Coastal heritage


The section should be read in conjunction with the Heritage report. Much of the data in the Heritage report include the coastal zone, so it is summarised here and readers are directed to the Heritage report for detail.

Coastal heritage includes places, items, practices, observations, customs and lores important to the historical, natural and cultural values of the coast. Heritage is intrinsically dependent on knowledge, as this is required to attach significance to an item or place. Collating and maintaining appropriate documentation for all facets of heritage is a major challenge in solidifying the value of coastal heritage through time.

We describe 2 important case studies relating to the documentation of coastal heritage since 2011:

  • improved understanding and recognition of Indigenous coastal heritage in New South Wales
  • incorporation of heritage values into Great Barrier Reef reporting and planning.

Coastal Indigenous heritage in New South Wales

In the past, documentation on coastal heritage in New South Wales has been largely eurocentric, focusing on shipwrecks, buildings and sites of significance to early European colonisation. There has been some inclusion of Indigenous middens and sites with Indigenous art, but documentation has seldom been representative of the nature, depth and richness of Indigenous heritage. This is in contrast to northern parts of Australia, where Indigenous heritage has received more attention.

Recent efforts have sought to improve this, with a report commissioned by the New South Wales Marine Estate Management Authority to examine Indigenous heritage in relation to the coast and sea (Feary 2015). The report found that the main benefits of the New South Wales marine estate to Indigenous people are cultural connection and cultural identity associated with resource use. Marine resources are not only a food source for Indigenous people, they are a mechanism through which a range of socio-cultural behaviours and protocols shape modern Indigenous society. In particular, community harvesting of resources is an integral part of maintaining cultural identity, as it encourages people to congregate on the coast and pass on traditional knowledge within and between generations.

In 2013, the New South Wales Government released a model for standalone Indigenous cultural heritage legislation (State of NSW & OEH 2013). This was delivered after extensive consultation with stakeholders and the community and advice from the independent Aboriginal Culture and Heritage Reform Working Party. The proposed new model aims to improve the identification of important objects, provide more effective protection for cultural assets and higher penalties for breaches of the proposed Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act, and achieve better integration of cultural heritage in planning processes.

Other recent advances in New South Wales include:

  • Indigenous cultural heritage, including legal recognition of ‘cultural fishing’
  • special zoning in marine parks
  • greater participation in decision-making.

Heritage of the Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef outlook report 2014 was the first in the series to include a chapter on heritage values. This was in response to the 2008 amendment of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975, and recommendations by the World Heritage Committee in 2012.

The report organised heritage values into 6 groups, and captures the following components:

  • Indigenous heritage values—cultural practices, observations, customs, lores, sacred sites, sites of significance, places of cultural tradition, stories, songlines, totems, languages, Indigenous structures, technology, tools and archaeology
  • historic heritage values—historic voyages, shipwrecks, historic lighthouses, World War 2 features and sites, other places of historical significance
  • other heritage values—places of social, aesthetic and scientific significance
  • World Heritage values—natural beauty and natural phenomena, places reflecting major stages of Earth’s evolutionary history, ecological and biological processes, and habitats for conservation of biodiversity
  • Commonwealth heritage values—military training areas, lighthouses and islands
  • natural heritage values—biodiversity and ecosystem function.

The report found that, in general, heritage values of the Great Barrier Reef were poorly documented and understood. This is likely to improve with increased inclusion of heritage in planning and outlook reporting.

The Traditional Use of Marine Resource Agreements outline management practices relating to traditional use of included regions. These agreements are formed by Great Barrier Reef traditional owner groups in partnership with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the Queensland Government and the Australian Government.


Pressures on coastal heritage include the pressures outlined for the coastal environment. Coastal development is threatening to remove or degrade sites of natural heritage, although protection is generally increasing. Effects of climate change will accelerate the degradation of any historic artefacts and change the character of natural heritage values. In particular, predicted sea level rise would see many sites of coastal heritage inundated, often with no options for relocation. In addition to pressures on the environment, coastal heritage is pressured by activities or policies that reduce the capacity of Indigenous coastal communities to continue their cultural practices, including their observations, customs, lores, stories, songlines, totems and languages.

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