Information and monitoring

Compared with state of the environment reporting in 2016 and 2011, our knowledge of the state and trend of biodiversity as well as the knowledge gaps, particularly for threatened species, has significantly increased in the past 5 years.

The work of the National Environmental Science Program (NESP) has greatly improved knowledge about key threats to biodiversity, the state and trend of threatened species and ecosystems, and the actions needed to support their recovery (particularly the Threatened Species Recovery Hub, the Marine Biodiversity Hub and the Northern Australia Environmental Resources Hub). The NESP research hubs of the first phase of the program (2014–15 to 2020–21) are delivering the culmination of 7 years work into this state of the environment report. The next phase of NESP commenced in 2021 and will deliver further refined data, tools and knowledge to support reporting in the future.

However, there are still very large gaps in our understanding of the state and trend of the vast majority of native Australian species, including those that are at most risk of extinction. The absence of reliable data on numerous threatened species severely limits our ability to allocate conservation resources in an informed and effective manner (Allek et al. 2018).

Extinction risks have been assessed for a smaller proportion of Australian endemic plants than Australian mammals or birds (Figure 56) (Alfonzetti et al. 2020). This means there are likely many more threatened plants in Australia than we currently have adequate knowledge about. Even for many listed plants, there are taxonomic uncertainty and limited knowledge of population state and trend (Silcock & Fensham 2018). One of the obstacles to effective plant conservation is a decline in taxonomic skills and the ability to readily identify plants in the field, as well as a dearth of biological and ecological knowledge for the vast majority of species (Broadhurst & Coates 2017).

Figure 56 Proportions of endemic Australian plants, birds and mammals assessed under the IUCN Red List and the EPBC Act

EPBC Act = Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999; IUCN = International Union for Conservation of Nature

Source: Republished with the permission of CSIRO Publishing, from Australian Journal of Botany, CSIRO (Australia) Academy of Science, 2020; permissions conveyed through Copyright Clearance Center, Inc

Monitoring is an essential element of the conservation management of Australia’s threatened species and communities as well as nonthreatened biodiversity. Monitoring data underpins species and community conservation status, is used to evaluate the effectiveness of management investments, and indicate the urgency of management interventions (Legge et al. 2018a). A sample of 10 of the 25 recovery plans adopted under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) for threatened ecological communities all included monitoring of some aspect of biodiversity as a priority action, and some also included monitoring of threats (Keith et al. 2018). Few of the plans provided guidance on how monitoring was to be done, although some recovery plans identified actions to develop methods. Monitoring of threatened ecological communities is also carried out as a reporting requirement for natural resource management funding programs such as Landcare. However, the design, detail and rigour of these projects varies widely, and the data and outcomes from monitoring are rarely published in discoverable sources.

Several government-funded initiatives have sought to deliver greater national coordination and standardisation of environmental data. These include the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network, the Atlas of Living Australia, Digital Earth Australia and the Australian Biological Resources Study. However, no single organisation has clear responsibility or adequate and ongoing funding for stewardship and coordination across the breadth of national environmental information. The lack of coordination drives higher costs and derives fewer benefits from the investments that are made in information collection and curation (Samuel 2020).

Indigenous Australians play an important role in environmental monitoring, particularly for threatened species that occur on their lands and in remote areas. Such monitoring is a key driver for many funding programs supported by the Australian Government. Respectful, bottom-up, collaborative approaches that incorporate local skills and interests are fundamental to the success of such monitoring programs (Paltridge & Skroblin 2018). Adopting 2-way approaches where non-Indigenous views and methods do not dominate but are used to support traditional knowledge and the aspirations of Traditional Owners to manage their Country has been demonstrated to lead to long-lasting and successful outcomes (Figure 57).

Figure 57 Outcomes from 2-way monitoring of threatened species

Availability of information and monitoring of threatened species

Researchers have recently published comprehensive assessments of monitoring extent and adequacy of threatened vertebrate species (Legge et al. 2018a), threatened plant species (Lavery et al. 2021) and threatened ecological communities in Australia (Legge et al. 2018a). The assessments demonstrate that monitoring of threatened species and communities is mostly inadequate, and that 21–46% of threatened vertebrates, 69% of threatened plants and 70% of threatened ecological communities are not monitored at all. Where monitoring does occur, quality in terms of national extent and adequacy is generally poor.

Adequacy was assessed against 9 metrics of monitoring activity (Woinarski 2018a) (Figure 58):

  • Fit for purpose – the monitoring protocol and design should have a sampling methodology and timing targeted optimally to detect the species.
  • Coverage – monitoring sites should be located representatively across the species’ habitat and distributional extent.
  • Sampling periodicity – monitoring should occur at appropriate intervals, and with appropriate periodicity.
  • Longevity – monitoring should occur over appropriate timeframes, with some future security.
  • Design quality – monitoring design should have sufficient statistical power to detect trends of conservation concern.
  • Coordination – monitoring should be coordinated across relevant jurisdictions and stakeholder groups.
  • Data availability and reporting – monitoring data and their interpretation should be readily accessible to all parties, and there should be clear responsibility assigned, and capability, for long-term database management, and capacity and planning for any needed data migration to future platforms.
  • Management linkage – monitoring should involve, and be meaningful to, relevant managers and be embedded in management planning; it should provide a measure of management effectiveness; and monitoring information should be adopted to enhance management.
  • Demographic parameters – monitoring programs should involve assessment of critical demographic parameters, rather than relative abundance alone.

Figure 58 Average scores out of 5 for each of 9 metrics for the extent and adequacy of monitoring, evaluated for all threatened taxa in 5 vertebrate groups

The adequacy of monitoring for different vertebrate species groups were assessed as follows:

  • Mammals (Woinarski 2018a). The assessment covered 167 terrestrial species, which included all taxa that were listed as Threatened, Near Threatened or Data Deficient by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), listed as threatened under the EPBC Act, or that may now be eligible for these conservation status categories.
    Some monitoring activity occurs for 79% of species. For the species for which some monitoring occurs, most rated low across the 9 metrics. In particular, most monitoring simply reported abundance without demographic parameters, most monitoring results were not readily accessible, and coordination was lacking.
  • Birds (Garnett & Geyle 2018). The assessment covered Australian bird taxa listed as threatened under the EPBC Act (in 2017) or as Threatened or Near Threatened after assessment against the IUCN Red List criteria (n = 222).
    Birds are among the best monitored of the animal groups in Australia. Some form of monitoring occurred for 71% of threatened taxa. Of the 222 taxa considered, those that are more threatened, with larger populations, in more accessible sites and with a recovery plan were more likely to be monitored. For many taxa, monitoring scores were particularly high for the first 6 metrics, especially periodicity and coordination, but poor for data availability and reporting, the links to management and whether the monitoring assessed life history parameters or just population size.
  • Frogs (Scheele & Gillespie 2018). The assessment covered 33 EPBC Act–listed frog species; 4 species listed as Extinct under the EPBC Act were included because of uncertainty over whether these species are truly extinct.
    More than one-quarter of Australia’s 33 threatened frog fauna receive no targeted monitoring (27%). Monitoring programs rarely provided thorough information on demographic parameters. Few programs had strong links to management (only 9% of species scored the highest mark for this metric) and 24% of species with some form of monitoring received no management.
  • Reptiles (Woinarski 2018b). The assessment covered the 69 reptile taxa listed as threatened nationally under the EPBC Act (56 species and 4 subspecies) or listed globally by the IUCN (44 species) (as of December 2016). This comprised 43 lizards, 10 terrestrial snakes, 7 freshwater turtles, 6 marine turtles and 3 sea snakes.
    Reptile monitoring is exceptionally poor and reptiles score lowest on every metric compared with other taxa. No evidence of monitoring activity was found for 26 threatened species, and very limited monitoring for most other species. Terrestrial squamate and freshwater turtle species, species without recovery plans and species of lower conservation status were most likely to have little or no monitoring.
  • Freshwater fish (Lintermans & Robinson 2018). The assessment covered 57 threatened freshwater fish, including 38 taxa listed under the EPBC Act plus another 19 listed by the Australian Society for Fish Biology (and likely to be eligible for listing under the EPBC Act in the future).
    Fish are relatively poorly monitored compared with other taxa. Only 31 taxa in total and 22 of the EPBC Act–listed taxa had national monitoring programs. The monitoring programs that do exist scored best for coverage, sampling periodicity and being fit for purpose, but were mostly poor in data availability and reporting, the inclusion of demographic parameters, longevity of monitoring program, and design quality.
  • Plants (Lavery et al. 2021). An assessment of the adequacy of monitoring for threatened plants considered the same 9 criteria for 839 EPBC Act–listed taxa (of 1,336 listed in November 2019).
    Of the threatened plant species assessed, 37.2% (312) were monitored; however, monitoring quality was generally low. Plants with more imperilled conservation status were more likely to be monitored and tended to have higher-quality monitoring. Plants with recovery plans were more likely to be monitored than those without. Monitoring coverage, data availability, management linkages (integration of monitoring and management actions) and demographic parameters were better for plants than for vertebrates. The longevity of monitoring was better for vertebrates than for plants.

Case Study Genetic approaches to information gathering

Advances in the application of genetic and molecular tools and associated bioinformatic analyses has contributed to major advances in our knowledge of Australia biodiversity since the 2016 state of the environment report. Metabarcoding and next generation sequencing approaches are revolutionising our understanding of species, their distributions, ecology and their capacity to adapt to a changing environment (Dormontt et al. 2018).

Approaches such as genome skimming are facilitating the rapid, reliable and repeatable identification of plant species in the Pilbara (Nevill et al. 2020), while another approach – genotyping by sequencing – has resolved the species identification and evolutionary pattern in the taxonomically challenging Triodia basedowii complex and the description of 8 new species, some of which are of conservation concern (Anderson et al. 2017).

The use of eDNA to detect cryptic species such as the blind cave eel (Ophisternon candidum) (White et al. 2020) or to quantify the presence of a threatened highly mobile species across a landscape (Gouldian finch – Erythrura gouldiae) (Day et al. 2019) or seascape (largetooth sawfish – Pristis pristis) (Simpfendorfer et al. 2016) has provided important new insights.

Similarly, investigation into the diet of the Vulnerable ghost bat (Macroderma gigas) in the Pilbara through DNA metabarcoding analysis of faecal pellets identified 14 new prey items not previously reported in the diet as determined from the analysis of dried food remains (Claramunt et al. 2019). Such new insight will provide managers with information to ensure the continued persistence of the ghost bat. It may also allow us to see how any declines relate to dietary shifts (e.g. changes in diet that may result from incursions of invasive species, such as buffel grass or cane toads).

Availability of information and monitoring of threatened ecological communities

A recent review of monitoring programs discoverable through publications and reports suggests that biodiversity is monitored in around 24 (30%) of the 80 threatened ecological communities listed under the EPBC Act (in 2017) (Keith et al. 2018, Legge et al. 2018b). Eight of these are monitored only for changes in land cover by remotely sensed data; ground-based monitoring is more limited. Several of the most rigorously designed projects belong to Australia’s Long Term Ecological Research Network. Most of the monitoring programs have key limitations, such as poor coverage across the threatened ecological communities’ range, poor design (constraining the potential for detecting trends or diagnosing causes of change), no links to management, and poor data coordination, availability and reporting.

Case Study Using artificial intelligence to inform biodiversity management

Rapidly increasing computing power and the ability to gather and store large quantities of data are leading to promising new tools and approaches for understanding and conserving biodiversity. Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies offer the potential to address complex problems several ways (Nishant et al. 2020). First, AI permits the automation of repetitive and time-consuming tasks, allowing humans to focus on higher-value work. Second, AI reveals insights that are otherwise trapped in massive amounts of unstructured data that once required human analysis, such as data generated by videos or photos. Third, AI can integrate thousands of computers and other resources to solve complex problems.

The application of AI for better natural resource management has been identified as an emerging potential specialisation for Australia (Hajkowicz et al. 2019). AI can provide enhanced systems for monitoring the condition of biodiversity and ecological assets. AI can also drive robotic systems for predicting, detecting and physically managing threats such as invasive plants and animals.

AI is being used in combination with Indigenous knowledge in Kakadu National Park to monitor invasion of para grass, which displaces habitat for magpie geese. A drone is flown over the landscape by an Indigenous ranger and data from the drone are downloaded, stored in a file and used to construct models that interpret the data, taking account of Indigenous knowledge of the environment and its different seasons. In this context, AI is removing the need for people to physically collect and then review thousands of hours of video to count animals and identify para grass (Cranney 2019).

In other applications, hundreds of sensor cameras are being deployed to monitor species in areas impacted by bushfires, and AI technology is being used to automatically identify species (WWF-Australia 2020). AI-powered platforms are also increasingly being used in citizen science applications and for biodiversity education resources. For example, Critterpedia is an AI-powered app to identify spider and snake species using photos (Figure 59) (Critterpedia 2021).

Figure 59 Critterpedia photos

Citizen science

Monitoring Australian biodiversity efficiently and at the necessary spatial and temporal scales cannot be achieved by professionals and institutions alone. Citizen science is a term used to describe the collection and analysis of scientific data, performed predominantly by citizens, usually in collaboration with scientists and field experts. Citizen science programs can have many positive outcomes, including improving knowledge, informing conservation questions about where to carry out management, and improving public awareness about Australia’s biodiversity (Steven et al. 2019). In addition, biodiversity-focused citizen science projects can potentially persist much longer than conventional research projects by leveraging community support in place of limited research funding cycles.

In 2017, at least 133 citizen science projects, coordinated by 93 separate organisations, were contributing to threatened species monitoring or conservation action in both terrestrial and marine environments (Lloyd et al. 2020) (Figure 60). Of these, 15 projects had the potential to benefit more than 100 species, 81 projects were relevant for 10 species or fewer, and 45 projects covered 1 species. Of the projects contributing to 1 taxonomic group (96 projects), 44.8% focused on birds and 34.4% on mammals, while 9.4% focused on fishes, 5.2% on frogs, 5.2% on reptiles and 1% on plants. The widespread overlap of citizen science projects with many areas where the number of threatened species is high demonstrates the great potential for citizen science as a tool to support conservation efforts for threatened species (Lloyd et al. 2020).

However, data quality is an important consideration in all forms of data collection. Evaluations of best-practice design in citizen science projects suggests some principles of best practice are widely achieved while there is scope to improve others (Steven et al. 2019). For example, only 2% of (133) projects stated clear research questions, although approximately 86% had implied project objectives of threatened species conservation. Training, or provision of training resources, was offered by most projects and most data from most projects were contributed to Australia’s national biodiversity data repository, the Atlas of Living Australia. Many projects have engaged with social media to promote their activities and recruit, yet many did not share project findings or summaries of citizen-collected data, which could help to further raise awareness and improve ongoing engagement (Steven et al. 2019).

Several Australian organisations are advocating citizen science and adoption of best practices. The Australian Citizen Science Association began in 2014, and members have worked at local, state, federal and international levels to increase capacity for citizen science projects to work cooperatively, exchange knowledge and make scientific discoveries. The Atlas of Living Australia has developed the online platform BioCollect, which has enabled local nongovernment organisations and community groups to have access to project-specific webpages that have guidance and infrastructure for data collection protocols, data entry and data sharing to the Atlas of Living Australia itself. Facilitation bodies such as these have a key role to play, acting as conduits between the many groups and participants within the citizen science landscape in Australia and globally (Steven et al. 2019).

Figure 60 Density of citizen science programs for threatened species in Australia, per 10 km × 10 km grid cell, to 2017
Assessment Effective management of biodiversity
2021 Assessment graphic showing that management is partially effective, meaning that management measures have limited impact on maintaining or improving the state of the environment. The situation is stable.
Adequate confidence

A new strategy has been developed to manage and protect Australia’s biodiversity, but the strategy lacks detailed targets. Increased monitoring and investment are needed to protect many of our most threatened species and ecosystems. Related to United Nations Sustainable Development Goal targets 11.4, 14.5, 15.a, 15.1, 15.5, 17.16

Assessment Progress towards national targets
2021 Assessment graphic showing that management is partially effective, meaning that management measures have limited impact on maintaining or improving the state of the environment. The situation is stable.
Somewhat adequate confidence

Measuring progress towards national targets associated with biodiversity has been an ongoing challenge for Australia. Very few quantitative assessments are available. Subjective assessments of performance against global targets in international agreements generally indicate that programs are in place and investments are being made, but outcomes are rarely measured or understood. Australia’s Strategy for Nature 2019–2030 replaced the Biodiversity Conservation Strategy 2010–2030, partly because a review showed that it was not possible to report on the level of achievement against targets. However, the new strategy also lacks detailed, specific and measurable targets.

Assessment The conservation estate
2021 Assessment graphic showing that management is partially effective, meaning that management measures have limited impact on maintaining or improving the state of the environment. The situation is stable.
Adequate confidence
Assessment graphic from 2011 or 2016 showing that management was partially effective, meaning that management measures had limited impact on maintaining or improving the state of the environment. The situation was stable.

The conservation estate in Australia has achieved area-based targets; however, targets for representation and adequacy of the estate for protection of species and ecosystems are not being met for many species. Growth in the conservation estate has been primarily in Indigenous Protected Areas in central and arid Australia. Financial and tenure insecurity, along with lower levels of investment in management, constrain the aspirations of Traditional Owners in management of their land for conservation over the long term.

Assessment Threatened species and ecosystems identified
2021 Assessment graphic showing that management is partially effective, meaning that management measures have limited impact on maintaining or improving the state of the environment. The situation is improving.
Adequate confidence
Assessment graphic from 2011 or 2016 showing that management was effective, meaning that management measures maintained or improved the state of the environment, but pressures remained as significant factors that degraded environment values. The situation was improving.

The identification of threatened species has improved over the reporting period, with a range of IUCN assessments completed. The Common Assessment Method has led to better coordination and efficiency in assessments between the states and the Australian Government, and a range of research products have identified Red Hot Lists and urgent intervention lists of species threatened by extinction following the 2019–20 bushfires. Although technologies for resolving taxonomy are improving, a potential future decline in taxonomic expertise has been noted, which could lead to a deterioration in identification progress in the future.

Assessment Threatened species and ecosystems protected
2021 Assessment graphic showing that management is partially effective, meaning that management measures have limited impact on maintaining or improving the state of the environment. The situation is deteriorating.
Adequate confidence
Assessment graphic from 2011 or 2016 showing that management was partially effective, meaning that management measures had limited impact on maintaining or improving the state of the environment. The situation was stable.

The pressures on threatened species and ecosystems are relatively well understood; however, the outlook for recovery of many species is not positive. Recovery planning is failing to keep pace with the number of new listings, recovery actions are not resourced for most species and ecosystems, and many threatened species and ecosystems lack adequate protection in the National Reserve System. However, translocations, safe havens and refuges, and ex situ conservation are reducing the rate of decline of a small number of species, and recovery successes are evident where species benefit from adequate investment in recovery plans, recovery teams, communication, research and monitoring.

Assessment Identification and protection of culturally significant species
2021 Assessment graphic showing that management is partially effective, meaning that management measures have limited impact on maintaining or improving the state of the environment. The situation is improving.
Limited confidence

The past 5 years have seen an increase in the recognition of the cultural significance of species by governments, communities and land managers. However, there are limited statutory mechanisms for their protection unless they are also listed as threatened species. Listing advices and subsequent conservation advices and recovery planning are increasingly assessing cultural significance, but the practice is still patchy. A lack of a clear definition of culturally significant species hinders further applications.

Assessment Monitoring of threatened species and ecosystems
2021 Assessment graphic showing that management is ineffective, meaning that management measures are failing to stop substantial declines in the state of the environment. The trend is unclear.
Adequate confidence

The current level of monitoring of threatened species and communities is inadequate to inform their management and track state and trends. Although some species are monitored better than others (e.g. birds), many threatened species and communities are not monitored at all, and most are not monitored well across a range of metrics. There are very few examples of consolidated and coordinated national monitoring data for even the best-known species. Citizen science and remote monitoring technology are contributing to better data for some species.

Assessment Management investment
2021 Assessment graphic showing that management is partially effective, meaning that management measures have limited impact on maintaining or improving the state of the environment. The situation is stable.
Limited confidence

The total magnitude of investment in biodiversity conservation is difficult to determine. Turnover in funding programs and limited monitoring of outcomes means long-term effectiveness of investments is also difficult to measure. However, a flexible investment approach remains vital to enable rapid deployment of funding to respond to opportunities or events such as the 2019–20 bushfires. Our assessments throughout this report indicate an increase in pressures and that the current level of investment is not sufficient to arrest resulting declines in biodiversity. Investments into the future will need to increase to keep pace with increasing pressures.