Marine environment: 2011–16 in context


In the 5 years since SoE 2011, the marine environment has experienced several climate extremes, including one of the strongest La Niña events on record, in 2010–12, and the strongest El Niño event since 1998, in 2015–16 (see Interannual and subdecadal variability for a detailed description of ENSO). Variation in ocean temperatures and circulation associated with the La Niña event, superimposed on rising ocean temperatures associated with climate change, resulted in a marine heatwave (see Hobday et al. 2016 for a definition of such an event) off the Western Australian coast in 2011. The extended period of high ocean temperatures led to widespread bleaching of corals, loss of kelp forests, fish and invertebrate deaths, extensions and contractions in species distributions, variations in recruitment and growth rates, and impacts on trophic (food-chain) relationships and community structure. Cyclone Yasi, the strongest cyclone to make landfall in Queensland since at least 1918, also occurred during this La Niña period, causing widespread direct damage to central regions of the Great Barrier Reef, and resulting in high freshwater and sediment input into the coastal waters of the eastern seaboard because of associated widespread flooding (see also the Coasts report). The 2015–16 El Niño event, superimposed on an increasing baseline of ocean temperatures associated with climate change, resulted in the highest sea surface temperatures across the Great Barrier Reef on record. These extreme temperatures resulted in extensive coral bleaching and die-off, particularly across the northern regions. The conditions also caused a marine heatwave off the east coast of Tasmania from December 2015 to May 2016, the effects of which are yet to be determined.

There has been steady development in the National Representative System of Marine Protected Areas (NRSMPA) since 2011, especially in the Commonwealth marine area. In November 2012, 40 Commonwealth marine reserves (CMRs) were proclaimed in the South-west, North-west, North, Temperate East and Coral Sea marine regions, completing the NRSMPA in the Commonwealth marine area. The network was reproclaimed in December 2013, and the management plans for all regions except the South-east were set aside. The 10-year South-east Management Plan came into effect in 2013, with management under the Director of National Parks in accordance with the EPBC Act. A review of the new CMRs and how they were to be managed started in August 2014, and the associated reports were submitted to the Australian Government for consideration in December 2015. The review was released in August 2016, and revised management plans for each reserve are currently being developed by the Australian Government. New marine reserves declared across the states and the Northern Territory since January 2011 and reported in the 2014 Collaborative Australian Protected Area Database comprise reserves in the Northern Territory (675 square kilometres [km2]), Queensland (256 km2), Tasmania (31 km2) and Western Australia (10,055 km2). Management plans for South Australia’s marine reserve network were finalised in 2013.

In the fisheries sector, national assessment and reporting of key Australian fish stocks through a collaboration across all government fisheries agencies was initiated in 2012. This reporting framework provides, for the first time, national fishery-wide reporting. The aim is that, over time, the reports will consider other aspects of ecologically sustainable development, such as the effects of fishing on the marine environment, economic performance and governance. A second report was produced in 2014, expanding on the number of stocks assessed in 2012, and a third was released in December 2016. A national strategy for research, development and extension for fisheries and aquaculture (FRDC 2010) is in place under the broader National Primary Industries Research, Development and Extension Framework, which is a collaboration between Australian Government agencies, state and territory agencies, and key research providers. The Fisheries Research and Development Corporation Indigenous Reference Group released key research, development and extension principles in 2015. These were aimed at developing self-management structures for cultural fisheries and supporting sustainable development of traditional harvesting.

In the oil and gas sector, regulatory reform resulting from the commission of inquiry into the Montara oil spill led to the implementation of the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA) in 2012. Under the Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage Act 2006, NOPSEMA is responsible for national regulation of safety, oil well integrity, and environmental management of oil and gas operations in Australian waters and in coastal waters where powers have been conferred by the state or territory. With the implementation of NOPSEMA, there has been an increased level of scrutiny of offshore petroleum environmental management through assessment processes and compliance inspections. Investigation and enforcement powers for environmental management have also been strengthened, which has resulted in better understanding of the impacts of activities, greater focus on industry compliance and better preparedness for unplanned events.

Several significant changes to managing commercial vessels in Australian waters have been implemented since 2011 to increase environmental protection. These include:

  • designation of the Coral Sea Particularly Sensitive Sea Area
  • review of the National Plan for Maritime Environmental Emergencies
  • development of the North-East Shipping Management Plan.

The revised National Plan for Maritime Environmental Emergencies, released in 2014, provides a single national, comprehensive and integrated response arrangement for the management of maritime environmental emergencies. In particular, it details Australia’s implementation of provisions set out under the international conventions and agreements that Australia is party to with respect to management of maritime environmental emergencies. In addition, vessel routing measures have been implemented off Ningaloo Reef, the southern Great Barrier Reef and south-western Western Australia. The Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait vessel traffic service has also been extended.

The Intergovernmental Agreement on Biosecurity (IGAB)—an agreement between the Australian and all state and territory governments, except Tasmania—came into effect in 2012. It aims to strengthen the working partnership between governments; improve the national biosecurity system; and minimise the impact of pests and diseases on Australia’s economy, environment and the community. The marine sector applies the biosecurity principles and framework of the IGAB through a suite of measures, including management of international and domestic ballast water and biofouling.

The deteriorating condition of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, and concerns raised by a monitoring mission by the World Heritage Centre and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) triggered an assessment of this World Heritage property by the Australian and Queensland governments in 2014. As a result of this assessment, the Reef 2050 Long-term Sustainability Plan was developed, which aims to include all levels of government, the community, traditional owners, industry and the scientific community in the management of external pressures affecting the Reef. In association with the plan, a Reef-wide integrated monitoring and reporting program is currently being developed to measure the success of the sustainability plan and support adaptive management of the World Heritage Area.

A number of strategies focusing on conservation, biodiversity protection and sustainable development of Australia’s environment have also been released since 2011, including Australia’s Biodiversity Conservation Strategy 2010–2030, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s Science strategy and information needs 2014–2019 and the National Marine Science Plan 2015–2025. Each of these provides frameworks for coordinating research input to manage the marine environment.

At the same time, however, several formal frameworks facilitating national coordination between the Australian Government and the states and territories on marine science strategy and investment have been abandoned. These include the National Oceans Advisory Group, and the Marine and Coastal Committee of the Natural Resource Management Ministerial Council and its supporting National Marine Protected Area Working Group.

Government reviews and inquiries relating to the marine environment conducted during the past 5 years include:

  • a review of Australian Government fisheries legislation, policy and management in 2012
  • a review of the Australian Government policy on fisheries bycatch in 201213
  • 2 reviews of the CMRs in 2014–15
  • a Senate inquiry into the threat of marine plastic pollution in 2015–16
  • a Productivity Commission inquiry into the regulation of fisheries across Australia in 2016.
Evans K, Bax NJ, Smith DC (2016). Marine environment: Marine environment: 2011–16 in context. In: Australia state of the environment 2016, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra,, DOI 10.4226/94/58b657ea7c296