Coastal governance and policy

Coastal governance is complex, multifaceted and impacts a wide range of stakeholders. Management is shared between all levels of government (federal, state and local), with some limited coordination between levels. Management of coastal waters (up to 3 nautical miles to sea) is generally done by state governments. Federal government oversees and provides advice on a subset of major issues, such as biodiversity and invasive species, but devolves most implementation of management and regulation to state and local governments.

Australian, state and territory government legislation underpins a range of management tools used to protect and manage natural environment. These tools include zoning plans, management plans, permits and licences, Traditional Owner agreements, regulatory compliance power, and policy (including strategies, policies and position statements). Governments regularly review and update legislation to ensure that new issues and threats are efficiently and effectively addressed as they arise.

Australia’s oceans policy experience highlights the challenges of implementing integrated oceans management, the difficulties in implementing significant policy change and the impact of multilevel governance (Vince et al. 2015). Achieving greater cross-sectoral integration involves improving participation in governance (Stephenson et al. 2021). All major policy and delivery agenda in sea Country and catchments must embrace Traditional Owners as rights holders, requiring action to be framed on a negotiated basis with key decision-makers.

Ocean and coastal spaces involve complex politics, given the enormous number of interest groups. To support multiple interests, there must be a blending of policy agendas to address financial, economic, ecological and cultural accountability. Ocean and coastal management challenges governments to work cooperatively with the multiple actors and to adapt to changing circumstances and values.

Assessment Coastal governance and policy
2021
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

Coastal governance and policy are only partially effective, but are either stable or improving.
Related to United Nations Sustainable Development Goal targets 12.2, 14.2, 14.5

Assessment Legislative protection
2021
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

Coastal waters are 9.6% fully protected; although total protected area has increased, gains have only been partially protected.

Assessment Indigenous rights and policy
2021
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

Current policy restricts the power of Indigenous people to manage their sea Country and Country in coastal spaces.


Legislative protection

Australia’s coastline spans over 33,000 km and encompasses over 1,000 estuaries, with incredible diversity and some of the highest levels of endemism in the world. The management of the coastal zone – land and sea – can be challenging, involving multiple levels of government. Local councils maintain many coastal reserves, state and territory governments are responsible for waters out to 3 nautical miles from shore, and the Australian Government manages waters beyond that.

In keeping with its extensive coastal and marine realm, Australia has one of the largest marine protected area (MPA) networks in the world (Wescott & Fitzsimons 2016), encompassing almost 3.35 million square kilometres (km2) and 441 MPAs (DAWE 2020a). Of these MPAs, 327 are in state or territory waters, covering over 410,000 km2 and representing a total of 41.8% of these coastal waters. The aims of Australia’s protected areas are primarily ecological, including the conservation and protection of biological diversity and ecological processes (Turnbull et al. 2021). Social aims include the sustainable use of natural resources, cultural values and Indigenous uses.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) MPA classification system, which Australia uses to classify its MPAs (DAWE 2020a), has 6 levels; level I is the highest level of protection (strict nature reserve or wilderness area) and level VI is the lowest (protected area for sustainable use). The top 3 levels correspond with fully protected, no-take or sanctuary zones, and the lower 3 levels correspond with partially protected areas that allow varying degrees of fishing and other extractive activities.

While fully protected areas have ecological benefits well documented in large-scale studies (Edgar et al. 2014), partially protected areas (PPAs) are the subject of considerable debate regarding their efficacy, with some studies concluding they are no better than areas outside MPAs (Turnbull et al. 2021). Other studies argue that PPAs can play an important role in traditional and fisheries management (Knott et al. 2021). Overall, however, PPAs underperform fully protected areas in terms of ecological outcomes.

The level of protection in Australian coastal waters varies considerably between jurisdictions, from no fully protected areas in the Northern Territory, to almost 87% of MPAs being fully protected in Tasmania (Table 6). The state with the greatest area under full protection is Queensland, closely followed by Western Australia.

Since the 2016 state of the environment report, Australia’s marine area under protection has increased slightly, with more protected area in coastal and state and territory waters (+5.46%) but less in Commonwealth waters (–1.71%) (Table 7). Overall, however, gains have been in partial protection, with the area under full protection in all Australian waters declining by almost 4.5%. This represents a worrying trend towards downgrading, downsizing and degazetting protected areas (Kroner et al. 2019).

Table 6 Area of coastal waters, area and percentage of waters in MPAs (all levels), and area and percentage of MPAs that are fully protected (IUCN I–III), by state and territory

State or territory

Area of coastal waters (km2)

Area in MPAs (km2)

Percentage of area in MPAs

Area in FPAs (km2)

Percentage of MPAs that are fully protected

NSW

880,200

348,849

39.6

66,243

19.0

NT

7,183,900

290,645

4.0

0

0.0

Qld

12,199,400

8,438,428

69.2

1,701,871

20.2

SA

6,003,200

2,703,184

45.0

610,469

22.6a

Tas

2,235,700

145,127

6.5

126,048

86.9

Vic

1,021,300

121,242

11.9

53,055

43.8

WA

11,574,000

4,754,145

41.1

1,247,430

26.2

FPA = fully protected area; IUCN = International Union for Conservation of Nature; km2 = square kilometres; MPA = marine protected area; NSW = New South Wales; NT = Northern Territory; Qld = Queensland; SA = South Australia; Tas = Tasmania; Vic = Victoria; WA = Western Australia

  1. The percentage fully protected in SA is approximate due to overlaps between zone classifications.

Source: Collaborative Australian Protected Area Database

Table 7 Percentage and area of partially protected and fully protected areas within marine protected areas, and changes from 2016 to 2020

Area

Australian marine area protected, 2016 (%)

Australian marine area protected, 2020 (%)

Change, 2016 to 2020 (percentage points)

PPA

FPA

Total (MPA)

PPA

FPA

Total (MPA)

PPA

FPA

Total MPA

Commonwealth

23.12

14.14

37.26

26.55

9.00

35.55

3.43

−5.14

−1.71

State

26.70

9.61

36.31

32.20

9.57

41.77

5.50

−0.04

5.46

Australia overall

23.29

13.93

37.22

28.03

9.44

37.47

4.74

−4.49

0.25

Area (km2)

2,081,834

1,245,062

3,326,896

2,505,579

843,749

3,349,328

423,745

−401,313

22,432

FPA = fully protected area; km2 = square kilometres; MPA = marine protected area; PPA = partially protected area

Source: Collaborative Australian Protected Area Database


Indigenous rights and policy

The expansion of Indigenous sea Country rights brings challenges, as Indigenous rights are complex to enact within the machinery of state, territory and Australian governments. This complexity gives rise to tensions and skewed power dynamics (Figure 34). Discussions within the Traditional Owner online yarning circles conducted for this report confirmed that more progress must be made in doing policy co-design and implementation collaboratively with Indigenous people. While policy and delivery agendas are now more flexible in terms of sharing of benefits, often there is no increased interest in acknowledging the sovereignty or traditional decision-making of Indigenous peoples and their rights to their territories. Purposely designed roundtables, where Traditional Owners join with key people who hold the levers of change, are infrequent within the policy agenda. Deconstructing the institutionalised control that government currently holds over policy design would see policy-making enter the negotiation arena and operate in an environment of contested values and rights.

Understanding the impacts of historical legacy issues, and how policies that were enacted in the early 19th century still affect Indigenous people today, is important when attempting to engage with Indigenous peoples (Talbot 2017). The institutionalised control that government currently holds over policy design needs to be removed and new arrangements designed and implemented for increasing Indigenous agency. Part of the shift needed is a recognition of the legitimacy of Indigenous peoples’ claims to oceans and their sea Country.

As sovereign First Peoples, Indigenous peoples’ have claims to sea Country the pre-date all other claims. The previously unregulated access to Country that Indigenous people enjoyed before settlement has been progressively restricted. Legislation is often silent in provisions for Traditional Owners as right-holders.

In March 2019, a historic Partnership Agreement on Closing the Gap was agreed between the Council of Australian Governments and the Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community-Controlled Peak Organisations.

A new Closing the Gap outcome area includes land and waters. This consideration of the environment helps to strengthen the link between healthy people and healthy Country. However, a key issue is that there is no overarching set of objectives or policy that include Indigenous science and innovation, and as a result, the government’s role in supporting nationwide Indigenous-led scientific advancements has never been discussed or negotiated with Traditional Owners (see Indigenous knowledge and research).

Figure 34 Traditional Owner thoughts about tensions and power balance in the influence of Traditional Owners on environmental policy in Australia