Coastal governance and management


As was emphasised in previous SoE reports (e.g. SoE 2011), coastal management in Australia is carried out using a range of approaches by multiple levels of government. Most management is done by local councils and state and territory governments, and for most issues, levels of government are not coordinated (see Integrated coastal management frameworks). Ideally, the scale of management should match the scales at which pressures and processes operate. Many of the pressures affecting the coast are national in scale, and national management frameworks are therefore desirable.

The EPBC Act provides national protection for coastal biodiversity. Coastal environments receive national protection under the EPBC Act if classified as Ramsar wetlands1 (Australia has 28 coastal wetlands), or if they contain nationally threatened species (see Threatened species), ecological communities or migratory species. Of the 23 Conservation Management Zones outlined by the Australian Government, 18 include a coastal component.

An overview of protected areas across Australia is provided by the Collaborative Australian Protected Area Database, which compiles information on protected areas, including those in the coastal zone (Figure COA16). Levels of protection range from 1 to 6, corresponding to the 6 IUCN protected area categories. The highest level of protection is 1, and 6 the lowest. In addition to these are Indigenous Protected Areas, which are identified land and sea Country dedicated for protection by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Coastal communities often hold mixed values and opinions about how to manage the land, the sea and natural resources. Coastal planners have the difficult task of considering different points of view, solving conflicts and creating a management plan that is widely acknowledged (Domínguez-Tejo et al 2016). To achieve this, coastal planners follow planning frameworks. Frameworks are like building blueprints that help planners and the community work together on what they want to achieve. They provide guidelines, or step-by-step instructions, to lead the planning process.

Marine spatial planning (MSP) is one of the frameworks used worldwide. Through MSP, multiple stakeholders collaborate in a public process, analysing human activities in their planning area. They assess the known and potential impacts of the activities on the environment and, ultimately, a plan is drafted supporting a balanced set of ecological, economic and social objectives. MSP has been undertaken in places such as the Great Barrier Reef (see Box COA10) and the New South Wales coast. Similarly, the ecosystem-based approach (EBA) to marine planning tries to find a balance between development needs and protecting the environment, and is the backbone of the United Nation’s Convention on Biological Diversity. When these frameworks are coupled together, the MSP–EBA paradigm has shown great potential to help us understand social values attached to the marine environment.

Coastal management is also promoted by nongovernment organisations, such as the Australian Coastal Councils Association. Known as the National Sea Change Taskforce until July 2015, the association is a national body representing the interests of coastal councils and their communities. It commissions research on a range of coastal issues and advocates for the interests of coastal councils to various levels of government.

The Marine nation 2025: marine science to support Australia’s blue economy (2013) position paper outlined Australia’s ‘blue economy’ prospects. This document was preceded by the National Marine Science Plan (NMSP; 2015), which identified the creation of sustainable urban coastal development as a key challenge in supporting Australia’s blue economy attempts to deliver ‘economical, cultural and social benefits that are efficient, equitable and sustainable’.

The NMSP made the following recommendations for better management of urban coastal areas, some of which are also applicable to unmodified areas of coast:

  • Provide targeted projections of sea level rise, including changes in extreme flood events.
  • Better characterise catchment contaminant pathways, coastal morphologies and environmental processes, and define envelopes of natural variability and thresholds of concern.
  • Understand pressure interactions and resource use, including the cumulative impacts of sea level rise; loss and continual degradation of coastal and estuarine habitats; and loss of productivity, ecosystem services and population connectivity.
  • Develop innovative sensing technologies, including those based on new molecular tools, to provide cost-effective monitoring in the coastal zone.
  • Improve data coordination and discoverability of coastal data from multiple sources.
  • Develop, test and apply methods to mitigate the impact of coastal hazards, including eco-engineering and restoration approaches.

The National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility is developing its CoastAdapt tool, which will address some of these recommendations. Australia’s ‘blue economy’ plans are discussed in further detail in the Marine environment report.

The Plan for a cleaner environment (DoE 2016) outlines Australia’s efforts towards achieving clean air, clean land, clean water and heritage protection.

Box COA10 Management of the Great Barrier Reef

A topical area of coastal management is the Great Barrier Reef. The Reef is in poor and declining condition as a result of catchment activities in combination with pressures associated with climate change (see the Marine environment report). Future governance is facing the difficult prospect of balancing economic growth with environmental sustainability, while simultaneously managing the effects of a changing climate. Focus is placed on improving water quality and restoring critical ecosystems, but there is often disagreement among interested parties (e.g. agriculture versus tourism industries) regarding the effectiveness of current and proposed management frameworks.

Several recent reports outline management practices for the Great Barrier Reef, including the Great Barrier Reef outlook report 2014, the Great Barrier Reef Water Science Taskforce final report 2016, the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan (2015) and the Reef 2050 Plan—Implementation Strategy.

A measure of the effectiveness of land management is the status of conservation of major vegetation groups. Figure COA17 shows the extent of each remaining vegetation group relative to the percentage protected under IUCN protected levels 1 to 4 (see Figure COA11 for information about their change in coverage). It shows the current state in 2014 and the change since 2010 in the percentage reserved. Coastal vegetation groups that are both low in extent and poorly protected (and therefore vulnerable) are Acacia Open Woodlands, and Acacia Forests and Woodlands (Figure COA17). Reduced protection has occurred for Chenopod Shrublands, and Samphire Shrublands and Forblands, which have had their protected areas reduced by more than 15 per cent since 2010.

Three current issues in coastal management are frameworks for integrated management, cumulative impact management and risk-based methods for prioritising management. These are discussed in the following sections, followed by a discussion of recent developments in approach and methods for coastal management.

Clark GF, Johnston EL (2016). Coasts: Coastal governance and management. In: Australia state of the environment 2016, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra,, DOI 10.4226/94/58b659bdc758b