Case studies

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Case Study Australia’s National Marine Science Plan within the context of international initiatives

Before the publication of the 2016 state of the environment report, Australia’s science community came together to develop a 10-year plan for the period 2015–25. The National Marine Science Plan (NMSP) identified the science needed to address the largest sustainability challenges to Australia’s marine estate, and the priorities for investment to fulfil Australia’s blue economy potential (Evans et al. 2016, Treloar et al. 2016).

A mid-term review of the NMSP was delivered in 2021 (NMSC 2021b), a year in which a number of relevant international initiatives are either launching or moving into implementation phases. These include the United Nations (UN) Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (IOC 2020, Pendleton et al. 2020, Singh et al. 2021), the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (Young & Schwartz 2019, Fischer et al. 2021) and the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy (the Ocean Panel; Ocean Panel 2020).

These initiatives all recognise the life-supporting role of the oceans and the need for action to ensure continued provision of the essential services the oceans provide to humanity. All recognise that transformations are required that provide solutions for the sustainable management of the oceans within national jurisdictions and safeguard areas beyond national jurisdictions.

Australia has approved all of these through engagement in the relevant UN commissions and programs, or is directly engaged with partner countries.

Australia’s science community has the opportunity to align efforts and focus the implementation of the original recommendations of the NMSP and the emerging priorities identified in its mid-term review through these international initiatives. Many of the objectives set out under the UN decades align directly with the recommendations of the NMSP and the priority actions set out by the Ocean Panel, particularly those focused on:

  • increasing understanding of ocean state and changes occurring in marine systems
  • reducing and responding to the impacts of climate change
  • ensuring sustainable management of Australia’s marine estate
  • supporting environmentally sustainable industries
  • enabling nature-based solutions to coastal development.

A coordinated approach to providing the science to support decision-making is central to the NMSP, and is critical if Australia is to effectively contribute to the UN decades and meet the priority actions identified by the Ocean Panel. Through its membership, the National Marine Science Committee is well placed to drive the collaboration and coordination needed across disciplinary, sectoral and jurisdictional boundaries.

The success of the UN decades and the Ocean Panel in achieving the transformation in ocean science that is needed to achieve the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the associated Sustainable Development Goals and a sustainable future ocean economy will depend on the joint efforts of researchers, engineers and scholars from all disciplines working in close collaboration with stakeholders from all sectors of the community.

Case Study Australia’s changing reefs

Australian reefs are in a state of considerable change (Stuart-Smith et al. 2021a). In addition to the direct impacts of human activities, climate change is resulting in extremely dynamic responses in reef communities, through alterations to habitats and the effects of heat stress on reef species. Since the 2016 state of the environment report, 3 major heatwaves (2016, 2017 and 2020) have resulted in widespread coral bleaching, and annual maximum sea temperatures along much of the Australian coastline continue to increase (see the Climate and Extreme events chapters).

This case study provides a synopsis for shallow (<30 metres) temperate and tropical reefs around Australia, including their macroalgal and coral habitats, fishes and motile invertebrates, on the basis of a nationally standardised dataset (Stuart-Smith et al. (2021c)).

The 2016 and 2017 bleaching events reduced coral cover in the northern Great Barrier Reef (Stuart-Smith et al. 2017, AIMS 2020), at some locations in the North-west Marine Region, and in the Coral Sea (Harrison et al. 2019b). Severe tropical cyclone Olwyn had substantial, but highly localised, impacts at Ningaloo Reef, as did severe tropical cyclone Debbie in the Whitsunday Islands. In contrast, most southern parts of the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea have experienced increases in coral cover following previous disturbances (Figure 5) (see also AIMS 2020, Souter et al. 2021).

Figure 5 Changes in the cover of live coral and large canopy-forming seaweeds (labelled collectively in the figure as ‘kelp’) at national monitoring locations surveyed as part of the Reef Life Survey, Australian Institute of Marine Science and Australian Temperate Reef Collaboration programs

GBR = Great Barrier Reef

Note: Percentages of coral and kelp represent the sum of all live hard corals and canopy-forming seaweeds (including laminarian kelps and fucoid seaweeds), respectively. Differences between the 2011–15 average and the 2016–20 average (periods represented by the 2 grey-shaded blocks in the panels) are expressed as change per year on the map. (See Stuart-Smith et al. (2021a) for additional detail and description of methods.)

Temperate regions have experienced variable changes in total cover of canopy-forming seaweed (including true ‘kelps’ and fucoid algae that form canopies on rocky reefs). Some significant kelp losses (e.g. Vergés et al. 2016) and replacement of species have been reported in some places. A small rebound in kelp cover has occurred in the South-west Marine Region following the 2011 marine heatwave (see Rocky reefs and kelp beds).

Warmer temperatures have caused changes in the species composition and local abundances of reef fishes, not only directly but also in some cases through habitat degradation (Stuart-Smith et al. 2021c; Figure 6). Reef fish community composition, which changed dramatically as a result of the 2011 heatwave in south-western Australia (Stuart-Smith et al. 2017, Day et al. 2018), has still not returned to pre-2011 states.

Larger fishes that are the focus of reef fisheries have remained stable or have slightly increased in the South-east Marine Region and in some areas where they have been protected (Figure 7). They remain depleted around Sydney, but show signs of recovery at Ashmore Reef (which had depressed large fish biomass in the 2016 state of the environment report; also see Stuart-Smith et al. 2017, Speed et al. 2019).

Figure 6 Trends in the RFTI, an indicator of biodiversity responses to ocean warming at national monitoring locations surveyed as part of the Reef Life Survey, Australian Institute of Marine Science and Australian Temperate Reef Collaboration programs

GBR = Great Barrier Reef; RFTI = Reef Fish Thermal Index

Note: Increases in this index reflect changing community composition with increasing local abundance of reef fish that prefer warmer temperatures, whereas decreases reflect increasing species that prefer cooler temperatures. The values can be interpreted as the typical temperature preference for fish surveyed (measured in °C). Differences between the 2011–15 average and the 2016–20 average (the periods represented by the 2 grey-shaded blocks in the individual trend plots) are expressed as change per year on the map. (See Stuart-Smith et al. (2021c) for additional detail and description of methods.)

Figure 7 Trends in the biomass of large fishes (20+ cm) at long-term reef biodiversity monitoring locations around Australia surveyed as part of the Reef Life Survey, Australian Institute of Marine Science and Australian Temperate Reef Collaboration programs

cm = centimetre; GBR = Great Barrier Reef; kg/m2 = kilogram per square metre

Note: Values are log-transformed kilograms per 50 m × 10 m patch of reef. Separate trends are shown for sites monitored inside marine protected areas with no-take regulations (red lines) versus areas with some or all fishing allowed (orange lines). Differences between the 2011–15 average and the 2016–20 average (the periods represented by the 2 grey-shaded blocks in the individual trend plots) are expressed as change per year on the map. (See Stuart-Smith et al. (2021c) for additional detail and description of methods.)

The Living Planet Index (Loh et al. 2005) shows that, on average, populations of temperate species in Australian waters are declining (Figure 8); this indicator is heavily influenced by common species. Additional knowledge gaps remain around trends for many smaller invertebrates, seaweeds and corals, including rare species that are not well recorded by reef monitoring programs.

Figure 8 LPI, relative to 2008, for reef fishes and invertebrates in temperate and tropical Australia

LPI = Living Planet Index

Note: Coloured lines show the average trend; shading around the trend lines show 95% confidence intervals. Methods for calculating trends are provided in McRae et al. (2017); see Stuart-Smith et al. (2021c) for additional detail.

Management measures and their effectiveness

Management plans for 44 Australian marine parks, many of which contain shallow reef habitat, were enacted in 2018 and are yet to be evaluated. Recreational and commercial fisheries managers have a poor information base to effectively respond to, or account for, the climate and habitat impacts on reef fisheries, which could potentially impact fisheries sustainability in some regions (e.g. Brown et al. 2021).


The rapid responses of marine life to shifting and variable ocean climates observed over the past 5–10 years are likely to continue. Management of fisheries and activities that rely on shallow reef life need to adapt to the dynamic nature of reef life in the short term; a reduction in carbon emissions is the only longer-term solution to change. Habitat loss is likely to continue to be an issue for coral reefs (Wilson et al. 2008, Stuart-Smith et al. 2021c); temperate species that have no shallow habitat further south of Australia to retreat to appear to be at greatest risk.

Case Study Marine heatwaves

Extreme events in the ocean environment often cause widespread ecosystem impacts, and can be examples of future environmental conditions. Extreme events have contributed to increasing appreciation of the fact that many undesirable consequences of climate change will be unavoidable without a reversal of warming trends (Trebilco et al. 2021).

Periods of extreme ocean warm-water events known as marine heatwaves, intense upwelling, deoxygenation and coastal flooding are examples of extreme events that have already affected habitats around more than 40% of the Australian coastline (Babcock et al. 2019).

Marine heatwaves can have significant impacts on Australia’s marine ecosystems and industries (Hobday & Holbrook 2021). The formation of marine heatwaves is a result of heat flux into a region from the atmosphere, or via advection of warm water, often from lower latitudes (Holbrook et al. 2019). These circumstances can occur during any season, not just summer. A recognised quantitative definition for marine heatwaves is when seawater temperatures exceed a seasonally varying threshold (the 90th percentile) for at least 5 consecutive days (Hobday et al. 2016).

Based on this definition, marine heatwaves increased in frequency (34%) and duration (17%) from 1925 to 2016, resulting in a 54% increase in annual marine heatwave days globally (Oliver et al. 2018c). These trends can largely be explained by increases in mean ocean temperatures. Further increases in marine heatwave days are projected to occur under continued global warming, with many parts of the ocean reaching a near-permanent marine heatwave state by the late 21st century (Oliver et al. 2019).

Marine heatwaves in Australia

The south-east and south-west of Australia are recognised as hotspots, with rates of warming above the global average.

Marine heatwaves are categorised in a way similar to earthquakes and cyclones (Hobday et al. 2018c). Based on these categories, Australia has experienced strong marine heatwaves in recent years, including in Western Australia in 2011 and 2021 (Wernberg et al. 2016, Hobday et al. 2021a), the Tasman Sea in 2015–16 (Oliver et al. 2017), and the Coral Sea and northern Australia in 2016 (Oliver et al. 2018a) (Figure 18)

Marine heatwaves have been associated with coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef in successive years (Hughes et al. 2018a), resulting in impaired recruitment and recovery of reefs (Hughes et al. 2019b) (see also Coral reefs).

Marine heatwaves have dramatic impacts on marine life, resulting in major ecological impacts (Smale et al. 2019). In Australia, marine heatwaves have led to loss of species from areas; loss of major habitat types, including corals (Hughes et al. 2018a), algal forests, seagrasses and mangroves (Wernberg et al. 2016, Babcock et al. 2019); and closure of fisheries (Caputi et al. 2019). They have also been associated with harmful algal blooms and disease outbreaks (Oliver et al. 2017). Many of these heatwaves are linked to changes in the El Niño–Southern Oscillation, as well as climate change (Oliver & Holbrook 2018, Holbrook et al. 2020a).

The contribution of climate change to marine heatwaves can be calculated (see Oliver et al. 2017, Perkins-Kirkpatrick et al. 2019). For example, the Tasman Sea 2015–16 marine heatwave was more than 300 times more likely to occur as a result of climate change. Overall, marine heatwaves have contributed to declines in environmental state nationally.

As climate change continues to warm the oceans, marine heatwaves are expected to increase in frequency and duration (Oliver et al. 2019). Permanent heatwave conditions in some Australian ocean regions are expected towards the end of the century, but will occur earlier if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise (Oliver et al. 2019).

Figure 18 Example marine heatwaves that occurred in (a) 2015–16 in the Tasman Sea and (b) 2016 in northern Australia

SST = sea surface temperature

Note: Colours indicate the category of the marine heatwave.

Source: Adapted from Hobday et al. (2018a)

Responsive management of marine heatwaves

Management of marine heatwaves can be reactive, once the extreme event has commenced, or proactive when the marine heatwave is predicted (Holbrook et al. 2020b). Methods facilitating the prediction of marine heatwaves have been developed in Australia by CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology; the 2021 Western Australian marine heatwave was predicted to occur more than 1 month before (Hobday et al. 2021a). This allows marine managers to respond to the event – for example, through fishery closures (Caputi et al. 2016) and early harvesting (e.g. Hobday et al. 2018a). Additional responses can be developed with ongoing monitoring and improvements in forecasting events.

Monitoring marine heatwaves during their occurrence can offer targeted information for marine stakeholders; event-based sampling has been initiated by the Integrated Marine Observing System (Holbrook et al. 2020b) and is proposed for expansion in coming years. Identifying the depth of a marine heatwave (e.g. Schaeffer & Roughan 2017) can provide information on its likely persistence or potential disruption to marine ecosystems. Further, improvement in the forecast skill of predictive models is assisted by increased understanding of the climate drivers of marine heatwaves and their subsurface condition.

Although prediction of marine heatwave events will give some marine managers and users a chance to prepare for impacts (Holbrook et al. 2020b), many ecological changes will be unavoidable without a reversal of warming trends.

Case Study The blue economy

The ‘blue economy’ is an increasingly accepted term for ocean-based industries that maintain environmental and social stewardship and protection (UNEP 2016, Voyer et al. 2018).

Economic scale of Australia’s blue economy

As of 2017–18, Australia’s marine industries contributed approximately $81.2 billion to the Australian economy (around 3.7% of Australia’s gross domestic product – GDP), having grown from $63.6 billion in 2015–16 (AIMS 2018, AIMS 2021a); Figure 19) This is similar in magnitude to Australia’s agricultural production or coalmining, and is estimated to be growing at 2–3 times the rate of the rest of Australia’s GDP. Associated employment was estimated to be around 393,000 full-time workers.

Although this growth may have been slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic and trade fluctuations with China, growth is still forecast over the next few years (Mobsby et al. 2020), and the total contribution of Australia’s blue economy is expected to exceed $100 billion by 2025 (NMSC 2015).

Figure 19 Total income from various marine activities that contribute to the blue economy, 2017–18

Broader value and state of the blue economy

Environmental status, social values and equity are important aspects of the blue economy.

A fair degree of inequity exists in the beneficial returns from offshore activities. Much of the development is industrial in scale, and benefits are dispersed to shareholders. Growing ocean literacy and sea Country claims may see this imbalance addressed in the future.

Direct human pressures on marine ecosystems and habitats, along with climate change and ocean acidification, are reshaping Australia’s oceans. Fisheries have put considerable effort into transitioning all Australian stocks to a sustainable status, but other aspects of the marine environment, such as food-web structure, have shifted, with unknown effects on longer-term sustainability in many cases. Expansion of marine infrastructure could contribute to ongoing pressures and declining environmental trends. However, clever design could help offset losses (e.g. to biodiversity) by providing a network of additional habitat areas.

Evolving seascape of blue economy sectors

Traditionally strong sectors within the blue economy, such as fisheries, have remained relatively stable in recent years, at around $1.79 billion in 2018–19 (Patterson et al. 2020), despite facing many challenges due to climate stressors. Aquaculture continues to grow, reaching $1.4 billion in 2018–19, a 26% increase within a decade (Steven et al. 2020).

Although oil and gas production remains the dominant energy sector within Australia’s blue economy (AIMS 2018), it has declined significantly in recent years. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020 (causing a jobs decline of 25% in 2020), Australian oil and gas jobs in 2019 had experienced a downturn of nearly 24% from 2014 levels (Wood Mackenzie 2020).

As part of energy transitions, offshore renewable energy is now in an exploratory phase – the Star of the South offshore wind project (Star of the South 2020) has been granted an exploration licence, and several other proposals are in development. If the potential of the Star of the South development is fully realised, it could supply up to 20% of Victoria’s electricity needs and support 200–2,000 new jobs (more during the construction phase than the operational phase). The potential integration or co-location of different offshore energy activities (e.g. wind, wave, tidal, solar) and seafood production activities (i.e. aquaculture) could further add to the prosperity of these projects. This would ultimately add to Australia’s contributions to global trade markets (Aryai et al. 2021).

A 2020 commitment by the Australian Government to develop a Commonwealth offshore clean energy regulatory framework seeks to support future projects and growth in the sector (e.g. hydrogen production).


Management of marine and coastal activities comes under several agencies across several jurisdictions, resulting in a complicated and complex space for operations. This complexity could undermine desirable outcomes, particularly with regard to pressures, such as climate change, that do not respect jurisdictional boundaries. National approaches to marine and coastal issues – such as the relevant sections of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 or the National cooperative approach to integrated coastal zone management (DEH & NRMMC 2006) – have had varying levels of success, depending on cooperation across jurisdictions and agencies.

Without continuing cooperation, environmental degradation is a significant risk, because consideration of single industries or pressures fragmented over multiple jurisdictions will likely be overwhelmed by the combination of climate change and expanding uses of the environment. This siloed approach also jeopardises the management of vast stores of data related to Australia’s blue economy, which are largely sporadic and unconnected across governments, research agencies and industry (despite some notable advances through the Integrated Marine Observing System Australian Ocean Data Network in recent years). Disclosure and improved accessibility of data can incentivise innovation, new public–private instruments for investment, and creation of new business models (Northrop et al. 2020).

If integrated approaches (see case study: Baselines, monitoring and integrated ecosystem assessments), and cooperation at the jurisdictional, agency and public–private levels is achieved, the blue economy can live up to its vision of prosperity and sustainability.

Case Study Assessing cumulative effects in Australia

The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) stipulates that direct, indirect and offsite impacts (specifically upstream, downstream and facilitated impacts) on matters of national environmental significance should be considered when planning activities and undertaking broadscale strategic assessments.

However, it does not explicitly address cumulative effects (Dales 2011, Dunstan et al. 2019); redressing this is a recommendation of the recent EPBC Act review (Samuel 2020). Moreover, the increasing focus on implementing ecosystem-based management approaches requires appreciating how human activities influence and reshape ecosystems (Levin et al. 2009), which requires taking a systemic and integrated view of all pressures on marine and coastal systems (Ocean Panel 2020).

Cumulative effects result from multiple pressures exerted by a single activity, together with the interacting pressures from multiple activities (Foley et al. 2017). They often occur when pressures occur at the same time, but it is possible for effects to arise even if the pressures occur at different times, as long as they occur in the same space (due to the long-term effects of past pressures). These compounding effects erode ecosystem resilience, which can make a system more susceptible to future change (Roberts et al. 2017).

Scientifically meaningful estimates of cumulative effects, and accurate attribution of observed effects to activities, are essential for effective management, but are extremely difficult to achieve. The cumulative nature of interactions and pressures means that they do not always accumulate linearly. Synergistic (working together) and antagonistic (working against each other) interactions are both found about as commonly as additive outcomes (Crain et al. 2008, Stockbridge et al. 2020).

Estimating cumulative effects in simple systems (e.g. small geographic areas with a small number of, ideally additive, pressures) is possible (e.g. Sutherland et al. 2009). More complex systems can be dealt with by making simplifying assumptions, but this may compromise the robustness of estimates (Halpern & Fujita 2013). Estimating cumulative effects in complex systems with feedbacks requires sophisticated models informed by large amounts of data, as well as in-depth ecosystem knowledge embedded in these analyses (Dunstan et al. 2019). In complex systems, full estimation and attribution is possible, but it requires carefully designed elicitation (Martin et al. 2012, Hosack et al. 2017, Hemming et al. 2018), observation (Hayes et al. 2019) and model-based (statistical and/or mechanistic) analysis (Foster et al. 2015, Large et al. 2015, Uthicke et al. 2016, Fulton et al. 2017).

The environmental decline of natural systems has motivated increasing numbers of assessments of cumulative effects. These may be completed by development proponents through project-related environmental impact assessments, or by national and state or territory government agencies as part of strategic or regional assessments, such as Parks Australia’s Monitoring, Evaluation, Reporting and Improvement framework (Hayes et al. 2021); the New South Wales Marine Estate Management Strategy (MEMA 2018); or Victoria’s Marine and Coastal Policy (DELWP 2020). Whereas spatial additive assessment frameworks are readily available (e.g. Halpern et al. 2008, Stelzenmüller et al. 2018) and widely applied in Australia (Figure 23) and overseas, assessment of nonadditive (combinatory) effects is still so challenging that it is rarely attempted.

Expertise for the implementation of an assessment and management framework for cumulative effects is hampered by funding and capacity constraints (Gurran et al. 2013). As a result, many cumulative impact assessments provide only a relative measure of effect, and there is still little formal jurisdictional capacity (at an agency or interagency level) to manage cumulative effects. Instead, state and territory governments approach the issue via planning processes and development schemes, confirming alignment between local government planning scheme and state goals (Queensland Government 2018). Although this allows some cross-agency coordination (e.g. the New South Wales Marine Estate Management Authority), pressures are typically still treated individually by sector. However, climate change is emerging as a sufficiently broad motivating force to see more attention to multistressor considerations.

An exception to the jurisdictional issue is the Great Barrier Reef, where the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan sets out key actions for managing the cumulative pressures on the Reef. The Cumulative Impact Management Policy and the Net Benefit Policy provide the basis for managing cumulative effects.

Clearly articulated management objectives, and appropriate forms of assessment and monitoring data form the basis of adaptive management and a systematic way to address cumulative effects. But carefully designed long-term monitoring strategies are most often missing from attempts to effectively manage cumulative effects. Without these, there is little certainty around the assessment result itself (Halpern & Fujita 2013, Stockbridge et al. 2019) or the success of interventions. Such monitoring schemes not only provide information on the performance of management but can identify emerging issues and form the basis for forward-looking management actions aimed at reducing or, better still, avoiding cumulative effects.

Figure 23 National cumulative pressures map for Australia’s exclusive economic zone in relation to the zone boundaries of the Australian marine parks, 2011–15

Note: This figure shows the sum of 39 activities and subactivities, which were developed from 109 pressures. The map should be interpreted as showing the relative intensity of anthropogenic pressures in the Commonwealth marine area. The absolute values of the cumulative scores have no ecologically meaningful interpretation. Details of the activities considered, their mapping and the methods for estimating cumulative effects are provided in Hayes et al. (2021).

Case Study Management of shared marine biodiversity values

Australian waters are part of national, regional and global ecosystems. Turtles that nest in Australia feed in many parts of the Indo-Pacific; baleen whales that breed in Australian waters also spend time in the open ocean and the waters of several other countries (Figure 27); and some fish and shark species move between Australian waters and adjacent waters to forage and breed. The status of many marine species of interest to Australia thus depends on actions taken by other countries. Within Australia, Indigenous, recreational and commercial users of marine resources value marine species for different reasons, and the national and state and territory governments often have different goals and processes to manage them.

Improving the status of marine resources in Australia requires improved understanding of values and governance arrangement across sectors, cultures and jurisdictions. Three examples of Australia’s actions in the management of shared values regionally and internationally are provided here.

Australia’s high level of regional and international engagement in marine resource science and management is growing and provides increased opportunities to support neighbouring countries to develop and implement sustainable practices for our mutual benefit. However, Australia would be better able to fulfil its international obligations to protect shared values if a framework to coordinate the management of species that move through the waters of more than one jurisdiction was introduced (Miller et al. 2019, Miller et al. 2020). Such a framework has the potential to improve communication between Indigenous, recreational and commercial users, as well as between national and state and territory levels. Advice from environmental and social scientists would help guide governance experts to a successful outcome.

Figure 27 (a) Connectivity of humpback whales within the South Pacific. (b) Key areas within Australian waters used by humpback whales. Humpback whales are just one of many species of turtles, birds and mammals that inhabit the waters of many jurisdictions

MoU = memorandum of understanding

Sources: (a) GRID-Arendal (2017). Credit: Riccardo Pravettoni UNEP/GRID-Arendal. (b) ERIN (2013)

Regional fisheries

Internationally, fisheries continue to suffer from overcapitalisation; overfishing; illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing; and stock decline (FAO 2018). Australia is an active member of several regional fisheries management organisations operating across the Indo-Pacific (Figure 28) and supports the activities of international agencies by providing scientific input into cooperative management activities. Through support from the Australian Government and international funders, Australia assists with developing the capacity of neighbouring countries to improve the monitoring and management of shared fish stocks (Johns 2013, ACIAR 2019). Such engagement enables Australia to promote sustainable and responsible fishing practices, and to take a leadership role in the development of regional instruments to protect shared fish stocks, thereby strengthening regional ocean governance (Haward & Bergin 2016).

Figure 28 Areas of competence for regional fisheries management organisations

Regional biodiversity

Australia is a party to the Convention on Biological Diversity. Although member parties set out to meet a number of global targets for protecting and sustaining biodiversity (the Aichi Targets), over the 2 decades that the targets were operational, none were met (CBD Secretariat 2020). Recent global assessments indicate that ocean biodiversity is being lost at all levels as a result of direct and indirect human pressures (Rogers et al. 2020). Australia’s marine biodiversity is shared with many countries (e.g. Figure 27a) and therefore is influenced by the activities of these countries, operating in their own or international waters. Australia is active regionally through its governance activities, and through the engagement and leadership of Australian scientists in regional and global alliances. This engagement supports the developing countries in our region and reduces the threats to our shared marine biodiversity resources.

Migratory species

Australia is a party to the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals. Some 90 listed marine migratory species are protected as matters of national environmental significance under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). The EPBC Act serves as a bridging link between the Australian Government and each state and territory. However, the links between these jurisdictions are weak and tend to be most developed for large, charismatic threatened species, such as marine turtles and some whales (Miller et al. 2018b); they are relatively weak for other important species (e.g. bluefin tuna).

Case Study Traditional Owner–led integrated monitoring and reporting using the Strong Peoples – Strong Country framework

Liz Wren, Great Barrier Reef Foundation

The Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area is a biocultural landscape, requiring all values to be recognised, respected, and managed accordingly. Traditional Owners, as primary rights holders of the Reef, are the only ones who can determine heritage values, and assess their significance and condition.

Traditional Owners have actively managed their Sea Country for thousands of years. However, they have previously had limited input into the design and application of formal monitoring programs and have encountered management regimes based on indicators of little significance to them.

Novel ways to monitor and report based on Traditional Owner lore, tradition and custom have now emerged, recognising adaptive management approaches that are designed to embrace values, ethics, codes of conduct, justice, equity and fairness. Strong People – Strong Country (SPSC) is an Indigenous heritage monitoring and reporting framework, designed by Traditional Owners to integrate their world view into contemporary management of protected areas (Figure 29).

The SPSC framework has created opportunities for Traditional Owners to address priorities important to them. Through pilot projects, interested Reef Traditional Owner communities will implement the SPSC framework to test its robustness in situ, and ensure that training, capacity building and other enabling conditions are identified and put in place to support appropriate data collection, agreement making, and sharing of long-term monitoring and reporting about their heritage values. Directly funded positions such as community research assistants, and on-ground data and technical experts; technology ownership; and management and training for collection, input, reporting and sharing of data are all enabling conditions to ensure success for the communities undertaking the pilot project.

The framework and enabling conditions mean that Traditional Owners have control of their information and data to support local priorities and reflect adaptive management needs. As well, through agreement, Traditional Owner information and data may contribute to the wider management of the Great Barrier Reef through integration of Indigenous heritage values that describe Traditional Owner values, priorities and their current condition and trend in ways that challenge – yet positively influence and enhance – approaches to adaptive management of protected areas.

Figure 29 Strong Peoples – Strong Country framework for monitoring Indigenous heritage in the Reef 2050 Integrated Monitoring and Reporting Program

© Mallie Designs, licensed for use by RIMReP Partners

Case Study Marine restoration in a changing climate

Until recently, marine conservation and management have primarily focused on reducing the drivers that cause loss of biodiversity and habitat. Although actions such as managing overfishing and reducing pollution have led to some improvements, marine ecosystems continue to decline. Habitat restoration is increasingly seen as a viable tool to slow and even reverse these declines. However, since ongoing climate change is a driver of habitat loss in many instances, restoration can be a complex and multifaceted challenge, often requiring novel ‘engineering’ solutions, especially when coupled with a need to sustain the provision of ecosystem services and support Australia’s rapidly growing blue economy (see case study: The blue economy).

Ecosystem restoration and engineering for Australian giant kelp forests and coral reefs

Two of Australia’s most iconic and valuable habitat-forming marine ecosystems – coral reefs and giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera) forests – are among the ecosystems already demonstrating clear impacts from climate change (see Coral reefs, and Rocky reefs and kelp beds). Even if greenhouse gas emissions are rapidly reduced, there are still decades of warming ‘locked in’ as a result of inertia in the climate system and lags in the influence of today’s emissions on future climate. Restoration efforts therefore need to consider ongoing climate change impacts to be effective.

The National Environmental Science Program’s Marine Biodiversity Hub and the University of Tasmania have identified from remnant forest patches more thermally tolerant giant kelp that may be used as the foundation of restoration efforts. Work assessing the species’ adaptive capacity and genetics, and the influence of grazers and competitors, will also provide a better understanding of the viability of restoration efforts and ‘future-proof’ these efforts (Wood et al. 2019).

The Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program is developing new methods to help coral reefs, and specifically the Great Barrier Reef, survive climate change. These methods have been split into 3 categories: those that ‘protect’ the reefs and help retain existing biodiversity and corals, those that ‘assist’ the reefs’ adaptation to increasing temperatures, and those that can be used to ‘restore’ degraded high-value sites. Three main approaches are being investigated to increase rate at which corals can adapt to temperature increases:

  • managed or selective breeding using cross-breeding between distinct populations of the same species (i.e. assisted gene flow) or between species (i.e. hybridisation), or the crossing of heat-tolerant individuals of the same species
  • conditioning, whereby organisms are exposed to a sublethal stressor that may elicit an increased tolerance to subsequent stress exposure
  • microbiome manipulation or microbiome engineering, which is the manipulation of individual microbes, microbial communities or their hosts.

Engineering interventions

Even with strong global climate mitigation, oceans will continue to warm for decades and possibly longer, and interventions that seek to engineer the local environment to reduce climate-related stressors may be viable in some circumstances. Approaches that increase shading on portions of the Great Barrier Reef are being investigated, including reflecting incoming solar radiation from the ocean surface using either reflective surface films or a temporary sea fog, with the aim of reducing coral mortality at critical periods of stress (Baird et al. 2019). At larger scales, cloud brightening, where microscopic seawater droplets are sprayed into the marine boundary layer of the atmosphere to form cloud condensation nuclei, may increase cloud reflectivity during marine heatwaves and reduce sea surface temperatures over regional-scale areas (Harrison 2018, Harrison et al. 2019a). Ecological modelling shows that large-scale cooling, facilitated through approaches such as cloud brightening, has the potential to maintain coral cover on the Great Barrier Reef when combined with aggressive global emissions reductions in line with the Paris Agreement (Anthony et al. 2019).

A call to action

The period 2021–30 has been identified by the United Nations as a Decade of Ecosystem Restoration, with the goal of massively ‘upscaling’ restoration efforts to enhance food security and water supplies, promote habitat resilience and biodiversity protection, and combat the climate emergency. This international call to action highlights the need for continued investment in developing and implementing interventions that can buy time for ecosystems impacted by climate change while greenhouse gas emissions are urgently reduced. Decisive action on restoration interventions is critical, and hesitation in considering nonconventional approaches could mean that the pace of change outstrips our capacity to successfully intervene. Charting the course toward the ‘oceans we need’ in 2030 is already the subject of growing research attention (e.g. see the Future Seas website).

Case Study Lessons for marine management derived from fisheries management practices

Important lessons from Australian fisheries management are relevant to the management of natural marine, freshwater and terrestrial environments and resources more broadly (Farmery et al. 2021). For example, Australian fisheries management has used innovative approaches to:

  • reduce conflict in decision-making through defined targets and reference points (e.g. as part of harvest strategies)
  • explore consequences of implementing different management decisions in fisheries systems (e.g. management strategy evaluation)
  • apply the precautionary principle (e.g. ecological risk assessments)
  • consider a wider range of impacts and cumulative impacts, including climate change, on marine systems.

The success of the arrangements is due to co-development with expertise-based consultative forums (e.g. resource advisory groups, management advisory committees).

The remit of fisheries management has broadened, and is more encompassing and effective across a range of areas. Approaches that have been successful in fisheries management can be applied to other marine environmental management areas to support development and application of decision frameworks to improve performance. Four examples of approaches in fisheries that could be extended to environmental management in general are discussed here.

Use of reference points and thresholds to reduce conflict in decision-making

Fisheries management has historically been centred on focal fishery species (target species), with increasingly sophisticated management approaches. For example, harvest strategies are being more widely used, along with reference points against which fishery performance is judged (e.g. Figure 30). These approaches have led to clearly defined and agreed decisions ahead of time based on an assessment of the state of the resource (e.g. Smith et al. 2007), which has improved outcomes (Smith et al. 2014).

The equivalent approach could be used for management of coastal areas – for example, to manage development of coastal areas for tourism. The level of visitation to a site (i.e. impact) could be reduced or increased according to reference points and the state of the system. This may provide an incentive for restoration, as the activity in an area could then increase. Other situations where the level of permissible impact could be formally related to environmental status include water extraction for agricultural use, and water clarity (status) and fertiliser use (impact) in catchments (e.g. MacNeil 2013).

Figure 30 Schematic harvest strategy

Note: The level of allowable removal is related to the stock status. When stock status is healthy (green), the removal rate (impact) can be high. In the cautious zone, the level of permissible removal (impact) is reduced. Below a limit reference point, removal is halted in the critical zone.

Use of management strategy evaluation to test alternatives

Management strategy evaluation is a simulation tool that fishery scientists and managers use to simulate the workings of a fisheries system and test whether potential harvest strategies – or management procedures – can achieve pre-agreed management objectives, or identify a ‘best’ management strategy among a set of candidate strategies (Punt et al. 2016). This approach is widely considered to be the most appropriate way to evaluate the trade-offs achieved by alternative management strategies and to assess the consequences of uncertainty for achieving a management goal. It has been used to set management rules that have resulted in stock recovery in Australian fisheries, including the Southern Bluefin Tuna Fishery (AFMA 2014, CCSBT 2021). The process involves developing an operating model that describes the system dynamics, and a management strategy, with performance statistics used to evaluate each management option (Figure 31). It is important to define and set parameters for the objectives for the system under management; this has not been widely attempted for marine systems outside fisheries.

Figure 31 Conceptual overview of the management strategy evaluation modelling process

Data-limited methods and guidelines

The precautionary principle has been widely used in fisheries. Capacity to assess and manage the biological and ecological sustainability of Australia’s fisheries has increased as a result of development of data-poor methods and quality assurance standards for fisheries assessment science (Penney et al. 2016); development of best-practice guidelines for fisheries management (Hobday et al. 2018b); and revision of fisheries harvest strategy, bycatch and ecological risk assessment polices and guidelines for Commonwealth-managed fisheries (Rayns 2007, AFMA 2017b, AFMA 2017a, Department of Agriculture and Water Resources 2018b, Department of Agriculture and Water Resources 2018a).

Other marine management areas that are challenged by data limitations (e.g. reef restoration, mariculture expansion, offshore wind farms) can use tools developed in fisheries to assess impacts from marine activities, or to plan interventions to recover degraded systems. Standard procedures, as used in fisheries, can be used to guide decision-makers and investment by marine managers.

Integrated assessment of system risks and performance

Recent years have seen a broadening of the fisheries management focus to cover other species, as well as economic, governance and social performance of a fishery. The increase in the number of issues to be considered by management can also increase the cost of management, particularly in the case of ecological risks (Dichmont et al. 2017). In addition to these aspects, managers must now also consider climate change, cumulative impacts, market pressures, eco-certification, Indigenous and recreational fishing. There is impetus for future management arrangements to also encompass issues such as the carbon footprint and nutritional contribution of fisheries. Management arrangements in several fisheries have expanded to account for cultural, economic and social sustainability. In some cases, fishing rights have been granted to Traditional Owners (e.g. Kimberley Mud Crab Fishery in Western Australia; DPIRD 2018) and formal allocations have been made that account for recreational fishing exploitation in the total allowable catch (e.g. southern bluefin tuna; AFMA 2019).

System models that account for multiple aspects can be used to examine system risks and cumulative impacts. While fisheries have a formal management mandate, many nonfishery systems take a sector-based management approach, with no mechanism for harmonisation (Stephenson et al. 2019). Marine management can become more holistic, if common objectives and tools can be integrated across disparate sectors.

Case Study Indigenous commercial fishing in New South Wales

Stephan Schnierer, Chairperson, NSW Aboriginal Land Council, Fishing Fund Advisory Committee

Indigenous people have a long history of fishing in New South Wales aquatic ecosystems, targeting a wide range of fish and invertebrate species for food, trade and barter, and cultural connection to Country (Schnierer 2011, Schnierer & Egan 2015, Schnierer & Egan 2016). Although European colonisation of New South Wales successively disconnected Indigenous people from their traditional lands and waters, some communities maintained their cultural fishing practices, and some people became licensed Indigenous fishers (Schnierer & Egan 2012, Voyer et al. 2016). Until the early 1990s, there were Aboriginal people in the New South Wales commercial fishing sector, although the actual numbers are unknown. Anecdotal evidence suggests that there may have been 100 or more.

In 2012, research on Indigenous commercial fishing participation found 45 people working in the New South Wales commercial wild-catch fishing sector and 2 in the aquaculture sector (Schnierer & Egan 2012). Most of these participants had spent their working lives as professional fishers, fishing mostly on their traditional Country in nearshore coastal fisheries. At that time, Indigenous fishers represented around 2.6% of the approximately 1,000 New South Wales fishing businesses and 3.1% of total fishing shares held in New South Wales (Schnierer & Egan 2012).

Issues of importance

Some key issues of concern for Indigenous commercial fishers in New South Wales include loss of access to fishable waters from their traditional Country through the establishment of marine parks and recreational fishing areas, the distinction drawn between Indigenous cultural fishing and commercial fishing, the management costs associated with remaining in the sector, fisheries management approaches that have been implemented without assessing the impacts on Indigenous commercial fishing, the lack of genuine support from non-Indigenous commercial fishers, and perceived failure of fisheries management to address concerns they have raised on various New South Wales Fisheries advisory committees (see Schnierer & Egan 2012, Voyer et al. 2016, Barclay 2020).

Current state

The New South Wales commercial fishing industry is made up of 10 major wild-harvest fisheries managed under 2 different management regimes: the share management fisheries and the restricted fisheries. There are 7 share management fisheries in New South Wales: the Estuary General Fishery (EGF), the Ocean Hauling Fishery (OHF), the Estuary Prawn Trawl Fishery, the Ocean Trap and Line Fishery, the Ocean Trawl Fishery, the Lobster Fishery and the Abalone Fishery (NSW DPI 2019). To be a commercial fisher in New South Wales requires a commercial fishing licence and a fishing business, or access to a fishing business, with the minimum required number of shares.

Indigenous commercial fishers are found predominantly in the EGF and the OHF (Schnierer & Egan 2012). Aboriginal people in the commercial sector have declined over the past 10 years. In 2012, there were 31 Indigenous fishing businesses; in 2021, that number is 22 (Schnierer & Egan 2012; shareholding information for New South Wales commercial share management fisheries, as at 25 March 2021). The reasons for this decline are not clear but may be related to the recent implementation of structural adjustment reforms in the commercial sector (Barclay 2020).

Significance to community

Indigenous commercial fishing contributes to the health and wellbeing of Indigenous communities in a range of ways, including provision of culturally and materially important food, involvement in cultural practices, and provision of employment opportunities (Schnierer & Egan 2012, Voyer et al. 2016).

Indigenous commercial fishers in the OHF and the EGF often provide some of their catch to their communities, especially during seasonal runs of culturally iconic species such as sea mullet (Mugil cephalus). This sharing of catch can be an important nutritional boost for Aboriginal community members, especially Elders (Schnierer & Egan 2012). During the mullet season, local Indigenous communities will come down to the beach to help their fishers pull the nets and load the fish into boxes. This activity provides opportunities to strengthen social connections and share traditional fishing knowledge within the fishers’ community (Schnierer & Egan 2012, Voyer et al. 2016).


New South Wales fisheries are managed by the NSW Department of Primary Industries under the Fisheries Management Act 1994 and the Marine Estate Management Act 2014, while seeking consistency with Australia’s National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development 1992.

Each fishery has a management strategy and plan in place. As of 2021, the NSW Department of Primary Industries is developing harvest strategies for each fishery.

Aboriginal interests are represented on the main fisheries advisory bodies, including the Ministerial Fisheries Advisory Council, the Commercial Fishing NSW Advisory Council and the Recreational Fishing NSW Advisory Council. The Aboriginal Fishing Advisory Council advises on a range of fisheries management issues and oversees expenditure from the Aboriginal Fishing Trust Fund.


Continuation of Indigenous participation in New South Wales commercial fisheries will require innovative and supportive polices and strategies that recognise cultural differences between non-Indigenous commercial fishing and Indigenous commercial fishing. Also needed is capacity building that enables Indigenous commercial fishers to keep up with fisheries management changes that impact their ability to stay in the sector (Schnierer et al. 2018).

In recent years, 2 fishing funds have been established in New South Wales. The first is the New South Wales Government’s Aboriginal Fishing Trust Fund, which provides grants and loans to enhance, maintain and protect Aboriginal cultural fishing, and for Aboriginal communities to develop businesses associated with fisheries resources throughout New South Wales. The second is the NSW Aboriginal Land Council Fishing Fund, which is a partnership with the Australian Government’s National Indigenous Australians Agency to support the growth and development of the New South Wales Aboriginal fishing industry to achieve long-term economic and employment opportunities.