Coastal science and management are complex and conducted at many levels, and their resourcing is equally complex. Most coastal management is done by state and local governments, but community groups, nongovernment organisations (NGOs) and individuals also contribute. Similarly, coastal research is predominantly done by state or Australian Government agencies (e.g. CSIRO and state environmental departments) or university academics and students, but also by citizen scientists, community groups and NGOs. Funding and resourcing for each of these contributors comes from all levels of government, as well as business, industry and philanthropic individuals.

New technology

New technology is making coastal research more efficient and greatly increasing the volume of data being generated. Remotely sensed landscape-scale data have been available for terrestrial research for decades, but with growing access to technologies such as automated underwater vehicles and remotely operated vehicles, data are now becoming increasingly available in the marine environment. New measuring instruments, combined with software and models to interpret their data, aim to survey underwater environments and translate remotely sensed data into usable forms (e.g. through automated or semi-automated classification of species in images), offering marine researchers the ability to survey large areas more efficiently.

Technology in above-water monitoring is also progressing, as the falling cost and increasing quality of drones and even small satellites (e.g. CubeSats, in which researchers can install their own measuring devices (Woellert et al. 2011)) has driven their uptake in research. Drones have been used in coastal research to quantify a wide range of variables, including wildlife abundance and behaviour (Hodgson et al. 2018, Kelaher et al. 2019b, Butcher et al. 2021), beach erosion (Pucino et al. 2021), marine debris (Martin et al. 2018), recreational fishing (Provost et al. 2020a) and human visitation (Provost et al. 2019). They have even been trialled in monitoring for fisheries compliance through aerial surveillance of fish traps (Provost et al. 2020b).

Such technologies may change the types of science done by coastal and marine ecologists. Marine field ecology has traditionally focused on small-scale or point-source sampling, but with increased availability of landscape data we are likely to see a shift in approach. Marine ecologists can now embrace more complex models that test for spatial and temporal patterns while accounting for spatial and temporal correlations between observations.

The cost and quality of gene sequencing technology has also decreased, allowing biologists to study microbial communities and other genetic material in greater depth and coverage than was previously possible. Environmental DNA techniques allow researchers to detect species’ presence in aquatic environments with much greater sensitivity, which is especially useful for monitoring rare or invasive species (Rees et al. 2014). Combined with next-generation sequencing, it is possible to measure whole aquatic communities with these methods, although species identification relies on comparison with reference genomes which is usually the bottleneck for community-level surveys.

Citizen science

Citizen science is another means by which the volume of data available for coastal researchers is dramatically increasing. In citizen science, data are collected by volunteers, thereby reducing the institutional cost of research and enabling sampling over much larger spatial and temporal scales than would otherwise be possible.

Since volunteers vary in their levels of skill, training and commitment, there are both real and perceived issues regarding the quality of data collected by citizen scientists. Such issues can, however, be constrained with well-designed training and protocols, post-sampling analytical methods to detect and compensate for biases, and ongoing curation of citizen science databases by professional scientists. Furthermore, higher variability in observations collected by citizen scientists is countered by the potential for higher sample sizes, which may ultimately be more informative than fewer, albeit more precise, observations by professionals.

Citizen science is most suited to certain types of research where data collection is straightforward, such as beach litter collections, or where large spatial coverage is only possible with a widely distributed set of observers, such as species occurrence observations.

Major citizen science programs operating in coastal Australia include:

  • Reef Life Survey – a nonprofit citizen science program in which trained scuba divers undertake standardised underwater visual surveys of reef biodiversity on rocky and coral reefs around the world (Edgar & Stuart-Smith 2014)
  • Redmap (Range Extension Database and Mapping project) – a database of citizen science marine species observations with the goal of detecting range shifts (Pecl et al. 2019)
  • Tangaroa Blue Foundation – a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to the removal and prevention of marine debris, and host of the Australian Marine Debris Database (Clark et al. 2021)
  • CoastSnap – a project compiling repeat photos submitted by citizen scientists at the same location, to track how the coast is changing over time due to processes such as storms, rising sea levels, human activities and other factors (Harley et al. 2019).

Data integration

Designing and implementing good policy and management for large areas of coast requires access to complete, reliable and up-to-date data. Data are necessary for evidence-based management and for monitoring impacts of natural and human pressures on coastal ecosystems. For that to occur in a cost-effective manner, horizontal (cross-sectoral) and vertical (e.g. across government levels) collaboration and coordination from multiple stakeholders is vital, as suggested by principles of integrated land-use planning (Metternicht 2018).

Unfortunately, there is little evidence of effective data integration between coastal and marine planning in Australia (see the Marine chapter). In particular, the 2016 state of the environment report pointed to the need for improved cross-sectoral data integration (social, economic and environmental dimensions) to allow more transparency around trade-offs that are often required in coastal management.

Cross-sectoral and vertical data integration at a landscape level are also needed to account for the impact of ‘land-based activities’ on coastal and marine areas. The Paddock to Reef Integrated Monitoring, Modelling and Reporting Program (Queensland), which evaluates land management practice adoption and effectiveness, catchment condition, pollutant run-off and marine condition, provides an example of a ‘systems view’ of drivers of environmental change and their impact on coastal and marine ecosystems.

Several challenges arise from present funding models for monitoring and evaluation programs. Where funding for monitoring and evaluation is designated at the LGA or catchment level, data collection (i.e. variables measured, time intervals of sampling and spatial coverage) can vary markedly among estuaries and stretches of coast, even within a state or territory. Furthermore, because much of the monitoring and evaluation is funded for short periods (often 3 years) at a time, there are often large gaps or inconsistencies in timeseries. Long-term coastal monitoring observatories, of adequate spatial and temporal coverage, need to be established.

Indigenous knowledge and research

Traditional Custodians are strengthening their protocols for how research is conducted on their Country and how their traditional knowledge is respected (e.g. the Kimberley Indigenous Saltwater Science Project). Traditional knowledge must be recognised as an important part of the knowledge resources needed to manage sea Country.

Through their management of sea Country (see Indigenous management), Traditional Custodians accumulate Indigenous knowledge, research, information and learnings across the diversity of Indigenous nations. Indigenous knowledge holders have the wisdom of lived experiences and intergenerational passing-down of experiences of continuous resilience to a changing environment. Traditional knowledge is owned by the holders of that knowledge, often collectively, and is uniquely expressed and transmitted through Indigenous language, dance and storytelling. It is important to respect that Indigenous knowledge is founded in the worldview of the relationships between people and their Country, and the customs and traditions that enshrine practices.

The narrow claims made about what constitutes valid scientific practice can lead to the detrimental exclusion of Indigenous knowledge from the science and management sectors. Western and Indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing share some fundamental attributes; both are constantly verified through repetition and verification, based on empirical observations, and converge towards understanding through the patterns being observed. For thousands of years, Indigenous peoples have practised science and the scientific method through their system of discovery and knowledge production involving the rigour of trial-and-error testing with lived and learned experiences. Yet for some in the science sector, Indigenous knowledge may be recognised as contributing to understanding but falls short of being defined as science.

Australia is gradually recognising that Indigenous people are Australia’s first scientists. We need to open the door to Indigenous knowledge production being seen as scientific practice by recognising that Indigenous science brings different and legitimate principles, assumptions and interpretations to the observations made. Investments need to be made into programs such as an Indigenous knowledge and science discipline at universities, to better teach how to weigh multiple pieces and types of evidence in a defensible manner. A better understanding of the basis to the legitimacy of evidence can give the science sector an appropriate level of confidence in how to critically reflect on the knowledge of others.

In the Australian environment sector, the National Environmental Science Program has been resourced through to June 2027. Yet there has been no secured resourcing for a national body of Indigenous science and innovation that sets the platform for advancing the innovative frontier. Nor is there a framework agreement establishing the priorities for collaboration between the states and the federal government in tackling Indigenous science and innovation challenges, including Indigenous fisheries and agribusiness issues.

Indigenous leadership is often missing from the onset of national science planning (e.g. National Marine Science Plan) and may continue to be missing from the table. The gap created by Indigenous leadership not actively contributing to national and high-level plans is serious and significant. There also needs to be investment to ensure that partnerships with Traditional Custodians are well supported and included from the beginning of an initiative or project.

Indigenous leaders and practitioners are advocating for their right to exercise leadership through the science and innovation system, including developing Indigenous-led research, designing a fit-for-purpose Indigenous science and innovation strategy, and formulating a well-resourced investment plan. A call has been made to the Australian Government to set up a new National Indigenous Environmental Research Network (NIERN) as a peak Indigenous-led science organisation. It would position Traditional Owners to engage nationally with the Australian and state and territory governments. At this stage, support for NIERN has not been confirmed.

At the heart of this problem is the ongoing issue of Traditional Owners not being afforded appropriate opportunities for Indigenous leadership to contribute to the design of major elements within a national strategy. The lack of an Indigenous-led research agenda creates concern from Traditional Owners that governments are deciding the agenda for Indigenous science and innovation and negotiations are occurring behind closed doors.

How do we get ahead, when we can't get through the door? Participant, Traditional Owner online yarning circle