Sustainability and sector management


Managing for externalities

Climate variability and longer-term change

Australia is a world leader in the understanding of climate systems and climate change as a result of strong collaborations and partnerships between research institutes and agencies, both nationally and internationally. Changes to marine systems associated with climate variability on seasonal, interannual, decadal and longer timescales are well understood, and the anticipated changes, particularly to physical systems, as a result of ongoing climate change are relatively well known. The effects on biological systems are less well known. The rate of change, interactions between the changing components of the environment and, therefore, the extent of change are dependent on future changes in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions (i.e. reduction, no change or increase), which are unknown.

The Climate Change Authority, established by the Australian Government in 2011 under the Climate Change Authority Act 2011, is tasked with providing independent advice on climate change policies, and undertaking reviews and making recommendations on:

  • emissions reduction targets and carbon budgets
  • the Renewable Energy Target
  • the Carbon Farming Initiative
  • the National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting System.

Although the Australian Government is required to respond to reports released by the authority, there is no obligation to follow its recommendations.

Internationally, Australia participates in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol that was developed in 1997 under this framework. Australia signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1998, and ratified the protocol 10 years later in 2007. Under the Kyoto Protocol, Australia was required to limit its average annual greenhouse gas emissions in 2008–12 to 108 per cent of its emissions in 1990.

In response to obligations under the Kyoto Protocol, Australia has a framework for reporting of greenhouse gases, and has set goals for the reduction of greenhouse gases to 5 per cent below 2000 levels by 2020, and 26–28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. More recently, Australia committed to the global agreement for climate action post-2020, which was concluded at the Conference of the Parties (COP21). The agreement has a global goal to hold average temperature increase to well below 2 °C and pursue efforts to keep warming below 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels (see also the Atmosphere report).

Understanding of the impacts of climate variability and climate change on the economic benefits and cultural values of the marine environment for Australia is limited. Several products have been developed for use in developing processes to manage the impacts of climate variability;8 however, these are relatively few, and the explicit incorporation of climate variability and climate change into most management frameworks is currently lacking. This is partly because of the complexity of responses of the marine environment to climate variability and climate change (Davidson et al. 2013, Creighton et al 2015).

Legislation providing frameworks to directly address the impacts of climate variability or climate change are lacking across most jurisdictions, except for Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia. Each of these states has specific legislation aimed at addressing, mitigating or adapting to climate change (or any combination of these). Current assessments of management frameworks in place and their ability to contribute to global efforts to address climate change vary, with many considering that frameworks will need to be redesigned to meet current and any additional targets Australia might commit to in the future (e.g. Wood et al. 2015). Technological change and innovation will be crucial to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the future (e.g. CSIRO 2015).

Commercial fishing

With the acknowledgement that development of industries within the marine environment needs to consider the environment and aim to achieve sustainability goals, understanding of the direct pressures on the marine environment from commercial fishing has increased. In response, in the past decade, fisheries management across all jurisdictions has introduced one or more measures to address the pressures that are increasingly based on risk assessment and implement a management response. These include harvest strategies for the main commercial species (see also Box MAR8), adaptive management involving expert judgement for both target and bycatch species, quantitative management strategy evaluation, ecosystem modelling, and broader ecological risk assessments.

In most fisheries, management and policy actions implemented during the past decade have led to industry restructuring and licence buybacks, resulting in progressive effort reduction (e.g. Figure MAR36; see also Box MAR2). Restructuring of fisheries in Australian waters has been associated with productivity increases, primarily because of the departure of less productive vessels, but also because of improvements in the remaining operators’ ability to pursue productivity improvements to offset increased input costs (e.g. fuel and business overheads) and reduced competition among the remaining operators because of reductions in fleets (Stephan & Vieira 2013).

Spatial management has been introduced to mitigate the impacts of commercial fishing on vulnerable species and habitats (e.g. gulper shark closures in the Southern and Eastern Scalefish and Shark Fishery [AFMA 2012], the introduction of gillnet zoning closures to limit interactions with the Australian sea lion [AFMA 2015]). Similarly, spatial closures have been implemented that specifically prohibit commercial trawling within seagrass and other sensitive nursery habitats that are often used for many commercial fisheries—for example, the Shark Bay and Exmouth Gulf prawn trawl fisheries in Western Australia.

Closures of areas to fisheries have also been implemented in recent years by the Australian Government and the states. Although many of these measures were not specifically intended to reduce commercial fishing effort or the footprint of commercial fisheries (e.g. PIRSA 2013), some have effectively achieved this, and the recovery of affected sensitive fauna is expected as a result.

Of 53 countries (making up 95 per cent of global commercial fisheries catches) assessed, and based on 14 indicators of resource management, Australia’s commercial fisheries management was ranked equal fourth overall and second in terms of sustainability (Alder & Pauly 2008).

Management of bycatch species varies across jurisdictions, reflecting inconsistencies in the level of reporting and understanding of the impacts of commercial fishing on bycatch species (see Commercial fishing under Pressures affecting the marine environment). In general, management of bycatch of protected species is more developed than management of species that are not protected. AFMA has developed fishery-specific work plans to address bycatch of high-risk and protected species in commercial fisheries managed by the Australian Government. Some states have developed management strategies that account for bycatch species in state commercial fisheries (e.g. NSW DPI 2006). Specific mitigation measures addressing the bycatch of protected species have been implemented across both Commonwealth, and state and territory commercial fisheries—these include seal and turtle excluder devices, square mesh panels in trawls, tori lines, and other seabird-deterrent devices. Education programs aimed at the commercial fishing industry provide a greater understanding of how to avoid and/or handle protected species (e.g. the code of practice for mitigating operational interactions between the South Australian sardine fishery and dolphins [Hamer et al. 2009], the guide for looking after protected species in Queensland [DEEDI 2010]). Targeted research programs aimed at reducing interactions have also been introduced in some regions (e.g. Fletcher & Santoro 2015).

Risk assessments carried out on commercial fisheries have identified a suite of byproduct and bycatch species that are not currently managed directly as being at risk from commercial fishing across a broad range of habitats (Hobday et al. 2011). Often, management of bycatch is approached on a fishery-by-fishery and jurisdictional basis, rather than being integrated across fisheries and jurisdictions. Species that are captured by several fisheries may be better managed by a single set of arrangements, rather than fishery-specific rules set up across different jurisdictions (Hobday et al. 2011).

The combined improvements through the implementation of the National Fishing and Aquaculture Research, Development and Extension Strategy, sharing of methods for assessing and managing fisheries, and a national approach to regularly reporting commercial fishery performance enable better targeting of limited resources to those areas where commercial fisheries pose the highest risk to the marine environment.

Since 2011, 2 important reviews of commercial fisheries called for by the Australian Government have occurred: the Review of Commonwealth fisheries: legislation, policy and management (Borthwick 2012), and an inquiry by the Productivity Commission into the regulatory burden imposed on the Australian marine fisheries and aquaculture sectors under parts 2 and 3 of the Productivity Commission Act 1998 (PC 2016; see also Recreational fishing and Traditional use of marine resources). In addition, the report on the review of the Commonwealth Policy on Fisheries Bycatch was released (DAFF 2013b).

The review of Commonwealth fisheries management identified that the approach to management had been progressively adapted and refined to address a historical legacy of weak regulation. This resulted in chronic overfishing, which threatened the viability of many fishers and regional communities, and was indifferent to environmental consequences. The management framework was found to be well thought out, with a careful assessment of risks, both commercial and to the marine ecosystem (Borthwick 2012). The review made recommendations targeted at areas of management that needed improvement, including that there be clearer policy settings associated with target species (through the Commonwealth Harvest Strategy Policy), minimising effects on nontarget species (through the bycatch and discards policy) and safeguarding the broader marine ecosystem.

The review of the Commonwealth Policy on Fisheries Bycatch found that management actions on the whole had contributed to good bycatch management; however, it was difficult to assess the performance of the bycatch policy, and associated outcomes and trends. The review recommended that, in revising the policy (DAFF 2013b):

  • a new definition of bycatch should be implemented that applies to noncommercial species
  • effective monitoring and evaluation protocols should be developed
  • the bycatch policy should be integrated with the Harvest Strategy Policy to facilitate seamless management of commercial species, and byproduct and bycatch species
  • current policy objectives and implementation guidelines should be strengthened.

To address the issue of cumulative impacts on bycatch species, the identification of approaches to assessing and managing cumulative impacts was recommended as a priority (DAFF 2013b).

The draft report from the Productivity Commission inquiry into the regulation of Australian marine fisheries and aquaculture sectors was released in August 2016 (PC 2016). The report identified that, although fisheries policy had generally been successful in improving the sustainability of fisheries, there were still several issues that management of fisheries (commercial, recreational and Indigenous) across all jurisdictions could improve on. For commercial fisheries, issues included general use of inefficient and outdated management methods, and variable adoption of best-practice management techniques across jurisdictions. These were regarded as inhibiting the introduction of more cost-effective practices and introducing risks to the sustainability of cross-jurisdictional stocks.

Recommendations made by the Productivity Commission in relation to commercial fisheries included:

  • movement of management to transferable quota systems, as a default position, which would result in fewer constraints on fishing practice, and provide a more efficient and effective means of adhering to harvest limits
  • regular reviews of fishing regulations to ensure that they can continue to meet policy objectives
  • accounting for impacts of other sectors on the commercial fishing sector
  • reform of the management of cross-jurisdictional fisheries, including regular reviews of management to ensure that they remain fit for purpose
  • dissolution of boundaries for cross-jurisdictional stocks through active cooperation
  • introduction of clearer regulatory and reporting standards for protected species
  • greater delegation of operational decision-making to fishery managers, thereby increasing efficiencies
  • clearer policies on co-management of fisheries.

At the time of writing, public submissions of input to the draft were still open, with the final report to be released in December 2016.

It should be noted that clear benefits of developing management systems based on transferable quotas have been identified for many years (Grafton 1996, Squires et al. 1998); however, several reservations have also been raised about the use of such a management tool (e.g. Smith et al. 2009, Parslow 2010). At their essence, individual transferable quotas are an incentive-based fisheries management tool that uses economic self-interest to promote economic efficiencies, but by themselves do not ensure sustainability (Parslow 2010). Careful design of such systems is required if they are to be used as part of a broad ecosystem management framework (Grafton 1996, Sumaila 2010).

Recreational fishing

Recreational fisheries catch more than 1160 species, 245 of which are commercially fished within Australian Government–managed fisheries (Griffiths & Pepperell 2006). Currently, a range of controls are used to manage recreational catches of marine species, including combinations of access restrictions, closed areas, closed seasons, restrictions on gear types, daily bag limits, minimum and/or maximum size limits, and possession limits. Varying degrees of licensing of recreational fishing are in place across jurisdictions, which range from general fishing licences to activity-specific or species-specific licences, to none at all. Licensing frameworks, when implemented, provide a database of recreational fishers for targeted surveys to monitor the responses of recreational fishers to changing fisheries management. These databases can also be used to disseminate information to recreational fishers, including information on regulations and changes to those regulations, and for targeted education purposes.

Input controls placed on recreational fishing are known to only weakly control the effort placed into fishing and the overall extent of harvest (Sutinen & Johnson 2003). In some cases, where commercial and recreational fisheries overlap, conflict can be created where there is disparity between the 2 sectors in requirements for reporting of catch, controls on the extent of catch and access to particular species (Brown 2016). Direct approaches to reducing this conflict are sparse, although, recently, defined areas have been closed to commercial fishing with the aim of supporting recreational fishing across Queensland and Victoria. How effective these closures might be in supporting the objectives of providing recreational fishers with ‘more and bigger fish’ is unclear, because they only close areas to specific types of commercial fisheries, are not integrated within formal spatial management frameworks and are not supported by any monitoring frameworks. Further, by increasing access to recreational fishers, they potentially support higher harvesting rates than had previously occurred, particularly in the case of species for which recreational catches are similar to, or higher than, commercial catches (Brown 2016).

In Western Australia, catches within some fisheries are allocated between the commercial, recreational, aquaculture and traditional-use sectors, with the total harvest level across all groups not exceeding the allowable harvest level. If the harvest level is exceeded, steps are taken to reduce the harvest within each sector. For example, when the stock assessment for the west coast Australian herring indicated low stock abundance resulting from environmental factors and fishing pressure, the daily bag limit of Australian herring for recreational fishers was reduced to assist stock recovery (Ryan et al. 2015).

A National Recreational Fishing Survey was done in 2000–01, which was the first to be conducted across all state and territory jurisdictions (Henry & Lyle 2003). The survey provided regional, jurisdictional and national breakdowns of social, sport and economic components of recreational fishing—invaluable information to guide the management of particular species.

Although a similar nationwide assessment has not been conducted since, several jurisdiction-level surveys of recreational fishing have been conducted (Table MAR8). These have a continued emphasis on collecting catch and effort data, and, to a lesser extent, social, behavioural and economic information. However, although all jurisdictions have a formal focus on recreational fisheries management capacity and planning, there has been little, if any, coordination of surveys between jurisdictions. The result has been a discontinuous dataset in space and time for assessing recreational fishing at the national level.

Table MAR8 Timeline of recreational fishing surveys conducted in Australia, 2000–16








































P-D (B)

P-D (B)

P-D (B)

– = no survey; ACT = Australian Capital Territory; L = licensed fisher survey; NSW = New South Wales; NT = Northern Territory; P-D = phone-diary survey; P-D (B) = phone-diary (boat-based fishing) survey; Qld = Queensland; SA = South Australia; Tas = Tasmania; Vic = Victoria; WA = Western Australia

Source: Griffiths et al. (2014), Georgeson et al. (2015a)

One of the shortcomings of the National Recreational Fishing Survey was that, given its broadscale nature, it did not provide fine-scale information required for some decision-making processes at the jurisdictional level (Henry & Lyle 2003). In response, appropriate methods for a national approach were assessed for recreational fishing, aggregating available datasets to provide an update to the survey, providing relevant information for jurisdictions and assessing fish stocks, including commercial and recreational catches, across jurisdictions (Griffiths et al. 2014). The assessment found that it was not possible to aggregate jurisdictional datasets in a statistically defensible way to produce reliable national estimates in any given year. Consequently, it was recommended that, to improve recreational fishing data at the national level, another national survey should be undertaken or that coordination between jurisdictions should be improved. Subsequently, further work to identify best-practice methods to conduct national recreational fishing surveys has been performed (Georgeson et al. 2015a).

At the same time, the Status of key Australian fish stocks reports released in 2012 (FRDC 2012) and 2014 (Flood et al. 2014) have attempted to include recreational fishing data, where available, in assessments of the status of key wild-caught fish stocks. Additionally, in some jurisdictions (e.g. Western Australia), formal harvest strategy policies have been adopted that specifically include recreational fishing and allocation issues, providing for more comprehensive assessments of relevant stocks both within and across jurisdictions. Other jurisdictions, while progressing management frameworks towards more comprehensive harvest strategies that include recreational catches in stock assessments of target species, are yet to implement such frameworks.

An objective of the Australian Government’s Policy for a More Competitive and Sustainable Fisheries Sector (August 2013) is to conduct national recreational fishing surveys every 5 years. The objective is yet to be implemented, and no clear timeline for such a survey has been articulated, nor is it clear who will coordinate such a survey.

Issues relating to the management of recreational fishing were highlighted by the inquiry by the Productivity Commission into the regulation of the Australian marine fisheries and aquaculture sectors (PC 2016). These included:

  • a weak understanding of the impacts of essentially unmanaged recreational fishing on high-value fish stocks
  • sporadic monitoring of recreational fishing
  • lack of accounting of impacts of recreational fishing on stock sustainability in fishery management regimes.

Recommendations on the management of recreational fishing made by the Productivity Commission in its draft report included:

  • expanding licensing systems across the board and making better use of such licensing systems in fisheries management
  • implementing harvest tagging systems for at-risk species when conventional management controls are ineffective in achieving sustainability goals
  • increasing understanding of postrelease survival rates and associated methods for deepwater fisheries
  • strengthening penalty regimes to increase compliance
  • implementing regular standardised recreational fishing surveys.

The report also highlighted for consideration (PC 2016):

  • greater recognition of recreational fishing catches in fisheries management
  • development of a sound evidence base for decisions on restrictions and facilities for recreational fishing
  • allocation of access where competition for fisheries resources occurs across commercial, recreational and Indigenous fishing.
Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing

Australia is a signatory to several international conventions and is a member of several regional fishery management organisations in which illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is a major focus (e.g. Agnew 2000). A National plan of action to prevent, deter and eliminate illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing has been developed, which aligns with the International plan of action to prevent, deter and eliminate illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing adopted by members of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in 2001 (FAO 2001). In 2015, the Australian Government ratified the United Nations FAO Port State Measures Agreement. Parties to this agreement are required to act against vessels and operators suspected of IUU fishing, by denying entry into ports and preventing access to markets for illegally caught fish.

All jurisdictions have fishery compliance regulations in place across both commercial and recreational fisheries. They employ fishery officers, or have arrangements with police, to enforce fisheries regulations. Education programs aimed at increasing knowledge of fisheries regulations operate across commercial and recreational fisheries. The National Fisheries Compliance Committee of the Australian Fisheries Management Forum, which brings together Australian Government, state and Northern Territory fisheries agencies, has developed a National Compliance Strategy that outlines objectives for pursuing and promoting voluntary compliance, and creates effective deterrents to illegal fishing activity (NFCC 2010). The strategy aims to achieve collective responsibility and stewardship across the commercial, recreational and Indigenous fishing sectors. AFMA has also done considerable work in response to recommendations made under an external audit to improve and manage noncompliance with commercial fisheries regulations in Australian waters (ANAO 2009, 2013).

The inquiry into the regulation of the Australian marine fisheries and aquaculture sectors highlighted more accessible processes for the sharing of information on illegal fishing and strengthened processes for following up on illegal fishing reports as areas requiring further action (PC 2016).

Traditional use of resources

Because of the dispersed and sporadic nature of traditional harvesting, building community endorsement for long-term monitoring programs is often a complex and sensitive process. Community initiatives for monitoring and managing traditional harvest are highly diverse because of the specific local context for planning, management and conservation. Determining whether traditional harvest is sustainable should be assessed on a case-by-case community basis, given the wider ecological and pressure conditions within an area. It is important to consider the state of the harvested population, the state of supporting habitats, the range of threats, and controls to limit human impacts.

The most effective planning approaches are built from cooperative relationships between Indigenous communities and other stakeholder partners (Hill et al. 2012). The recent inquiry into the regulation of the Australian marine fisheries and aquaculture sectors identified cooperative approaches to the management of customary fishing rights as a key recommendation (PC 2016). Across Australia, a variety of cooperative management and planning processes address Indigenous resource use. Planning approaches include:

  • Traditional Use of Marine Resource Agreements, which are a statutory arrangement for establishing partnerships between the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and Indigenous communities that live adjacent to the marine park (Dobbs 2007)
  • the Protected Zone Joint Authority process in Torres Strait (Butler et al. 2012)
  • the Nature Conservancy’s Conservation Action Planning tool, which uses regular monitoring of specified indicators to inform planning in Indigenous communities (Moorcroft 2012).

In northern Australia, Indigenous-driven planning for the traditional use of marine resources has targeted the development of community plans for the traditional harvest of dugongs and marine turtles (NAILSMA 2009; see also Box MAR10). Marine parks in Western Australia are increasingly being jointly managed by the Western Australian Government and Indigenous communities (R Evans, Department of Parks and Wildlife, pers. comm., 7 July 2016).

In the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, as part of a Traditional Use of Marine Resource Agreement, traditional owners are required to monitor, record and report traditional harvest activities. Since SoE 2011, the workforce of Indigenous rangers has grown around Australia, which has increased the on-ground capacity for monitoring the traditional take (e.g. GBRMPA 2011, DPIF 2013; see also Box MAR9). In the Northern Territory, Indigenous rangers record information on the loss or return of marine species such as fish, dugong and turtles in their patrol areas (DPIF 2013). Kimberley coastal communities are also developing and implementing monitoring and evaluation frameworks (Jackson et al. 2015), and there is wide-scale involvement of Indigenous rangers in monitoring programs in Torres Strait (Johnson et al. 2015, TSRA 2016).

Coastal Indigenous communities are at very different developmental stages in implementing and evaluating community-based management strategies. Even with increased effort dedicated to Indigenous natural and cultural resource management, results of management strategies put in place have been mixed, with many projects falling well short of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous expectations (Barbour & Schlesinger 2012). A limited number of the initiatives have had an in-depth evaluation. Currently, there is incomplete assessment of the effectiveness of these initiatives for improved sustainable management, since potential change in traditional harvesting practices is not consistently monitored. As such, possible improvements remain poorly described, and management strategies are not updated with monitoring information. There has been a push towards improved evaluation through assessing performance outcomes in the work plans of Indigenous rangers (DSEWPAC 2012e). More effective input of traditional harvest and involvement of Indigenous contributors in fisheries management systems have been identified as key recommendations by the Productivity Commission in relation to regulation of fisheries across Australia (PC 2016).

Torres Strait Regional Authority rangers in collaboration with traditional owners play a vital role in monitoring marine turtle populations and associated research that addresses community priorities

Torres Strait Regional Authority rangers in collaboration with traditional owners play a vital role in monitoring marine turtle populations and associated research that addresses community priorities

Torres Strait Regional Authority rangers in collaboration with traditional owners play a vital role in monitoring marine turtle populations and associated research that addresses community priorities

Photo by Tristan Simpson, 

Source: TSRA (2016)

Collection of information on traditional catch requires bottom-up consensus, commitment and capacity, and is unlikely to be effective under only top-down rules. Both local communities and policy-makers have aspirations for managing natural resources, and conflict can exist when top-down views are imposed on bottom-up processes. Information on the harvest levels of traditional use is currently unlikely to be shared with the public, because of the sensitive nature of cultural harvesting of protected species and associated confidentiality provisions. A lack of understanding by the public and policy-makers about established cultural rights to traditional use can undermine the collection and sharing of harvest information with broader stakeholders. The Productivity Commission raised this lack of provision of information on traditional harvest as an issue for fisheries management (PC 2016). Recognition of customary fishing by Indigenous Australians in fisheries management regimes, and appropriate allocation of resources in accordance with proven traditional laws and customs were key recommendations from the inquiry (PC 2016).

The Indigenous Reference Group of the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation has developed 11 key research development and extension principles aimed at recognising cultural fisheries and their benefits to communities, supporting access to aquatic resources, developing self-management structures and community roles, increasing commercial opportunities, and reducing environmental impacts associated with traditional harvesting (Calogeras et al. 2015). Indigenous-driven planning of traditional use of resources will continue to empower Indigenous people to make more informed decisions about managing impacts and implementing solutions. Continual building of on-ground capacity and local governance will help bridge the gap between common desires for sustainability, and effective monitoring and management of traditional use.

Marine oil and gas exploration and production

The 2009 Montara oil spill off the far north-west coast of Western Australia and the resulting commission of inquiry (Borthwick 2010) highlighted critical inadequacies in the management of oil and gas exploration and production activities. It also highlighted industry-wide and government challenges in ensuring that the best technologies, management practices and regulatory processes were in place to prevent an accident of this nature occurring again in Australia.

Regulatory reform resulting from the commission of inquiry led to the implementation of the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA), established in 2012 under the Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage Act 2006. NOPSEMA is responsible for the regulation of safety, well integrity, and environmental management of oil and gas operations in Australian, state and Northern Territory waters, where relevant powers and functions have been conferred (see also Marine oil and gas exploration and production under Pressures affecting the marine environment).

The authoritys environmental management authorisation process was endorsed under the EPBC Act in 2014. Subsequently, the Minister for the Environment approved a class of actions that, if undertaken in accordance with NOPSEMA’s environmental management authorisation process, no longer required referral, assessment and approval under the EPBC Act. Titleholders seeking to undertake offshore petroleum or greenhouse gas activities in Australian waters in accordance with the EPBC Act must submit an environment plan to NOPSEMA for assessment and can only proceed with the activities once they are accepted by NOPSEMA.

With the implementation of NOPSEMA, there has been an increased level of scrutiny of offshore petroleum environmental management through assessment processes and compliance inspections. Industry environmental reports show that, although a small number of accidental releases of hydrocarbon vapour and liquid petroleum have occurred since 2012, there have been no hydrocarbon releases of a similar magnitude to the Montara oil spill in Australian waters (NOPSEMA 2016). Environmental management investigation and enforcement powers have also been strengthened, which has resulted in better understanding of the impacts of activities, greater focus on industry compliance and increased levels of preparedness for unplanned events.

NOPSEMA is subject to an independent operational review of its regulatory performance and review of the EPBC Act streamlining process every 5 years. The operational review considers NOPSEMA’s effectiveness in bringing about improvements in occupational health and safety, environmental management and well integrity, whereas the EPBC Act streamlining review assesses NOPSEMA’s compliance with the environmental management authorisation process endorsed under the EPBC Act.

The EPBC Act–endorsed environmental authorisation process carried out by NOPSEMA for petroleum exploration and production activities was independently reviewed 12 months after the Minister for the Environment’s endorsement. The review examined NOPSEMA compliance with the environmental management authorisation process endorsed under the EPBC Act, including associated objectives for matters protected under Part 3, and outcomes and commitments (ERM 2015). The review process identified several opportunities for improvement, including:

  • greater collaboration between NOPSEMA and the Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy
  • improved provision of information to third-party stakeholders and titleholders, and on the environmental management authorisation process itself
  • greater transparency in the authorisation process.

Future reviews of the EPBC Act streamlining process will be incorporated into the independent operational review. Opportunities for improvement identified by the first review have been, or are being, addressed (Christine Lamont, NOPSEMA, pers. comm., 22 February 2016).

Regulatory frameworks in place for oil and gas operations in state and territory waters vary, with some states having undertaken substantial revision of regulations associated with oil and gas activities in the past decade. Activities that may have a significant impact on the environment are referred to state or territory environment agencies under environmental legislation. Many agencies have bilateral agreements, whereby operations that may have an impact on matters of national significance under the EPBC Act are also referred to the relevant state or territory environment agency. Although most state and territory jurisdictions publish information about acreage releases, the accessibility of information on operations, environmental planning and incidents varies. Regulatory streamlining opportunities across Australian Government, and state and territory jurisdictions are currently being investigated, with the aim of reducing regulatory duplication and increasing consistency in industry oversight.

Development of a pragmatic decommissioning policy to address ageing infrastructure in the marine environment off Western Australia is one of the initial science priorities for the implementation strategy for Blueprint for marine science 2050 (Blueprint for Marine Science 2016). The strategy sets out a marine science collaboration between the scientific community, industry, and regulatory and government sectors in Western Australia, to support sustainable operations in the marine environment.

Marine mining and industry

Because of the low levels of activity in the marine mining and industry sector, and the emerging nature of marine mining and related industries within the Australian marine environment (AIMS 2014), there is currently a low level of understanding of the management strategies that might be required to address environmental pressures. Globally, the marine mining industry is more advanced, and is supported by a growing body of research investigating likely environmental impacts and mitigation strategies.

Legislation exists to regulate the exploration and mining of offshore aggregate resources across Australian Government, state and territory jurisdictions; however, no national or regional assessments exist of mining impacts or potential responses to these impacts. An environmental impact assessment is required under the EPBC Act for all projects that may have a significant impact on the Australian marine environment. A 3-year moratorium on sea-floor mineral exploration was formally implemented in the Northern Territory in 2012 (and extended for 3 more years in 2015), following local objections to potential marine mining around Groote Eylandt. In New South Wales, although not formally enacted, an effective moratorium has prevented exploration for building sands offshore of the Sydney Basin since 2000.

Globally, the International Seabed Authority has enacted a mining code to regulate prospecting, exploration and exploitation of marine minerals in the international seabed area (defined as the seabed and subsoil beyond the limits of national jurisdiction). The principal obligations include applying the precautionary approach, employing best environmental practice and conducting prior environmental impact assessments. The code has been augmented by the International Marine Minerals Society, which has developed a voluntary Code for Environmental Management.

Marine vessel activity

Environmental regulation of commercial vessel activity is regularly reviewed and amended to strengthen environmental protection and reduce the environmental impact of vessel activities globally through the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Recent amendments to international law of significance include:

  • amendments to Annex V of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), which tighten the controls on discharge of garbage at sea
  • amendments to Annex VI of MARPOL, which introduce technical and operational controls on greenhouse gas emissions from international commercial vessels, especially sulfur oxides and nitrous oxides.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority is responsible for ensuring that Australia meets its international requirements. This regulatory body is tasked with developing frameworks and standards for protecting the marine environment from environmental damage caused by vessels, including pollution preparedness and response, domestic commercial vessel reform, and navigation safety.

Empirical information that could provide insight into the commercial vessel industry’s approach to environmental performance is not available. However, community perceptions, and the commercial relationships between ship owner and ship charterer are among the strongest drivers of environmental performance. Environmental noncompliance can affect a shipping company’s bottom line, because charterers contract ships with a good environmental record to minimise risk and exposure. Companies will use their strong environmental record and beyond-compliance approach as a point of differentiation to attract charterers looking for high-quality operators.

The overall rate of vessel detentions (detention being the most severe form of immediate sanction when a deficiency is detected) fell from 9.2 per cent to 6.0 per cent of total inspections from 2011 to 2015 (AMSA 2016). During the same timeframe, inspections increased from 3002 to 4050 per year. The proportion of detainable deficiencies related to pollution increased from 6.5 per cent in 2012 to 11.2 per cent in 2015. Most of the deficiencies related to prevention, as opposed to a sanction, for a pollution offence.

Three significant changes to managing commercial vessel activity in Australian waters have been implemented since 2011 to increase environmental protection:

  • 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 National Plan for Maritime Environmental Emergencies (AMSA 2015) details Australia’s implementation of provisions set out under 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, and the Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait Vessel Traffic Service has been extended.

The International Convention on the Control of Harmful Anti-fouling Systems on Ships, which was adopted in 2001 and entered into force in 2008, prohibits the use of harmful organotin compounds in antifouling paints used on vessels involved in international shipping. It also establishes a mechanism to prevent the potential future use of other harmful substances in antifouling systems. The convention was implemented in Australian domestic legislation by the Protection of the Sea (Harmful Anti-fouling Systems) Act 2006 in 2008. Under this legislation, a ship complies with the antifouling requirements set out under the Act if it has no harmful antifouling compound applied on any designated external surface, or if the surface on which a harmful antifouling compound has been applied has a coating that forms a barrier to prevent the harmful antifouling compound leaching into the water.

Regulation of recreational vessels (registration, licensing, use of waterways) is the responsibility of state and territory authorities or agencies. Any incidents involving recreational vessels must be reported to these authorities or agencies under the relevant state or territory legislation. Mooring of vessels within state and territory waters is also regulated by these authorities or agencies (see also the Coasts report). International conventions relating to pollution are implemented through relevant state or territory legislation.

Currently, there are no management frameworks directly addressing biofouling or disturbance to, or vessel strike of, marine animals (see also Box MAR3). A series of voluntary guidelines for international and domestic vessels, and marine industries have been developed, with the aim of setting out a consensus view of effective biofouling management practices. A national vessel strike strategy is being developed by the Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy (DoEE 2016). Regulations regarding human activity around whales and dolphins, including small-vessel activity, have been adopted by Australian Government, state and territory jurisdictions (Australian national guidelines for whale and dolphin watching 2005). The IMO has adopted measures to minimise vessel strike, including precautionary areas, areas to be avoided, re-routing measures and speed restrictions (Silber et al. 2012). In Australian waters, not enough is known at present about the spatial or temporal distribution of the risk of vessel strike and the scale of the issue to implement targeted management measures.

Introduced species

The problem of introduced species carried by vessels has intensified over the last few decades due to expanded trade and traffic volume and, since the volume of seaborne trade continues to increase, the problem may not yet have reached its peak (see also Introduced species under State and trends of the marine environment).

In response, the IMO, in consultation with member states, has developed 2 sets of international guidelines addressing introduced species:

  • International guidelines for preventing the introduction of unwanted aquatic organisms and pathogens from ships’ ballast water and sediment discharges was adopted by the Marine Environment Protection Committee in 1991.
  • International guidelines for the control and management of ships’ biofouling to minimize the transfer of invasive aquatic species was adopted by the committee in 2011.

Although adherence to the guidelines is voluntary, they provide a basis on which to further promote a best-practice approach to ballast water and biofouling management to prevent introduced species incursions.

The International guidelines for preventing the introduction of unwanted aquatic organisms and pathogens from ships’ ballast water and sediment discharges was further developed into a resolution adopted by the IMO Assembly in 1997, and then the International Convention on the Control and Management of Ships’ Ballast Water and Sediments in 2004. Because of a range of concerns about technical feasibility and efficacy of the available technology, the required entry-into-force criteria (ratification by 30 states, representing 35 per cent of the world’s merchant shipping tonnage) have only recently been met, and the convention will enter into force in September 2017. Following entry into force, all vessels will need to fit a ballast water management system by their first MARPOL Annex I (International Oil Pollution Prevention) renewal survey. This will have a significant impact on the environmental performance of vessels involved in international shipping with respect to the ongoing translocation of species around the globe and around the Australian coast.

The difficulty and expense of eradicating introduced marine species have focused national management efforts on reducing initial introductions to Australia, detecting introductions early and limiting the spread of species once established. Australia introduced voluntary ballast water management arrangements in 1991 for vessels entering Australian waters, and Victoria introduced comprehensive ballast water arrangements for vessels entering its ports in 1994. It is now compulsory for all international vessels to manage their ballast water according to Australian ballast water management requirements.

The black-striped mussel outbreak in Darwin in 1999 highlighted the need for an integrated approach to managing marine pest incursions in Australia. A national taskforce recommended the establishment of the National System for the Prevention and Management of Marine Pest Incursions. Established in 2005, the system focuses on the prevention of, emergency preparedness for, response to, and ongoing management and control of, marine pests. Emergency response elements are governed by the National Environmental Biosecurity Response Agreement. Components of the national system—which include guidelines and information on monitoring, biofouling and ballast water—continue to be implemented under the guidance of the Marine Pest Sectoral Committee, a national technical and advisory committee made up of representatives from the Australian, state and Northern Territory governments. The national system applies the biosecurity principles and framework outlined in the Intergovernmental Agreement on Biosecurity to the marine pest sector.

In the event of a marine pest incursion of national significance, the Consultative Committee on Introduced Marine Pest Emergencies would be convened. This national technical forum, comprising members from the Australian, state and Northern Territory governments, would provide advice on the feasibility and coordination of a national response, as per the Emergency Marine Pest Plan.

A recently concluded review of Australian Government policy on introduced species, together with implementation of the new Biosecurity Act 2015, should provide an improved and more nationally consistent approach to domestic policy and legislation relating to marine vessels.

Anthropogenic noise

Environmental regulation of noise associated with, for example, oil and gas, military, vessel activity and port-related (e.g. dredging, pile-driving) activities is currently largely addressed at the sector level. However, national, and state and territory environmental regulators are now considering the results of international and national research on marine noise, with a view to applying management strategies to avoid noise sources affecting the marine environment.

Regulation of marine noise from oil and gas activities in Australian Government waters is addressed under the Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage Act 2006 and associated environmental regulations. Environmental management authorisation processes under this Act and associated environmental regulations have been administered by NOPSEMA since 2012, and were endorsed by the Minister for the Environment under Part 10 of the EPBC Act in 2014 (see Marine oil and gas exploration and production).

Through environmental impact assessments, military activities are assessed for potential impacts associated with noise. Procedures have been developed to mitigate and manage associated impacts on the environment, and are outlined in the Maritime Activities Environmental Management Plan. Under procedures detailed in this plan, potential areas of higher marine mammal abundances and locations with specific sensitivities (e.g. feeding, resting areas) are avoided for activities generating high noise levels. More generally, cetacean exclusion zones are used around noise sources, and known nesting beaches for marine turtles are avoided (see the specific planning guides set out in the plan). If a marine mammal or other marine fauna is sighted within the exclusion zone, activities are curtailed until the vessel can move. Operations and activities that require regulation under the EPBC Act must be approved by the minister and, depending on the activity, meet environmental guidelines set out under the approval process. Reviews of the Maritime Activities Environmental Management Plan are conducted with the assistance of the Defence Science and Technology Group.

Dredging activities are regulated under the Environment Protection (Sea Dumping) Act 1981, which regulates the loading and dumping of waste at sea within Australian waters. The Act also considers the implications of such activities (including noise generated) under the EPBC Act. Few processes are in place for the management of noise generated in other sectors, beyond those that might be defined under EPBC Act approval processes. Through the IMO, nonmandatory guidelines for reducing underwater noise from commercial vessels have been developed: Guidelines for the reduction of underwater noise from commercial shipping to address adverse impacts on marine life. Some initial work has commenced within the Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy on developing similar guidelines for managing commercial vessels and associated noise at the domestic level.

Environment plans associated with oil and gas activities, and management plans covering activities conducted by the military and involving dredging activities requiring EPBC Act approval must assess all potential risks and impacts arising from activities that generate underwater noise, including cumulative impacts. Although regulation processes for each of these activities vary, in principle, environmental plans must demonstrate that all reasonably practical controls will be implemented to reduce impacts to acceptable levels. Demonstrations of acceptability must be supported by relevant scientific literature, industry standards, government policy documents, species recovery plans and management plans, and must consider stakeholder input. Where scientific evidence to support environmental impact conclusions is lacking, precautionary approaches to management and decision-making are applied. These may result in additional control measures, such as exclusion of sensitive environments from operational areas, as specified by the minister.

Several sanctuaries in Australian and state waters have been implemented with the express purpose of controlling disturbance (e.g. seasonal closure of part of the Great Australian Bight for southern right whales, and the Port Adelaide Dolphin Sanctuary).

The international community is encouraging the establishment of a Global Ocean Acoustical Observing System, building on platforms and capability such as IMOS in Australian waters (Boyd et al. 2011). Such a system would allow the ocean soundscape in Australian waters to be established, consider spatial and temporal variance, and provide direct input into processes to regulate activities generating noise in the marine environment.

Marine debris

The Australian Government has recognised marine debris as a key threatening process under the EPBC Act since 2003. A threat abatement plan was developed in association with the listing (DEWHA 2009a). The plan aims for consistency in evaluating the impacts of marine debris across Australian Government, state and territory jurisdictions, and therefore aims to reduce the impacts of marine debris on marine life.

At the end of the first 5 years of the plan, the achievements against the objectives of the plan, and the effectiveness of the plan in preventing and mitigating the impacts of marine debris on marine vertebrates were reviewed (DoE 2015b). The review found that significant progress on parts of the plan had been made, including:

  • amendments to Annex V of the IMO’s MARPOL, which provided in-principle support for actions defined by the plan
  • research on the scale and distribution of marine debris in the marine environment, including the development of national databases categorising marine debris and its sources
  • national education and community action programs
  • education and outreach programs involving neighbouring sources of marine debris
  • greater engagement with AFMA for removing marine debris from the ocean.

Despite progress in these areas, several identified actions had not been met. Based on measurements against 2 key criteria, it was concluded that the key threatening process being addressed by the plan had not been abated and the objectives of the plan had not been met. It was recommended that the plan be either retained for another 5 years or revised, allowing for actions and objectives to be updated, and emerging issues such as microplastic ingestion to be incorporated. Revisions of the plan are under way, and it is expected that the revised plan will be released in early 2017.

Following the DoE (2015b) review, the Australian Senate in June 2015 referred the threat of marine plastic pollution in Australia and Australian waters for inquiry and reporting by April 2016 (ECRC 2016). The Environment and Communications References Committee conducting the inquiry was tasked with:

  • reviewing current research and scientific understanding of marine plastic pollution
  • identifying sources of marine plastic pollution
  • identifying the impacts of marine plastic pollution on species, ecosystems, fisheries, small business and human health
  • identifying measures and resourcing for mitigation.

The inquiry drew on information provided in submissions from researchers, environmental groups, local councils, industry and government departments. Contributions were also made through several public hearings. The inquiry made 23 recommendations in its findings, including:

  • supporting research into marine plastic pollution, and its impacts on species, ecosystems and human health to ensure that policies aimed at mitigating threats are based on sound information
  • continuing support of the national databases that are in place
  • facilitating industry, jurisdictional, regional and community support for research, education and clean-up programs
  • establishing a working group for facilitating a comprehensive and coordinated response to threats imposed by marine plastic pollution
  • assisting jurisdictions with implementing improved stormwater management and a range of options to reduce the release of plastic pollution into the marine environment.

The report is currently under consideration by the Australian Government.

Dumped wastes

The Environment Protection (Sea Dumping) Act 1981 regulates the loading and dumping of waste at sea across Australian Government jurisdictions. The Act requires permits for all ocean disposal activities, including dredging operations; creation of artificial reefs; dumping from vessels, platforms or other human-made structures; and burials at sea. The Act fulfils Australia’s obligations under the 1996 Protocol to the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter 1972, also known as the London Protocol. The areas selected as disposal sites for dredged materials and the nature of disposal of dredged material at sea are highly regulated to minimise the risk of marine organisms being exposed to toxic materials. This regulation also ensures that the sites chosen are the most likely to be minimally affected by the application of additional sediment (Ports Australia 2014).

In 2015, the Australian Government established a new regulation under the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Regulations 1983, which ends the disposal of dredge material from capital dredging projects (e.g. port developments) in the marine park. Complementary legislation introduced by Queensland in 2015 means that the disposal of dredge material from capital dredging projects no longer occurs throughout the remainder of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. A dredging science node has been established within the Western Australian Marine Science Institution, which aims to address key areas of uncertainty in the prediction and management of impacts associated with dredging.

Social licence to operate

A social licence to operate (SLO) can be defined as a tacit contract that ensures that the socio-political risk of challenges to a company or agency are reduced if the company or agency behaves in a manner consistent with community values. The stronger the SLO, the greater the community acceptance (Prno & Slocombe 2012). Originating in association with mining, SLO can be applied to any industry and associated governance systems that have potential impacts on the environment. An SLO is quite different from an environmental licence, which is formal permission issued by government in line with legislated requirements. Rather, an SLO must be earned from the community. Local communities are often key contributors to the SLO process by virtue of their proximity to activities and their associated impacts (Prno & Slocombe 2014). SLOs can rarely, if ever, be replicated between activities; acceptance of activities will vary with the community involved and the activity itself (Prno & Slocombe 2014).

Many industries in Australia face issues that may be addressed via SLOs. Even when a company has met all regulatory requirements within the sector, public concern and pressure can result in its operations being restricted or rejected (e.g. large trawling vessels within the Small Pelagic Fishery managed by the Australian Government; Smith et al. 2015).

Noting the need for industry to gain SLOs, there has been a shift towards government regulation of company–community interactions and incorporation of SLOs into environmental licensing systems. The Queensland Government now requires major resource development projects in the state to prepare a social impact management plan, which aims to ensure that stakeholder engagement occurs across the lifetime of the activity. Many fisheries are adopting third-party certification schemes through bodies such as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and the Aquaculture Stewardship Council. Both bodies facilitate independent reviews of fisheries and aquaculture operations for their sustainability and traceability of product, setting standards that operations must meet on both aspects to be certified. Fisheries that have MSC certification include the Exmouth Gulf and Shark Bay prawn fisheries, the Western Australian rock lobster fishery, the Northern Prawn Fishery and the blue grenadier fishery. Many fisheries, including all commercial fisheries in Western Australia, are currently in the process of gaining certification. In some sectors, biological offsets (see Residual risks to the marine environment) support SLO, whereas, in others, offsets are a means of circumventing environmental responsibilities, thereby reducing SLO (Richert et al. 2015).

Research on measuring and modelling SLO is expanding, with the aims of guiding industry in developing trust-based relationships with community stakeholders and implementing frameworks for operations that uphold that trust (Moffat & Zhang 2013).

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