Australia’s marine environment is the world’s third largest marine jurisdiction, at 13.86 million square kilometres. It is home to a diverse array of marine species, many of which occur nowhere else in the world. Our oceans also contribute to the lifestyle of many Australians, 85 per cent of whom live within 100 kilometres of the ocean. Oceans are an important and essential component of sea and land cultural practice for Indigenous communities. Our ocean species directly and indirectly support commercial fisheries and aquaculture, worth $2.5 billion in 2013–14. The economic value of resources extracted from our oceans is expected to more than double by 2029–30; by 2025, marine industries are expected to contribute around $100 billion each year to Australia’s overall economy. Australian species and our natural marine treasures—such as the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland, Lord Howe Island in New South Wales, the Great Australian Bight in South Australia and Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia—stand as icons of Australia’s national identity and support important revenue from marine tourism. Importantly, our oceans and coasts provide a further $25 billion worth of essential ecosystem services, such as carbon dioxide absorption, nutrient cycling and coastal protection.
Our oceans are subject to many varied pressures driven by increasing use of ocean resources and human-driven environmental change. Several pressures that, historically, have had substantial impacts on the marine environment, such as commercial fishing, and oil and gas exploration, are now decreasing because of economic pressures and management frameworks put in place to ensure future sustainability and environmental protection. Management frameworks for the traditional use of marine resources and recreational fishing are also improving, but from a lower base. Several pressures, such as those associated with climate change and marine debris, continue to increase, largely in association with limited management. Climate extremes since the last state of the environment (SoE) report in 2011 have led to widespread coral bleaching, loss of kelp forests, habitat destruction and invertebrate mortalities in both western and eastern waters of Australia. Although the overall status of habitats, communities and species groups may be good, there are individual species and habitats that remain in poor condition or are declining. Trends in many marine habitats, communities, species groups, processes and listed species remain unclear, thereby limiting the power of assessments conducted by successive SoE reports.
The outlook for the marine environment, given the current pressures and management frameworks in place to mitigate these pressures, is clearly mixed. Many improvements to management frameworks across Australian Government and state and territory jurisdictions, including the implementation of new national regulators, have provided beneficial outcomes for the marine environment. However, efforts continue to be poorly coordinated across sectors and jurisdictions. The lack of recognition of multiple pressures on marine resources and coordinated approaches to managing these pressures has the potential to result in gradual declines, despite appropriate management of the individual pressure, sector or jurisdiction. Thus, many management plans do not currently support building the resilience of marine ecosystems. Improved monitoring and reporting of marine ecosystems that build on current observing programs, such as the Integrated Marine Observing System, the Long-term Temperate Marine Protected Area Monitoring Program and the Australian Institute of Marine Science Long-term Monitoring Program, will be required to satisfy future stakeholder and public expectations, and support future assessments made under the SoE reporting framework. Further development and implementation of management options that are robust to future changes in marine ecosystems would minimise risks to our existing natural assets and human uses, and maximise new opportunities, especially across climate-sensitive industries such as fisheries and energy. Addressing challenges for the marine environment as we look to the future will require a coordinated, collaborative and dedicated effort involving researchers, government, industry and the Australian community. Key gaps in current capacity to undertake national assessments of the marine environment are outlined, and potential solutions are provided that may substantially improve future SoE reporting.