Environment protection systems



All jurisdictions in Australia have core environmental management and conservation functions, expressed through their respective legislation, policies and programs. This section considers a small sample of relevant activities.

Australian Government

The Australian Government's principal regulatory tool for managing marine environmental issues is the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). The Act provides a framework for the management of matters of national environmental significance in the entire Australian marine environment. The primary activities of the EPBC Act in marine matters relate to marine bioregional planning, protected and listed species, world heritage and, in the Commonwealth marine area, marine reserves and mitigation of marine impacts. The Act also provides for activities in relation to threatened ecological communities, but no marine communities have yet been approved for EPBC Act listing.

In Australia, Commonwealth managed fisheries and all fisheries intending to export products (irrespective of jurisdictional control) are assessed within the terms of the EPBC Act, principally using the Guidelines for the ecologically sustainable management of fisheries (second edition) (GESMF), established under the Act. These guidelines explicitly endorse and aim to facilitate ecosystem-based fisheries management, in addition to the management of specific target and protected species. The GESMF provides a basis for evaluating the environmental performance of fisheries, including:

  • the strategic assessment of fisheries (under Part 10 of the Act)
  • assessments relating to impacts on protected marine species (under Part 13 of the Act)
  • assessments for the purpose of export approval (under Part 13A of the Act).

The areas of the Act that relate to exploited marine species are dominated by matters involving fishing systems, particularly aspects of fishing that relate to two key issues:

  • the condition of the species being exploited (through assessments using the GESMF)
  • the impacts of fishing systems on protected and listed species, and more generally on marine ecosystems.

The primary tools used to assess the condition of exploited species are the GESMF and the strategic assessment of exploited species for export purposes. Both assessments are conducted by the Australian Government Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (DSEWPaC), based on information provided by individual proponents specifically for the assessment process, and public comment. The proponents are usually state fishing agencies, AFMA or individual fishing entities (such as fishing companies and industry associations); submissions often include scientific research and assessments commissioned by these entities. More than 120 fisheries around Australia have been assessed under the EPBC Act and the GESMF. Most of the assessment process is devoted to the condition of the exploited stocks, and the extent and nature of the direct impacts of fishing activities on listed and protected species under the Act (through assessing byproduct and bycatch). There is typically less information to support the consideration of broader marine conservation issues at the ecosystem level, including trophic and cumulative impacts.

Strategic assessment under the EPBC Act assesses fishing activity at the level of management plans or policy, rather than each individual action or permit. The benefit of this approach is that it enables the collective impacts of a fishery to be considered and provides certainty for the proponent about the activities that are permitted. When the assessment is complete, the Australian minister for the environment may then ‘accredit’ the management plan or policy and make a declaration under the Act that activities conducted under the accredited plan or policy do not require further impact assessment approval under the EPBC Act.

Although a number of marine species are listed under the provisions of the EPBC Act (mainly marine mammals, seabirds, reptiles and some fish species, including seahorses and their relatives), their conservation is assisted by few recovery plans or threat abatement plans. Threat abatement plans address key threatening processes rather than individual species, but only two threat abatement plans have been approved for action to protect marine species (relating to the impacts of marine debris and the bycatch of seabirds in longline fishing).f No listed marine species have yet recovered to population levels that have removed them from protected status under the Act. The recent independent review of the Act81 recommended significant changes. In particular, the review noted that any change should improve, not downgrade, the standards of protection afforded to marine ecosystems in fishery assessment systems under the Act, and provide for much greater levels of integration in the vertical and horizontal directions (between national, state, industry and community organisations; and between the organisations themselves). This is a call for change that has been widely recognised in the marine science community for many years. The Resources Assessment Commission Coastal Zone Inquiry (1993),82 the preparatory phase for Australia's Oceans Policy (1998)83-84 and many more reviews over recent decades have called for a systematic and nationally integrated approach to management of the oceans and coasts. The independent review of the EPBC Act reinforced the principle of subsidiarity (that decisions should be made by a central authority where they cannot be made effectively by a lower level of government), and that a coordinated and integrated national approach to environmental management is the most appropriate way to ensure credible and lasting national outcomes.

Important achievements of the EPBC Act have been the setting of approaches and standards for listed marine species—those considered to be rare, endangered, or vulnerable to excessive impacts or exploitation; to be related to matters of national environmental significance; or to have special international significance (such as migratory wading birds). In this matter, the Act has provided a system that propagates from Australian Government policy-level decisions down to state-level policy and operational management systems, and gives significant effect to the principle of subsidiarity. However, the Act is silent, or gives only weak guidance, on many other important aspects of the marine environment.

Although there have been important achievements under the EPBC Act, the lack of effective outcomes in marine environments is clear, and the independent review draws attention to the structural, process and content issues with the Act that need attention to enable an integrated approach to environmental protection and management. The review identifies the need to establish a new Act (notionally, the Australian Environment Act) with improved structure and objects, designed to give primacy to the protection of the Australian environment ‘through the conservation of ecological integrity and nationally important biological diversity and heritage’.81

Beyond the EPBC Act, the Australian Government also has a range of responsibilities to provide broad policy guidance on many land-based environmental issues that affect marine ecosystems, and particularly coastal and estuarine systems. These include catchment management systems, various aspects of urban and agricultural land use, natural resource management, and specific issues in rainforests and coastal ecosystems.

To improve knowledge about the oceans, the Australian Government has funded a series of major new programs. These include ocean observing systems to build a better understanding of the current flows and their variability (such as the Integrated Marine Observing Systemg), and research to better understand how climate changes may affect the ocean systems (such as programs conducted by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, the Bureau of Meteorology and the Australian Institute of Marine Science). The Australian Government (through DSEWPaC) has also recently established the National Environmental Research Program, which is providing public-good funding for marine (and terrestrial) biodiversity research.h

These and a number of other measurement and monitoring systems are greatly improving our knowledge of the physical aspects of the oceans, but a considerable amount of uncertainty remains on biological and ecological issues. There is also a major lack of capacity to translate our modern understanding of the science issues into information that is used in management and policy decision systems. These combined weaknesses significantly hinder, for example, our understanding of the interaction of climate change with the marine and coastal values and resources, and hence the extent of environmental impacts, and the level and extent of changes that may be required in management programs.

State and territory governments

State governments have initiated a number of state-level programs aimed at mitigating recognised issues in their waters. These include area-specific programs such as the Derwent Estuary Program in Tasmania, the Healthy Waterways Program in southern Queensland, and the Cockburn Sound Management Strategy in Western Australia. Many of these have achieved significant success. For example, the Reef Water Quality Protection Plan brings together people and projects to help improve the quality of water entering the Great Barrier Reef lagoon. Launched in 2003 as a joint initiative of the Australian and Queensland governments, the plan was revised and updated in 2009. The plan has two primary goals: to halt and reverse the decline in water quality entering the Great Barrier Reef by 2013, and to ensure that, by 2020, the quality of water entering the Reef from adjacent catchments has no detrimental impact on the reef’s health and resilience. These are all important initiatives, incrementally contributing to reducing pressures on the ecosystems by addressing local factors that are considered to be important stresses on ecosystems.

The states and territories also have a highly complex set of Acts, regulations, policies and strategies affecting the marine environment. These jurisdictions have direct control over their internal waters and most aspects of their nearshore waters (the three-mile zone). They also have various levels of control over many of the Australian Government’s renewable, and some nonrenewable, resources in the exclusive economic zone. Responsibility for these resources was provided to the respective states and territories under the Offshore Constitutional Settlement and formalised in the Coastal Waters Acts in 1980,which give the states and the Northern Territory powers over three nautical miles of the territorial sea. A number of major fisheries are managed under this arrangement—as a result, a fishery may be managed either by a state, by the Australian Government, by a joint authority, or by both a state government and the Australian Government. Similarly, the Australian Government delegates the assessment of various environmental impacts to state agencies under a system of joint arrangements. The states and territories also directly control the land-based activities that result in pressures and impacts in the highly valued nearshore waters of coastal marine ecosystems. Overall, it could be argued that the state jurisdictions may have greater influence on the status and values of Australia's marine biodiversity than does the Australian Government. An overarching framework for nationally integrated management would therefore make a major contribution to improving management of the marine environment.

State-level arrangements for managing issues in marine and coastal ecosystems are complex. For example, in Western Australia, a number of agencies and their respective Acts have responsibility for various marine and coastal issues, and there are only weak arrangements for horizontal integration to ensure that the full range of values of marine ecosystems are maintained within the state jurisdiction. The agencies with such responsibilities include:

  • Department of Environment and Conservation (marine mammals, seabirds, reptiles, marine water pollution and quality, environmental impacts, terrestrial and marine parks and reserves)
  • Department of Water (estuaries and rivers, water quality, environmental health, aquatic and fringing vegetation)
  • Department of Fisheries (fisheries for exploited species, aquaculture)
  • Department of Planning (regional and local coastal planning)
  • Department of Transport (coastal beaches, dunes, commercial and recreational boating, marinas, jetties, shipping channels)
  • Department of Mines and Petroleum (mining and exploration).

The state agencies have established coordination mechanisms that might best be described as ‘systems to avoid treading on each others' toes’, but there is no formal or informal system that has the responsibility of maintaining the environmental values of the marine and coastal ecosystems of Western Australia or providing for systematic reporting on their condition. The Marine Parks and Reserves Authority has established a systematic process for auditing and reporting on the environmental conditions in marine parks and reserves, and the Cockburn Sound Management Council has a system of auditing and reporting for Cockburn Sound. However, together these cover only a very limited area of Western Australia's marine environment, and issues remain about lack of capacity and resourcing for auditing and reporting.85

Like all Australian SoE reports at either state or national level, the compilation of the Western Australian SoE report has been hampered by a major lack of data and information about the condition of the Western Australian marine environment. A significant amount of marine monitoring data has been collected to inform and report on the success of management initiatives in Cockburn Sound, but marine management and reporting programs elsewhere are fragmented and only weakly coordinated.48 Where monitoring data are available and recent investigations have been conducted, such as in the Peel-Harvey Estuary, further environmental degradation has been observed, contrary to model predictions made as recently as 20 years ago,77 reinforcing the need for a comprehensive system of monitoring and reporting to ensure that public expenditure on environmental reforms achieves its intended outcomes.

All states and territories have equivalent agencies and responsibilities, although they vary greatly in the way they are structured and how they work together.

In New South Wales, the State Plan 2006 was established to stem decline in water quality conditions and biodiversity across the state's marine, coastal lake and estuarine ecosystems,18 with an explicit commitment that, by 2015, there will be no decline in the condition of ecosystems. The plan identifies the need for a mix of natural resource management and conservation measures to meet the goal. The principal legislative instruments applied in New South Wales waters to protect and manage these ecosystems and associated biodiversity are the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979, the Coastal Protection Act 1979, the NSW Coastal Policy 1997,the Fisheries Management Act 1994 and the Marine Parks Act 1997. These are supported by legislation to control point sources and shipping sources of pollution and the establishment of an IMOS (Integrated Marine Observing System) monitoring system near Sydney. This set of legislation is typical of the diverse and complex policies that apply at state and territory level to the protection of coastal and marine ecosystems across Australia.

Fisheries legislation in all jurisdictions is tasked with maintaining sustainable fisheries, but most (e.g. New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia) also have a requirement to manage ecosystem impacts and a commitment to ecosystem-based approaches to fisheries management. The latter is intended to provide broader and more precautionary levels of protection for targeted marine populations and their supporting ecological communities. Ecologically sustainable development in fisheries is interpreted and applied in Australia to ensure that the maximum sustainable economic yield can be extracted from target populations. Additional restrictions or closure of fisheries most often occur when the target stocks drop to a level where the economic and ecological viability of a fishery can no longer be assured. A recent international evaluation of ecosystem-based management in fisheries found that the Australian system rated as ‘adequate’ (behind six other countries), while the New South Wales system failed.86

Best-practice fishery management approaches applied to both nontarget and target species dictate that populations of nontarget species affected by fishing (either directly, such as through bycatch, or indirectly, such as through trophic dependencies) need to be considered. For instance, Sainsbury87 suggested that, to ensure that natural trophic dependencies are maintained and natural ecosystem functions can continue, key prey* species in fisheries may need to be maintained at or above 75% of their natural population levels. However, there are few documented examples where such standards are applied (or achieved) in Australian fisheries, and most fisheries do not report on such matters. Most of the fisheries that do report in this manner are Commonwealth-managed fisheries, but they comprise only 14% of Australia's fisheries by value (30% by weight of catch). Using fishery legislation only to protect and manage marine environments gives primacy to use rather than conservation and, worldwide, this has resulted in significant problems in maintaining the biodiversity and trophic structures of marine ecosystems where intensive fishing is conducted.




*Erratum: Original text says nontarget species, which has been corrected to say key prey species.

Ward T (2011). Marine environment: Environment protection systems. In: Australia state of the environment 2011, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra, https://soe.environment.gov.au/science/soe/2011-report/6-marine/4-effectiveness/4-1-protection-systems, DOI 10.4226/94/58b657ea7c296