At a glance
Reporting on the current state and recent trends of the biological and ecological components of Australia’s marine environment is highly variable across Australia’s marine estate, and is often inadequate for robust assessment. There are few coordinated, sustained monitoring programs at the national level for the marine environment, and most monitoring is restricted to fisheries assessments and short-term programs in localised regions. Reporting also varies in terms of spatial and temporal coverage, parameters measured, methods used and key indicators. This results in varying certainty in the state and trends reported for the state of the environment (SoE) assessment.
Generally, habitats and communities in the Temperate East and the South-east marine regions have been subject to higher historical impacts, such as bottom-trawling impacts on shelf and slope communities, than those in other regions. The condition of habitats and communities in the Great Barrier Reef to the end of 2015 is considered to range from poor and deteriorating (corals) to good and stable (macroalgae, offshore banks and shoals). Large canopy-forming seaweeds are still prevalent in many locations around Australia, but increased water temperatures and range extension by the sea urchin Centrostephanus rodgersii in south-eastern Australia have led to the loss and overgrazing of kelp beds in temperate rocky reefs, resulting in a poor and deteriorating state and trend for this habitat. Giant kelp forests of south-eastern Australia were the first marine community to be listed as a threatened ecological community under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 in 2012.
Most species groups assessed are regarded to be in good condition overall, although information is lacking to assess the condition or trend of many species and species groups because they are not regularly monitored, if at all. Trends are stable or improving for most fish species, except inner shelf reef species, which are highly spatially variable—some are in good condition and stable, whereas others are in poor condition and deteriorating. Shelf demersal and benthopelagic fish species, while in poor condition, are considered as generally improving, with a few exceptions. Some species have improved from past declines (e.g. long-nosed fur seals, southern Great Barrier Reef green turtles, humpback whales, the eastern stock of orange roughy), and others are currently stable (e.g. mesopelagic and epipelagic fish species, shy albatross). Some species have declined because of cumulative impacts associated with high mortality from bycatch within fisheries, impacts associated with coastal nesting/breeding sites and climate change (e.g. flesh-footed shearwater, Australian sea lion, north Queensland hawksbill turtle, some demersal shark species).
Overall, the state of components of the marine environment identified in SoE 2011 as providing biophysical and ecological indicators of marine health shows the marine environment to be in good condition in 2016, although several indicators are highly spatially and temporally variable, and determining trends is difficult. Overall, on a national scale, water column turbidity in open-water environments has decreased; this is largely the result of improved wastewater treatment, reduced nutrient inputs, and improved management of agricultural practices and associated run-off. Observed reductions in primary and secondary productivity are considered to be associated with reduced nutrient supply because of ocean warming. Changes to ocean currents have affected connectivity within marine ecosystems, as observed through shifts in species distributions, especially in south-eastern Australia. There has been trophic (food chain) restructuring of some ecosystems as a result of commercial and recreational fishing, pollution, introduction of foreign species, and habitat modification. Some of these impacts are irreversible, but the effects are generally unknown. Introduced species, blooms and infestations of jellyfish and algae, diseases, and animal kills appear to be stable, whereas trends in crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks are unclear.
Australia’s marine environment encompasses the seabed; the water column; physical, biogeochemical and ecological processes that play an important role in shaping the marine environment; and habitats, communities and species groups, which all interact in highly complex ways.
The current state and trends of these components result from past and present pressures placed on them, their resilience (see Resilience for the definition of resilience used in this report), adaptation to the pressures, and any mitigating management frameworks.
Reporting on the current state and recent trends of Australia’s marine environment is highly variable, because the extent of available information differs across Australia’s marine estate. There are few coordinated, sustained biological monitoring programs at the national level for the marine environment, and most monitoring is restricted to fisheries assessments and short-term programs in localised regions. Information from such monitoring programs will therefore only reflect the state and trends of the marine environment at that site, and is unlikely to be indicative of larger regions. Reporting varies in terms of spatial and temporal coverage, parameters measured, methods used and key indicators. This results in varying certainty in the state and trends reported for the SoE assessment.
Several important exceptions to overall monitoring of the marine environment are highlighted here and detailed further in Sustained ocean monitoring. The IMOS National Reference Stations build on historical sampling for temperature, salinity and nutrients, and also provide observations of dissolved oxygen, carbon, turbidity, currents, chlorophyll a, phytoplankton and zooplankton at 7 key locations (originally 9) around the nation’s shelves (see Lynch et al. 2014). The IMOS national facilities provide sustained coverage of benthic communities, zooplankton and midwater pelagic fish. The Reef Life Survey brings together scientists, managers and citizen scientists across Australia to monitor shallow reef biodiversity (see Box MAR5). The Long-term Temperate Marine Protected Areas Monitoring Program and the Australian Institute of Marine Science have also been monitoring shallow reef locations across southern Australia and along the Great Barrier Reef, respectively, for more than 20 years. Some outputs from these programs are now integrated, encompassing 15 regions Australia-wide.The following section summarises expert-led assessments of marine habitats, communities and species groups; and physical, biogeochemical, biological and ecological processes in the marine environment for each marine region, using the format established in SoE 2011 (see also Approach). Many of the assessments draw on information from monitoring programs across jurisdictions, but also highlight the knowledge gaps for many components of the marine environment and the uncertainties associated with the information collected to date. For most components (habitats, communities and species groups), current state and recent trends have been summarised at the marine region level. However, direct comparisons between marine regions at the summary level are not made because of the varying spatial and temporal coverage of datasets between regions; the varying certainty for assessments undertaken; and inconsistencies in the variables measured, methods used and analyses undertaken in the monitoring of many habitats, communities, species groups, and physical, chemical, biological and ecological processes. For example, although 713 canyons have been mapped across Australia’s continental margin, information on the state of benthic communities that occupy these features has only been collected for a select few (see Kloser et al. 2014). Direct comparisons of the state of canyons across marine regions is not possible without making large assumptions about the state of canyons that have no information available. Detailed information on the state and trends of habitats, communities and species groups within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is in GBRMPA (2014a). Available regional updates are provided in the introductory text for each of the subsections in this part of the report, or in the case studies.
Box MAR5 National assessment of shallow reefs
The Reef Life Survey, supported by the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Programme, is using standardised monitoring methodology to provide a national assessment of shallow rocky and coral reef biodiversity (in waters less than 25 metres deep) around Australia’s coasts, and at offshore islands and reef systems (Figure MAR23). The survey gathers information on reef fishes; large mobile invertebrates such as sea urchins, crown-of-thorns starfish, lobsters and abalone; and habitat-forming seaweeds and corals. Results from the Australian surveys are directly comparable with global reef surveys conducted by the same organisation.
Current state of Australia’s shallow reefs
Australia’s shallow reefs are in good condition compared with those in many other countries, but substantial pressures have meant that the condition of many is deteriorating. Large areas of some iconic reefs, such as Ningaloo Reef and the Great Barrier Reef, have suffered from loss of coral habitat and predatory reef fishes because of human and environmental pressures since 2011 (Figure MAR24).
Pressures from recreational and commercial fisheries are particularly important for larger fish species and lobsters (e.g. Frisch et al. 2012, GBRMPA 2014a), whereas ocean warming is having widespread impacts on the composition of communities in temperate zones. The 2011 marine heatwave in Western Australia had a large impact on shallow-water reef biodiversity, with widespread coral bleaching in the North-west Marine Region, and loss of kelp habitats and changing fish communities in the South-west Marine Region (Pearce et al. 2011, Wernberg et al. 2016).
Cyclones and storms have also had substantial impacts on coral communities at Ningaloo Reef and parts of the Great Barrier Reef. Coral structures of the inner Great Barrier Reef have been adversely affected by siltation and nutrification. The impacts of crown-of-thorns starfish populations are variable across coral reefs. Introduced species and heavy metal pollution have had serious impacts on the rocky reefs of the Derwent Estuary in Tasmania and, to a lesser degree, in Port Phillip Bay, Victoria. There are healthy populations of large reef fishes at offshore and remote northern locations (see also Quality of habitats and communities and Species groups).
Marine protected areas (MPAs), fishery regulations, and improved catchment and waste management practices are the main management measures currently in place. Since 2011, more MPAs have been established across Australia’s marine estate, and management plans for these have been implemented, particularly in South Australia (see also Environment protection systems). Management associated with established MPAs is having positive effects in these areas. Improved regulations for many reef fisheries have been enacted. Nutrient inputs to the inshore environment are mostly declining because of sewerage infrastructure upgrades and improved catchment practices, although there have been localised increased loadings of nutrients associated with rapid expansion of fish farms in Tasmania (also see GBRMPA [2014a] for details about the impacts of nutrients on the Great Barrier Reef).
Accelerating deterioration is likely unless regulation of recreational fisheries improves. Storms, cyclones and mass coral bleaching events are less predictable, but increases in intensity (cyclones) and frequency (bleaching) are expected under many climate change scenarios.
How a national assessment can help track reef condition
Survey observations are now providing a comprehensive baseline for accurately assessing the spatial distribution of future trends. Establishment of national trends in changing patterns of inshore marine biodiversity will be facilitated through further roll-out of Reef Life Survey locations and the collection of longer timeseries in these locations.