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.