Australia’s marine environment extends from the landward limit of marine waters (which, in many places, is the high tide level) along the coastline of the continent and islands to the deepwater outer limit of the continental shelf, as recognised by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 2008. This includes parts of the Indian, Southern and Pacific oceans. The outer boundary of the Australian marine jurisdiction adjoins boundaries of other countries, mainly in the north and east, including France, Indonesia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste. In the west and south, Australia’s outer marine boundary mainly meets international waters—the high seas.
Management of Australian waters is divided into a number of complex administrative zones, reflecting the role of state and territory governments in the nearshore waters, and the terms of international agreements and conventions, principally UNCLOS, in the offshore waters (Figures 6.1 and 6.2). The two main zones of management are the three-mile zone and the 200-mile zone. The three-mile state waters zone (which is not a zone recognised by UNCLOS) extends from near the shoreline to approximately three nautical miles offshore. In 1983, title to the seabed, rights to the water column and some legislative powers in this zone were granted to the adjacent state or territory under the Offshore Constitutional Settlement. Full responsibility for the marine seabed and the waters between the three-mile zone and the 200-mile zone—the territorial sea and the exclusive economic zone (EEZ)—remains with the Australian Government.
On 9 April 2008, the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf confirmed Australia’s entitlement to an area of continental shelf that extends beyond the EEZ, known as the extended continental shelf (ECS). When this is proclaimed, it will increase the size of Australia’s marine jurisdiction by around 2.56 million square kilometres. Australia’s marine jurisdiction (including the ECS of the mainland and islands, but not the ECS of the Australian Antarctic Territory, the claim for which is disputed by several countries) will then cover around 13.86 million square kilometres—nearly twice the size of the Australian landmass and islands. As a result, Australia will have stewardship of approximately 3.8% of the world's oceans, one of the top three in area in the world, along with the United States and France.1 The seabed and all the living and nonliving resources of the ECS, but not the water column and its resources, will be under the control of the Australian Government.
In December 1998 the Australian Government released a national Oceans Policy for implementation through regional marine plans, to provide a basis for integrated management of Australia’s oceans. This has been superseded by a series of bioregional marine plans being established under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 to provide an ocean planning system with a legislative base, although the plans themselves are not legislative instruments. These bioregional plans apply to the waters of the EEZ and the territorial sea, but not to the state and territory coastal waters as was envisaged by Australia’s Oceans Policy and the intended regional marine plans.2-4