Sustained ocean monitoring


Responding to a changing and increasingly modified environment, especially one where directing or modifying the trajectory of change is planned, requires sufficient monitoring on relevant temporal and spatial scales, and an adaptive approach to management. Without ongoing measurements of specific components of the marine environment, no indicators are available against which resources can be managed or management effectiveness can be reviewed. Monitoring of the marine environment relies on 3 key infrastructure components (NMSC 2015):

  • vessels that can conduct targeted monitoring of particular areas
  • observing systems—including in situ, robotic and satellite systems—that can monitor at a diversity of spatial and temporal scales
  • experimental facilities that can calibrate, analyse and interpret data; and can manage, archive and interpret data streams, and make them available.

Within the Australian marine environment, research institutions contribute to long-term monitoring datasets through a number of initiatives, the largest being the Integrated Marine Observing System (IMOS). IMOS was established in 2007 as a partnership between Australia’s major marine research institutes (Lynch et al. 2014).

Central to IMOS’s collection of long timeseries data from locations dispersed throughout Australia’s marine estate are the network of National Reference Stations and associated regional moored sensor arrays. These measure Australia’s coastal and continental-shelf oceanography, biogeochemistry and marine soundscapes (Lynch et al. 2014, Erbe et al. 2015, Richardson et al. 2015). Along with the other IMOS facilities, such as Argo floats, ocean gliders, the continuous plankton recorder, automatic underwater vessels and ships of opportunity, IMOS provides ongoing monitoring of our marine environment. Data collected via IMOS are managed and made publicly available through the Australian Ocean Data Network.

Australian scientists are key contributors to global marine data collection, verification and analysis. This provides Australia with access to global infrastructure, data streams and expertise that would otherwise be unavailable or prohibitively expensive to access.

Some datasets contribute to global repositories such as the Global Temperature and Salinity Profile Programme and the World Ocean Database. Many have contributed to this SoE report. IMOS is a partner in the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS), a permanent global system for observing, modelling and analysing marine and ocean variables to support operational ocean services (IOC 1996a,b). Within GOOS, the Ocean Observations Panel for Climate, the Global Ocean Biogeochemistry Panel, and the Biology and Ecosystems Panel provide direction on essential ocean variables of marine environments where effort should be placed towards monitoring over sustained timeframes. The Global Ocean Acidification Observing Network is also developing complementary frameworks for identifying variables for monitoring and how they should be monitored, with the objectives of supporting assessments of the marine environment and informing management of its use (Newton et al. 2015).

Other highly important sustained monitoring programs for the marine environment include the Australian Institute of Marine Science Long-term Monitoring Program. This program includes the only long-term, comprehensive dataset covering the health of the Great Barrier Reef, spanning 3 decades. The program is now being paired with the Long-term Temperate Marine Protected Areas monitoring program, and the more recent and globally extensive citizen-science Reef Life Survey (see Box MAR5). Combining dedicated science facilities with citizen scientists and traditional owners, empowered through recent technological advances, provides one of the more promising options to increase marine monitoring in Australia, at least in coastal waters.

Further, several initiatives are providing data products such as spatial maps that are publicly available for use, such as eAtlas, the Atlas of Living Australia and the National Environmental Science Programme (NESP) Marine Biodiversity Hub.

The number of components or processes that can be monitored in the marine environment is endless, especially among its biological components. Prioritising what, when and how components of the marine ecosystem are monitored is essential if scientific data are to support marine managers in the changing and increasingly complicated environment they find themselves in (see also State and trends of indicators of marine ecosystem health).

The prioritisation of monitoring of a physical marine environment component (e.g. ocean temperature) can be directed by the component’s contribution to system models that are already being used in environmental decision-making (e.g. those used as part of the IPCC reporting process). Similarly, agreed system models do not exist for the biological components of the marine environment. The NESP Marine Biodiversity Hub (formerly the National Environmental Research Program), with the Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, has developed an outline for the monitoring of marine biodiversity based on identifying the informative links between values and pressures (Hayes et al. 2015; see Box MAR10). The outlined process could support bioregional planning, and the reporting and evaluation of the marine environment necessary to inform ongoing assessment of the marine environment at the national level, including its response to the cumulative impact of all industry sectors. The outline details current capacity and the most appropriate methods available for monitoring of the key ecological features identified for each of the marine bioregional planning areas (Hayes et al. 2015). Similarly, Science strategy and information needs 2014–2019 for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park outlines priority information needs to ensure that monitoring activities are relevant and targeted to address management issues, and that the outcomes for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park are easily identifiable and accessible (GBRMPA 2014b).

Careful consideration of strategies for meeting the needs for monitoring, assessing and responding to changes in the marine environment is, and will continue to be, a priority if we want to continue to access the socio-economic, cultural and aesthetic values of our marine environment in the future.

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