Key gaps in evaluating the marine environment


This report has highlighted a number of key gaps in our current ability to assess the state of the Australian marine environment. In this section, we summarise these key gaps and identify potential avenues by which they might be addressed. Progress in these areas would help to improve the assessments undertaken as part of the SoE process, and ensure that future SoE reports can provide a clearer indication of trends in the state of the marine environment and provide increased reliability of information to inform management.

Data provision and long-term, national-scale datasets

A recurrent theme throughout this report has been the difficulty in determining state and trend with high certainty because of an overall lack of consistent ongoing monitoring of the marine environment at a national scale. There are exceptions to this, including components of the physical environment (e.g. temperature), some pressures (e.g. commercial vessels), some commercially fished stocks and a few timeseries for biodiversity, such as shallow reefs. This lack of ongoing consistent monitoring is a significant issue that contributes to many of the policy and management challenges highlighted in this report. The National Marine Science Plan recommends establishing and supporting a National Marine Baselines and Long-term Monitoring Program, to develop a comprehensive assessment of our estate, and to help manage Commonwealth and state marine reserves.

The lack of data stems from 2 sources: data and information that have not been collected (usually because of a lack of resources and capacity), and data and information that are not available (i.e. data streams collected but not currently made publicly available). Systems are now available to provide for public access to data—for example, the Australian Ocean Data Network (AODN) (for metadata and actual data) and the various ‘atlases’, such as eAtlas and the Atlas of Living Australia (for spatial maps and derived data products). Unfortunately, many research agencies are not providing their data and associated products in a format that supports direct access. This reduces our capacity to analyse and compare data, and identify trends.

Several recommendations made in the reviews of the Commonwealth marine reserves (Beeton et al. 2015, Buxton & Cochrane 2015) and the draft report of the Productivity Commission inquiry into the regulation of fisheries (PC 2016) highlight areas in which data provision could be improved. These have relevance to the SoE reporting framework and should also be highlighted here. They include:

  • improved reporting of interactions with protected species that is publicly accessible (online)
  • regular surveys of recreational fishing either nationally or on a coordinated basis across states and territories, to better understand the impacts of recreational fishing and inform management
  • maintenance of existing marine research and monitoring data in the long term
  • making marine research and monitoring data readily accessible to the scientific community, reserve managers and other relevant users for input into management. This should include ensuring that approvals and funding for research and monitoring activities require that the raw data and metadata be made publicly accessible through the AODN
  • continued support of IMOS and the AODN.

Research providers should be encouraged to ensure that their data and associated products are made available online (without compromising proprietary or commercial-in-confidence information) through infrastructure such as the AODN, eAtlas and the Atlas of Living Australia, including historical data wherever possible. Data holders across the research and industry communities should also be encouraged to make their datasets and derived products publicly available in a timely way. Expansion of IMOS by establishing sustained funding for other existing long-term or comprehensive biological monitoring programs, including the Reef Life Survey, and additional nationally agreed priorities would further build up datasets on the marine environment at the national scale. Regular reporting of progress in archiving data could be facilitated through quarterly reporting undertaken by the National Marine Science Committee.

Making relevant data and derived products available in a timely fashion would support more efficient and effective approvals and licensing; allow monitoring of the footprint of industries over time and better understanding of pressures on the marine environment; and support regional assessments of the state of the environment. Provision of such data in standard format could be facilitated by making it a requirement of public funding and environmental approval processes.

Standardised indicators for monitoring the marine environment

Current monitoring of many indicators is often not spatially and temporally comprehensive enough, nor sustained for long enough, to capture dynamics in a robust manner. As a result, determining the trends of these indicators is difficult, if not impossible. Methods used for identifying, measuring and monitoring indicators can vary between systems and researchers, resulting in data that may not be meaningful for identifying state or trends at national scales. Although there is sometimes justification for local variation in monitoring approaches to meet local needs and development, there is typically always some level at which monitoring can be designed to contribute to regional and national comparisons. Therefore, there is a need to identify a standard set of biological and physical indicators. There is also the need to provide standard operational approaches to collecting information on these indicators that will adequately and robustly measure resource status and system health, and allow meaningful comparisons between regions, nationally and across SoE reporting periods.

SoE reporting on the marine environment provides a context for determining indicators that are common across marine ecosystems and can be monitored in a consistent manner, along with related initiatives such as the Reef 2050 Integrated Monitoring and Reporting Program Strategy. The GOOS provides international standards and measurement standards for a set of agreed essential ocean variables, which can be used to inform decision-making.

Integrated approaches to understanding cumulative impacts

The sectoral approach to marine management in Australia will often not account for the additive or multiplicative effects of the activities of different sectors on the environment, nor the potential conflict between different sectors. The lack of an agreed and integrated approach to managing multiple uses in the marine environment contributes to a continuing lack of capacity to identify and measure multiple impacts, and reduces the potential for coordinated approaches to their management. This could result in gradual declines in the state of the marine environment, despite appropriate management of individual pressures, sectors or jurisdictions. Many management plans do not currently build the resilience of marine ecosystems, and environmental approval processes currently lack means by which proposals can be assessed in terms of addressing multiple stressors.

A real need exists to define and map cumulative impacts of activities across sectors and jurisdictions, supported by spatially explicit information on habitats, communities and species groups, human uses, pressures generated by human uses, and any feedbacks within the system. Providing this integrated scientific knowledge would support complementary management, where each sector has the information to develop more robust assessments of options for addressing triple-bottom-line outcomes, and clearer guidance on appropriate monitoring of performance against the agreed outcomes. This enables each sector to understand the additional impact of their own activities now and in the future, and to identify where cross-sectoral cooperation is required to produce an improved outcome for multiple sectors. The National Marine Science Plan recommends developing a dedicated and coordinated science program to support decision-making by policy-makers and the marine industry.

Robust risk assessment frameworks

Risk assessments currently incorporated into SoE reports are largely based on best judgement using available information. If the SoE report is to meet its aims in identifying areas of concern, thereby providing useful information for managing the marine environment, it would benefit from the incorporation of robust risk assessment frameworks. Ecological risk assessment methods are available to identify known residual risks in a quantitative and often hierarchical framework, and can play a central role in an adaptive management process. Classification of residual risks using such frameworks would build confidence in assessments of residual risk and in identification of areas for improved future management effectiveness.

Evans K, Bax NJ, Smith DC (2016). Marine environment: Key gaps in evaluating the marine environment. In: Australia state of the environment 2016, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra,, DOI 10.4226/94/58b657ea7c296