Uses and values


Australia’s oceans inspire many of our social and cultural values, and the marine sector contributes significantly to the national economy through energy and food production, recreation and tourism. A recent evaluation of Australia's marine industries showed that the sector provides at least 4% of gross domestic product and is undergoing rapid growth, increasing by approximately 50% since 2000 and conservatively valued at $48 billion in 2007–08. This estimate did not include a number of emerging industries, such as seabed mining, carbon capture, desalination, tidal and wave power, or the use of marine organisms as the source of new materials or pharmaceuticals.12

1.5.1 Oil and gas

The economic backbone of the marine sector is the oil and gas industry. More than 90% of Australia’s liquid hydrocarbon and 74% of the nation’s natural gas production is extracted from ocean areas. The annual value of this activity was estimated at around $22 billion in 2007–08.12 Increasing global demand for energy and fewer discoveries of new oil and gas fields are increasing the pressure for further exploration and extraction within Australia’s EEZ and ECS. Associated with this challenge is the need for novel extraction technologies to increase recovery rates and safety of extraction, capture and storage of carbon; more onshore and floating processing plants; new shipping facilities; and higher standards of environmental protection.13 Oil and gas production in Australia is concentrated in the north-western and southern regions (Figure 6.5).

1.5.2 Fisheries and aquaculture

Although considerably smaller in economic value than oil and gas, the coastal fisheries and aquaculture sector is the mainstay of Australia’s renewable marine resources. The gross value of production (GVP) in 2008–09 was $2.2 billion, from a production of 238 000 tonnes of seafood. The majority of the sector—86% of the value of commercial fisheries in 2008–09—is managed by state and territory agencies. These commercial fisheries focus on several hundred high-value, but low-yield, marine species and products. For example, the New South Wales commercial wild-catch sector in 2008–09 was valued at approximately $93 million,16 based on around 100 species of fish and invertebrates (mostly low-volume products considered to be currently fished to their maximum capacity).17-18 The highest value production is the Atlantic salmon aquaculture industry (GVP of $323 million; 15% of the total seafood value in 2008–09), and the largest wild-catch fishery is for Australian sardines (31 500 tonnes, 13% of the total wild catch in 2008–09), 16 much of which is used as fish food in aquaculture.

Australia’s overall seafood production volume over the decade from 1999–2000 to 2008–09 increased steadily for the first six years, rising from 223 000 tonnes in 1999–2000 to peak at 279 000 tonnes in 2004–05. Production volume remained relatively stable for the period 2005–06 to 2008–09, at an average of 242 000 tonnes per year (Figure 6.6). Production volume from our wild-catch fisheries increased initially from 2001–02 until 2004–05, but then declined subsequently to 2008–09.16, 19-20 Similarly, global catches have remained stable,21 but stocks in wild-catch fisheries have declined.22 The annual GVP of Australia’s fisheries declined by 30% from 1999–2000 to $2.2 billion in 2008–09 (Figure 6.7).16 Most of this decline in value was related to the decline in the GVP of the wild-catch sector from $2.5 billion in 1997–98 to $1.4 billion in 2008–09.16 The main reason for this trend was a fall in prices for the major wild-caught species (rock lobster, prawns, tuna), but overall wild-catch production volume also fell significantly, from 236 864 tonnes in 2004–05 to 173 142 tonnes in 2008–09.16, 20

Commonwealth-managed commercial fisheries are the responsibility of the Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA), either directly, indirectly through joint management authority with a state or territory, or under international agreements on the high seas. The products of AFMA-managed fisheries include some of the better known species to be found in mainland fish shops, such as banana prawns from the Gulf of Carpentaria, flathead from the continental shelf waters off Victoria and scallops from Bass Strait. In 2008, there were 20 AFMA-managed fisheries targeting 98 stocks or species groups. Catch levels vary widely, depending on the area and target species (Figure 6.8). The AFMA fisheries are becoming better understood as a result of many years of significant investment in research and management. The condition of the Commonwealth-managed fisheries is assessed and reported annually by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES, an independent research agency of the Australian Government).

In 2008, AFMA applied a new harvest policy23 that seeks to manage each fishery so that fished stocks are generally maintained between two reference points—an upper-level 'target' biomass (population size to be achieved) that is considered to be a relatively safe level of biomass for the fished stock, and a low-level 'limit' biomass that represents a minimum permitted level. The setting of these target and limit reference points recognises that biomass is a central attribute of fish populations and an important metric to be tracked in management. While target and limit reference points are currently set mainly on the basis of economic yield, the stage is set for the future management of harvests so that both ecological and economic parameters can be considered simultaneously. The challenge for the wild-catch sector of all Australian jurisdictions is for ecosystem-based fisheries management to be developed and implemented in a way that protects the biodiversity values of the ocean ecosystems, as well as the harvests from fishable stocks. In particular, we need to avoid the pitfalls of 'Ludwig's ratchet',24 in which fisheries overcapitalise in fishing technology and overexploit species to cover their debt, despite scientific evidence that stocks are declining. When the fishery is no longer economically viable, governments provide financial assistance to minimise economic hardship. When stocks increase, there is another rush to invest in yet newer technology, and the cycle repeats.

In 2009, the condition of 59 AFMA stocks was classified as not overfished, and 73 were classified as not suffering overfishing. Twelve further stocks were assessed as overfished (12%, reduced from 19% in 2004) and 10 as suffering ongoing overfishing (10%, reduced from 12% in 2004); there was too much uncertainty to determine if the remaining 30 stocks were overfished or not. These figures show a steady improvement since 2004; however, some key stocks (such as school shark) remain in the overfished category and continue to require priority action.23

The number and identity of the AFMA stocks reported by the ABARES system have changed substantially since this form of reporting began in 1992. This has been generally positive, with new stocks being added to increase resolution of the reporting system. Updating by dropping stocks that are no longer important (two stocks reported in 1992 are no longer reported) risks confounding the capacity to assess long-term trends in fish populations and fishing activity, and is generally avoided.

1.5.3 Recreational and subsistence fishing

Beyond commercial fishing and aquaculture, recreational and subsistence fisheries form an important part of Australia's coast-focused culture and make a major contribution to the Australian way of life. The recreational amenities of many regional cities, coastal towns and (increasingly) remote communities are dominated by marine attractions and recreational fishing. No data are available for subsistence fishing, but it is likely to be difficult to separate from recreational fishing, since a significant portion of the recreational catch is consumed by fishers. For many of the highly sought-after species, recreational fish catches are likely to be larger than the commercial catches of the same species. Marine tourism and recreation, including fishing, were estimated to contribute $18.7 billion to the Australian economy in 2007–0812—about the same value as the oil and gas industry—and fishing is now considered to be the nation's largest participatory recreational activity.25

A recent study of recreational fishing in South Australian waters25 found that approximately 16% of the population (about 240 000 people) participated in recreational fishing during the survey year (2007). Over the year, with a total fishing effort of around 1 million fishing-days, these fishers caught almost 10 million fish, crustaceans and molluscs, from 98 species. However, they also released large numbers of these fish. Release rates varied from less than 10% to more than 70%. However, there is little information about the subsequent survival rates, which may not be very high for some species. The survey also revealed that there had been a substantial decline in catches of six of the eight key recreational species since a similar survey in 2000, together with a 5% decline in participation and a 42% decline in fishing effort. Such declines in participation and effort may reflect reduced expectations of the fishers about the experience.

Ward T (2011). Marine environment: Uses and values. In: Australia state of the environment 2011, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra,, DOI 10.4226/94/58b657ea7c296