resources and, in particular, many listed species, are unclear. Although overall status for habitats, communities or species groups may be good, habitats or communities in specific locations or individual species (e.g. some reef fish species, Australian sea lions) remain in poor condition, and the prospects for improvement are unclear.

Management of some sectors (e.g. commercial fishing) has clearly improved during the past decade, resulting in better oversight of sustainable practices and, in some cases, the recovery of species and habitats. Although specific pressures on habitats, communities or species groups may have been reduced (e.g. commercial fishing on seamounts), the future outlook for many remains unclear as a result of the unpredictable nature, or lack of management, of remaining pressures (e.g. climate change). Without improved management of external pressures that are not currently directly managed, or are not managed effectively (e.g. marine debris), ongoing gradual deterioration of the marine environment is expected to occur. Some sectors (e.g. marine mining, recreational fishing) lack nationally coordinated management, which reduces Australia’s capacity to respond to external pressures and cumulative impacts that are already evident in some areas and seem certain to increase in coming decades. Seabed environments, and associated demersal and benthopelagic species groups across shelf and slope regions are expected to continue to recover in response to reduced fishing pressures. Habitats that are expected to continue to deteriorate in the future include coral reefs, fringing reefs and algal beds, largely in association with increasing pressure associated with climate change. Without coordinated effective management of pressures affecting species groups that demonstrate connectivity with regions external to the Australian exclusive economic zone, ongoing gradual deterioration of these species groups is expected.

Given continuous and ongoing change in the marine environment, and a lack of information on what historical states might have looked like, our ability to compare the current state of ecosystems with some historical ideal becomes ambiguous and somewhat arbitrary, and may not be appropriate. This is particularly true if the historical ideal is inaccurate. The concept of preserving components of marine ecosystems in a condition that was (hopefully) measured at an arbitrary point in time loses meaning, especially when reduction or removal of a single sector’s pressure may be insufficient to return a species or habitat to its prior condition in a reasonable timeframe. Ecosystem restoration and artificial habitats are likely to become increasingly important. However, many restoration efforts will focus on maintaining particular species, or restoring them to particular locations or to an agreed ‘threshold’ level rather than to earlier (unknown) states. Recovery targets for species listed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 are less clear; although removal from the list would be a clear indication of species recovery, this has yet to happen for any marine species.

The increasing complexity and mixture of local and remote pressures will require increasingly sophisticated information for managers to choose the most cost-effective and enduring interventions that satisfy individual sectors while ameliorating cumulative impacts. Improved, sustained monitoring can provide the indicators against which resources can be managed and management effectiveness can be reviewed. Addressing challenges for the marine environment as we look to the future will require a coordinated, collaborative and dedicated effort involving researchers, government, industry and the Australian community.

Current key gaps that limit our capacity to undertake national assessments of the marine environment include a lack of ongoing consistent monitoring, identification of standardised indicators for monitoring the marine environment, integrated approaches to understanding cumulative impacts and robust risk assessment frameworks for the environment. If addressed, these will substantially improve future state of the environment reporting.

Australia’s marine environment is globally, regionally and nationally important, providing ecosystem services such as nutrient cycling and climate regulation, and economic wealth through industries such as fisheries, aquaculture, and oil and gas exploration and production. The value of the economy sourced from the marine environment is projected to continue to grow 3 times faster than Australia’s gross domestic product in the next decade (NMSC 2015). It is therefore important that our ocean ecosystems are managed in such a way that they continue to bring economic, cultural and social benefits that can be sustained into the future.

The outlook for the marine environment, based on the assessment presented here, is mixed. Although many of the physical, biogeochemical, biological and ecological characteristics that are monitored appear stable, others—especially those closer to shore (e.g. coral reefs, fringing reefs, algal beds)—are deteriorating in response to changing and more variable human uses and climate. The trend of many marine environmental resources and many listed species is unclear, largely because most are not monitored in a standardised or ongoing manner. Although the overall status of many habitats, communities and species groups may be good, habitats or communities in specific locations, or individual species remain in poor condition, with prospects for improvement unclear. Improved understanding that leads to the identification of effective management options and adaptation strategies is needed to minimise risks to our existing assets and uses. The potential also exists to maximise new opportunities, especially across climate-sensitive industries such as fisheries and energy, and this will be a key requirement for future sustainability.

Management of many marine sectors, including commercial fishing, oil and gas, and marine vessel activity, is reported as effective. Improvements in the past 5–10 years have resulted in sustainable practices and, in some cases, the recovery of species and habitats. However, others, including recreational fishing and marine mining, lack nationally coordinated management. What management is in place may become less effective as pressures increase. At the same time, external pressures that are not directly managed lack clear governance frameworks across jurisdictions, or are the result of many interacting human uses; these pressures include climate change, marine debris and the chronic impacts of noise. The lack of coordinated governance and management across sectors reduces Australia’s capacity to respond to these external pressures and cumulative impacts that seem certain to increase in coming decades.

The EPBC Act remains an effective legislative instrument under which the environmental impacts of existing and emerging activities fall. This includes the Commonwealth marine reserves of the NRSMPA that were proclaimed in 2012. The Australian Government focus on outcome-based management, and the reduction of duplication by devolving management responsibility for environmental issues to individual sectors or jurisdictions provide the opportunity to focus on overall management performance and ecosystem condition at the national (or bioregional) level. The recent strategic assessment of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, which followed the decision by the World Heritage Committee to consider listing this heritage area as ‘in danger’ and resulted in the production of the Reef 2050 Long-term Sustainability Plan (Australian Government & Queensland Government 2015), is one example of how to promote coordinated management and science.

To identify ongoing changes in the marine environment, and facilitate provision of information to inform management and policy, there is an equivalent need for academic and consultant scientists (and the growing community-monitoring or citizen-science sector) to coordinate their activities. This would ensure that their data are collected, managed and reported in a way that enables use and re-use of the data (see Box MAR10). The Australian marine science and management community has identified key challenges for the marine environment as we look to the future, and the science needed to address these challenges (see Box MAR11). Addressing these challenges will require a coordinated, collaborative and dedicated effort involving researchers, government, industry and the Australian community. Self-organising initiatives such as the Research Providers Network, the National Marine Science Committee and the Australian Fisheries Management Forum are helping to provide national coordination of research and development opportunities.

Box MAR10 Monitoring and reporting on biodiversity in Australia’s oceans: towards a blueprint

Monitoring Australia’s marine regions is fundamental to understanding and reporting on how the ocean is changing in response to human pressures. The National Environmental Science Programme Marine Biodiversity Hub, in collaboration with the Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, has developed an outline for the monitoring of marine biodiversity (Towards a blueprint for monitoring key ecological features in the Commonwealth marine area; Hayes et al. 2015), based on identifying the informative links between the key ecological features (KEFs) in our marine regions and pressures on these features.

The KEFs are parts of the ocean identified in the Australian Government’s marine bioregional plans as highly valued for their importance to biodiversity or ecological function and integrity. Marine bioregional planning processes identified 54 KEFs in Australian waters, with 50 mapped in detail to date (Figure MAR41). The KEFs can be grouped for reporting purposes into areas of enhanced pelagic productivity, canyons, deep seabeds, seamounts, shelf reefs and shelf seabeds. Identification of these features provides an important focal point for developing monitoring programs that can provide indicators of change in the marine environment.

Although the oceanography of most KEF groups has been studied, the degree of biological understanding of each varies. Areas of enhanced pelagic productivity are the best understood, and shelf seabeds and deep seabeds the least. Thirty-three KEFs are sufficiently well understood to include in modelling efforts aimed at better understanding of the impacts on each and their responses to a range of anthropogenic pressures.

Towards a Blueprint details how Australia can expand its institutional capacity to meet the reporting needs of the department. It identifies existing data for areas where monitoring can begin, and assesses Australia’s capability to collect new monitoring data as a basis for decision-making.--

Example of focused biodiversity monitoring: the Bonney Upwelling

The Bonney Upwelling is one of 9 enhanced pelagic productivity KEFs identified in Australian waters and provides a good example of how KEFs can serve to focus biodiversity monitoring. From November to May, the surface waters of the Bonney Coast are blown offshore by south-easterly winds and replaced by cold, nutrient-rich water that rises from deeper depths (upwelling) to replace the surface water. The sunlit nutrients fuel an explosion of phytoplankton that sustains a seasonal abundance of marine life, from zooplankton species such as krill to large marine animals such as pygmy blue whales (Figure MAR42). Understanding long-term changes to this biophysical system and identifying what is most likely to have caused change or may cause change in the future is the focus of monitoring.


A small map of Australia with the location of the Bonney Coast Upwelling ecosystem circled, and images of the marine life found there in a food-web flowchart that also indicates wind and upwelling by different coloured arrows. At the bottom of the food web are nutrients and zooplankton, with krill, other small animals, fish and squid in the middle, and pygmy blue whale and seals at the top. The flowchart arrows are either orange, indicating a positive effect, or purple, indicating a negative effect. Wind has a negative effect on the upwelling, at the bottom of the image, and upwelling has a positive effect on nutrients, which drives the rest of the food web.

Figure MAR42 Schematic of the Bonney Upwelling ecosystem

Qualitative modelling (Hosack & Dambacher 2012), informed by existing data and expert advice, was used to identify the main pressures affecting marine life in the Bonney Upwelling. The primary pressures on the system identified were climate change, which can affect the base of the system and its productivity, and an increase in fur seal species, which can affect the overall level of predation in the system and trophic processes.

Statistical analysis (methods described in Foster et al. 2014) of satellite-derived concentrations of surface chlorophyll (an indicator of surface productivity) suggests that a slight, long-term trend of decreasing chlorophyll concentrations in the Bonney Upwelling occurred from 2000 to 2015 (Figure MAR43).

A reduction in upwelling processes and associated productivity through the region that may occur with climate change is likely to affect marine life that uses this seasonal food source. Continued monitoring of upwelling processes, productivity and dependent marine life is needed to better understand the drivers of any changes to the system, and the impacts this might have on the marine environment. Ongoing monitoring of biophysical indicators will also provide a better understanding of the contributions of multiple pressures (e.g. climate change, increased predation) to any changes observed in the region and help inform management measures that might be implemented to address these pressures.


Since 2011, the NMSC has contributed to Australia’s having a better coordinated, more management-relevant marine science community. It has established and sustained national collaborations such as successive Marine Biodiversity Research Hubs and the Integrated Marine Observing System. This approach has helped the 2016 state of the environment report use indicators that are more clearly defined and measurable, and make use of available synoptic data. This positive trend will accelerate through implementation of the National Marine Science Plan.

Evans K, Bax NJ, Smith DC (2016). Marine environment: Outlook for the marine environment 2016. In: Australia state of the environment 2016, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra,, DOI 10.4226/94/58b657ea7c296