Risk-based methods for prioritising management


Authorities charged with managing the coast are increasingly adopting risk-based methods to inform decision-making. In risk-based frameworks, the benefits derived from environmental assets are matched to the threats imposed by human use and, from this, the risks associated with various management decisions are deduced (Van den Brink et al 2016). Such an approach has recently been taken by the Marine Estate Management Authority of New South Wales (Jordan et al. 2016) and the Queensland Government (Brodie et al 2013). If successful, it is expected to become a common model for coastal management.

Advantages of risk-based methods are that:

  • environmental assets, benefits and pressures are clearly defined by the process
  • interests of all stakeholders can be used in decision-making; there are nearly always competing demands for coastal resources, and assessing benefits and threats to each stakeholder better enables appropriate consideration of each of these
  • risks can be minimised and benefits maximised.

Box COA11 Threat management in the New South Wales marine estate

The New South Wales Marine Estate Management Authority (MEMA), established in 2013, has taken a new approach to coastal management. The approach uses a threat and risk assessment framework, and aims to prioritise risks and maximise benefits to all sectors of the community.

Community surveys

People were surveyed to determine the benefits of, and threats to, the marine estate, as perceived by a broad cross-section of the community. The methods included:

  • a statewide community survey, including 36 in-depth interviews with marine estate interest and user groups, including peak recreational groups; the fishing, boating and tourism industries; local councils; 5 Indigenous coastal community representatives; and 7 regional focus groups (6 coastal, 1 central), with a representative sample of the community
  • a quantitative survey that involved more than 1000 residents (using an online survey), and more than 700 coastal residents and visitors (using field intercept surveys at 7 coastal locations)
  • targeted stakeholder workshops and an interactive web portal
  • targeted engagement with the Indigenous community in the Hawkesbury bioregion.

Benefits and threats

Table COA2 lists the main benefits and threats identified by the surveys.

Table COA2 Benefits of, and threats to, the coast identified by community surveys





  • Clean waters supporting a variety of habitats and marine life
  • Abundance of marine life
  • Uniqueness of marine life
  • A way to observe and interact with a variety of marine life
  • Littering/dumping of rubbish/marine debris
  • Oil and chemical spills
  • Water pollution from sediment or run-off


  • Enjoyment of natural beauty
  • Safe space for social activities
  • Opportunity for healthy and active lifestyle
  • Heritage and intrinsic values
  • Role in Indigenous culture, identity and traditions, especially in relation to resource use
  • Antisocial behaviour
  • Potential loss of appeal because of pollution/littering or overcrowding
  • Danger to swimmers from recreational activities such as boating and jetskiing
  • Lack of public access
  • Insufficient restrictions on commercial fishing
  • Gaps in management


  • Income provision
  • Iconic images that promote tourism
  • Variety of seafood to catch and eat
  • Water pollution affecting the viability of tourism
  • Loss of natural areas reserved for tourism
  • Increasing costs to access

MEMA agencies determined environmental assets by classifying habitat types within the marine estate, such as estuaries, coastal waters and rocky shores. They also determined a list of activities (e.g. shipping) that threaten these assets, and classified activities as driven by resource use, land use or climate change.

Risk assessment

Risk ratings for each ecosystem component were determined by MEMA agencies and independent experts. Risk considered relative impact and likelihood, in the context of environmental, social and economic benefit across a 20-year timeframe, assuming current management controls.

The main findings included the following:

  • Estuarine areas had a higher proportion of moderate and high risks than the continental shelf.
  • Risks to estuaries encompassed a broader range of threats than to the continental shelf; these included sediment and water contamination, dredging, recreational fishing and boating, and related infrastructure and shipping.
  • Many risks to social and economic benefit reflected conflict between uses of the marine estate (e.g. between recreational and commercial fishing), rather than being an overall threat.
  • The highest cumulative threats were access availability, climate change, effect of regulation, water pollution and sediment contamination, recreational and commercial fishing, recreation and tourism, foreshore and urban development, reduction in fish abundance, and habitat disturbance.


The threat and risk assessment framework, together with extensive surveys and consultation, provided an effective means of determining risk to the benefits the community derives from the New South Wales marine estate. Such an approach will continue to develop as it is applied at different spatial scales (e.g. marine parks) and to different management issues (e.g. pollution in estuaries). Improved integration of threats across social, economic and environmental areas will allow more transparency around the trade-offs that are often required in management decisions in marine and coastal areas.

Clark GF, Johnston EL (2016). Coasts: Risk-based methods for prioritising management. In: Australia state of the environment 2016, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra, https://soe.environment.gov.au/theme/coasts/topic/2016/risk-based-methods-prioritising-management, DOI 10.4226/94/58b659bdc758b