Management of specific sectors and resources

Much of environmental management in Australia is focused on specific sectors or resources. While this can enable a focus on specific pressures and needs, lack of coordination and duplication of effort can reduce management effectiveness and waste resources.

Assessment Management of specific sectors and resources
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.

Management of sectors and resources varies widely. Restoration programs, species protection and protected areas are all contributing to effective management, although targets in many areas are not being met. Management actions are taking place but have not been able to change the negative trajectories of many threatened species. The protected area estate is growing in size, although recent years have seen more focus on lower protection levels.
Assessments of management effectiveness range from ineffective to effective
Assessments of trend range from deteriorating to improving
Related to United Nations Sustainable Development Goal targets 2.3, 6.1, 6.4, 6.5, 7.2, 8.4, 8.9, 11.4, 11.a, 12.2, 14.5, 14.6, 14.b, 15.1, 15.5, 15.6

Protected areas

Australia has one of the world’s largest networks of terrestrial and marine protected areas, covering almost 20% of the land area and just over 36% of the ocean area. This includes a variety of types of areas and approaches, including national parks and nature reserves, Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs), private protected areas and shared management areas.

Between 2016 and 2020, the overall area of land and ocean managed for conservation has expanded, including through increases in IPAs, and the community and private sectors. Approximately 1.7 million hectares of terrestrial protected area has been added in the past 5 years, equating to an additional 1.5% of terrestrial protected area. Approximately 2.3 million hectares of marine protected area (MPA) has been added in the past 5 years, equating to an additional 0.7% of MPA. The MPA estate for all Australian waters has increased from 9.4% in 2010 to 36.1% in 2020; however, much of this area offers only partial protection (International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) categories III–VI).

The overall level of protection of these areas (as defined by the IUCN) has decreased with the proportion of Australian lands under the highest level of protection (IUCN categories I and II), falling from 8% to 7.5%, and in the oceans from 13.5% to 9.1%. When considering the highest levels of protection (IUCN categories I–III), most of Australia’s ecoregions fall short of the 2020 Aichi target under the Convention on Biological Diversity. The growth in terrestrial protected areas since 2010 has been almost exclusively in multi-use, partially protected areas.

Protected areas are widely considered to be the best way to protect biodiversity, maintain the diversity and quality of ecosystems, and improve their capacity to adapt to change and provide for the needs of future generations. In addition to achieving environmental outcomes, protected lands and seas improve human health and wellbeing through contact with nature – benefiting and diversifying local communities, building understanding of natural systems, and strengthening resilience to climate change.

The goal of the National Reserve System is to develop and effectively manage a comprehensive, adequate and representative national system of protected areas. Although the overall land and marine area protected in Australia exceeded Aichi targets (Figure 27) (i.e. at least 17% of terrestrial and inland water areas, and 10% of coastal and marine areas), they did not meet the 2020 Aichi target 11 ‘ecologically representative’ criterion of ‘including at least 10% of each ecoregion within the country’. Of 88 land bioregions (excluding the Coral Sea Marine Region), 27 (31%) are still below 10% protected, mostly in inland areas, particularly of eastern Australia (Taylor 2020). Of 43 marine bioregions, 6 (14%) are still below 10%, mostly in south-eastern waters.

Figure 27 Land and marine protected areas in Australia

The 2020 Aichi target also called for protected areas to be equitable, with full participation of local and Indigenous communities. In recent years, we have seen an increase in IPAs and co-management of protected areas in Australia. Ongoing challenges remain, however, in terms of sustainable, long-term funding and rate of investment per hectare. Consultation and planning for additional IPAs have been supported by $15 million that was committed by the Australian Government in 2017, and a further $11.6 million that followed in 2021 to expand IPAs into sea Country (DAWE 2021d, NIAA 2021). The security of this tenure is not recognised under most state legislation, and IPAs are not yet an enduring form of protection because they are a voluntary agreement that exists for 20 years. At the end of the voluntary agreement, the owners have the right to change the land use.

In total, our MPA network comprises almost 3.35 million square kilometres and 441 protected areas, 327 of which are in state or territory waters. MPAs aim to conserve biological diversity and ecological processes, and protect the sustainable use of natural resources, cultural values and Indigenous uses. However, protection levels vary. IUCN categories I and II are fully protected ‘no take’ or sanctuary zones, but categories III and IV allow some fishing and other extractive industries. Queensland has the largest total area under full protection, closely followed by Western Australia. In the Northern Territory, no MPAs are fully protected areas, but in Tasmania 87% of MPAs are fully protected.

It is not currently possible to assess the overall effectiveness of management of Australia’s national marine conservation estate, but recent research indicates that, on average, Australia’s marine reserves provide significant benefits to fished species (e.g. Bosch et al. 2021, Goetze et al. 2021). However, concerns have been raised that the efficacy of Australia’s reserve system may have been degraded by a trend over time for downgrading protection levels (Cockerell et al. 2020), and that Australia’s marine reserve system is not currently functioning as a connected network because of breaks in the connectivity of reef habitat (Roberts et al. 2021). In addition, only around 25% of these protected areas provide the highest level of protection against extractive uses. For example, Cockerell et al. (2020) and Turnbull et al. (2021b) question the system’s potential to reduce threats to biodiversity. Current work being done to develop integrated approaches to monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of management of Australia’s marine parks is yet to report (Parks Australia 2021b).

Private conservation has been growing in the past decade, currently covering about 6% of all protected areas. Individuals, nongovernment organisations and businesses are increasingly purchasing and managing significant tracts of land for conservation. A few nongovernment organisations own and manage a large number of properties managed for conservation. For example, the Australian Wildlife Conservancy owns, manages or works in partnership on 31 locations covering more than 6.5 million hectares. Bush Heritage Australia owns 36 reserves covering 1.2 million hectares of land. In addition, Bush Heritage Australia works in partnership with several Traditional Owner groups to deliver conservation and socio-economic outcomes across more than 10 million hectares.

Antarctica has a high level of environmental protection – and terrestrial and marine areas of outstanding environmental, scientific, historical, aesthetic or wilderness value are specially protected areas. However, the management of the Antarctic protected areas and the World Heritage Areas in the subantarctic have been assessed as partially effective, reflecting in part the complexities facing the 54 member nations of the Antarctic Treaty. Since 2016, climate change, increasing human activities and the competing geopolitical interests of treaty members have made it more difficult for Australia to achieve its aspirations within the Antarctic Treaty system.

Case Study Conservation through an integrated landscape approach

James Hattam, Tasmanian Land Conservancy

National parks and other public reserves play an important role in protecting landscapes and wildlife. But, under a rapidly changing environment, they alone are not enough.

By increasing the extent and diversity of habitats protected, private land conservation is increasingly playing a very important role in achieving effective and long-term conservation outcomes.   

Nowhere is this more evident than on the Freycinet Peninsula on Tasmania’s east coast, which contains a network of protected land, conserved through both public and private efforts. 

The iconic Freycinet National Park was Tasmania’s first national park and contains the jagged granite peaks of The Hazards, which dominate the landscape. Ecologically significant features occur in the national park and throughout the surrounding landscape. 

In this landscape, public reserves are surrounded and strengthened by a network of properties protected under private land conservation initiatives. Private land initiatives have been steadily increasing over the past 3 years, and are critical in creating and maintaining ecological links across the landscape. 

Each year, hundreds of thousands of people stop at the popular Cherry Tree Hill lookout (Figure 28) to appreciate this remarkable landscape. From Cherry Tree Hill, you can see the protected landscapes of The Hazards, Freycinet National Park and the Ramsar-listed Moulting Lagoon. Look back over your shoulder, and from there you can see more than 60 privately protected conservation properties scattered through the landscape. These include 2 Tasmanian Land Conservancy reserves, 2 Bush Heritage Australia reserves, 30 covenanted private properties, 8 Revolving Fund properties and 20 Land for Wildlife properties. Collectively, these private land programs conserve more than 5,000 hectares of this ecologically important landscape. 

Figure 28 Cherry Tree Hill lookout, Tasmania

Photo: James Hattam

Biodiversity and natural resources

The Samuel Review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) (Samuel 2020) noted that:


The current streams of Australian Government funding allocated towards environmental protection, conservation and restoration, despite being aligned with matters of national environmental significance (MNES), are not comprehensively coordinated to prioritise investment in a way that achieves the greatest possible biodiversity benefits. Funding is often spread thinly across the nation, and the link between the investment of program funds on a particular project and outcomes for MNES can be difficult to discern.

Following Australia’s ratification of the United Nations (UN) Convention on Biological Diversity in 1993, all Australian governments agreed on the need for a collaborative strategy to manage our biological diversity, starting in 1996 with the National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia’s Biological Diversity. This was followed in 2010 by Australia’s Biodiversity Conservation Strategy 2010–2030 as the guiding framework for conserving the nation’s biodiversity. A review of the progress of the Biodiversity Conservation Strategy found that it had not effectively influenced biodiversity conservation activities; it was not possible to report achievement against its targets; it did not engage, guide or communicate its objectives in a useful way; and, going forward, increased coordination of effort on shared priorities for biodiversity management would be needed (Biodiversity Working Group 2016).

In 2019, Australian, state and territory environment ministers endorsed a new Australia’s Strategy for Nature 2019–2030 to guide the development of new and innovative approaches to biodiversity conservation. The strategy functions as a policy umbrella over other national, state, territory and local government strategies, policies, programs and regulations. It sets 3 priorities for actions:

  • connecting all Australians with nature
  • improving conservation management
  • sharing and building knowledge to make better decisions.

The strategy strives to incorporate adaptation, resilience and sustainable natural resource management in its scope. The strategy's associated website, Australia’s Nature Hub (Australian governments 2021) provides links to select national, state and territory strategies and actions towards the 2020 Aichi targets and the Sustainable Development Goals (see Sustainable development), as well as national goals. However, the new strategy has been met with some criticism, mainly because there is no associated action plan for guiding and prioritising investment, there is no coordinated approach to monitoring outcomes, and progress measures lack detail and specific, measurable targets. A working group comprising officials from environment departments across Australia is responsible for evaluating and reporting on implementation of the strategy to environment ministers every 2 years; progress reports are to be published every 4 years, aligning with Australia’s reporting to the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Biodiversity programs

In general, biodiversity conservation has rapidly shifted in recent decades to embrace landscape-scale conservation planning, which aims to support biodiversity alongside agricultural and other human land uses (see Integrated management).

This decade has been declared the UN Decade for Ecosystem Restoration (UNEP & FAO 2021). A diverse range of restoration programs are presented in this report, including Lord Howe Island rodent eradication, with resulting restoration of native species; coastal dune ecosystems; seed banks for flora restoration programs; kelp forests and coral reefs; and native forests, with flow-on effects for carbon storage and the economy.

The National Landcare Program Phase 1 commenced in 2014; Phase 2 commenced during 2017–18 and is being delivered through to 2023. This funding provides for many practical, on-ground elements of natural resource management, mostly focused on maintaining and improving agricultural landscapes. It includes funding to address issues such as loss of vegetation, soil degradation, invasive species, water quality and flows, and changing fire regimes, which has beneficial flow-on effects for biodiversity in the broader landscape (Figure 29).

The Australian Government also funds relevant environmental research programs through the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS). This strategy supports a national network of projects that foster high-quality collaborative research to address key national and global challenges. The Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network, the Integrated Marine Observing System, Bioplatforms Australia and the Atlas of Living Australia are NCRIS facilities supporting biodiversity and environmental programs.

The Bush Blitz program investigates and documents Australian species. Over the past decade, Bush Blitz has discovered more than 1,735 new species, extended the known range of 250 species, and generated more than 500 records of species listed as threatened, along with more than 1,200 records of pest species. The program has also recorded more than 25,000 individual occurrences of plants and animals, which can be accessed by land managers, scientists and the general public using online tools such as the Atlas of Living Australia. Bush Blitz is now Australia’s largest nature discovery program, with $11 million funded over 5 years until 2023 as a joint partnership between the Australian Government and a major corporate sponsor, BHP. Recent analysis of the Bush Blitz program has shown that it adds records of new, or previously unrecorded, species at a rate much greater than ‘background’ survey efforts, such as those previously undertaken by museums, universities and citizen science (Ware et al. in preparation).

Figure 29 Landcare ACT volunteers doing bushfire recovery work in Namadgi National Park, 2021

Threatened species and communities

In 2015, the Australian Government adopted a Threatened Species Strategy that established national priority action areas and targets to report against in 2020 (Table 1). The strategy achieved partial success in its aim to improve the trajectories of 71 priority species by 2020 (20 mammals, 21 birds and 30 plants). The results showed that 34% of the priority species had an improved population trajectory from 2015 to 2020, compared with the 10 years before the strategy (2005–15). Fourteen species were in recovery, moving from a trajectory of decline in 2005–15 to a trajectory of increase in 2015–20; 7 species were found to be declining but at a significantly slower rate; and 3 species were found to be recovering at a significantly faster rate. The remaining 51 priority species did not show significant improvements. Over the past 5 years, the number of threatened species listed under the EPBC Act rose to 1,918 plant and animal species, with some species transferred to a higher threat category. The number of listed entities will increase substantially in 2021 and 2022 as a result of the 2019–20 bushfires.

Targets that reflected recovery action being undertaken were generally met; however, those that reflected actual changes in threatened species trajectories were largely not met. There was no target reflecting improved trajectories for threatened ecological communities, and therefore it is not possible to determine whether the actions taken for these communities have been effective. Where targets have been achieved, some additional conservation programs are already being implemented and conservation benefits realised.

Table 1 Some results against species trajectory targets of the Threatened Species Strategy 2015–20

5-year target

Overall result


Species trajectory targets

20 priority birds have improved trajectories

Not met

21 bird species were listed as priority species. Over the strategy period:

  • 6 species improved
  • 6 deteriorated
  • 4 were reasonably stable
  • 5 had trajectories that may have changed but not significantly so.

Following the 2019–20 bushfires, 3 of the 21 priority bird species –regent honeyeater, eastern bristlebird and western ground parrot – were identified as priorities for urgent management intervention by the Wildlife and Threatened Species Bushfire Recovery Expert Panel. These species are now receiving targeted support for recovery

20 priority mammals have improved trajectories

Not met

20 mammal species were listed as priority species. Over the strategy period:

  • 8 species improved
  • 5 deteriorated
  • 1 was reasonably stable
  • 6 had trajectories that may have changed but not significantly so.

On-ground recovery actions to protect Australia’s mammals include monitoring, habitat restoration, and reducing the impact of predators such as feral cats and red foxes. Where threats in the wild are too great for threatened mammals to persevere, establishing ex situ populations in predator-free safe havens has been supported through funding for captive breeding and translocation programs

30 priority plant species have improved trajectories

Not met

30 plant species were listed as priority species. Over the strategy period:

  • 10 species improved
  • 4 deteriorated
  • 16 were reasonably stable or had a nonsignificant change in trajectory.

Increasing monitoring efforts over 2015–20 led to discoveries of new populations for some plants, revealing them to be more common than originally assessed (e.g. Fitzgerald’s mulla mulla, which has subsequently been delisted under the EPBC Act, and the purple wattle).

For 4 of the 30 priority plant species – Banksia vincentia, blue-top sun-orchid, silver daisy bush and scaly-leaved featherflower – considerable doubts were raised about their taxonomic validity over the course of the strategy

100% of Australia’s known threatened plant species are stored in one or more of Australia’s conservation seed banks

Not met

Approximately 67% of Australia’s listed threatened plant species (930 of 1,373 species) are now stored in conservation seed banks. Recent research suggests that some of the remaining species may not be amenable to traditional seed-banking methods.

Although some threatened species are represented by multiple collections of suitable size, many species are represented by collections of fewer than 500 seeds

Recovery actions are underway for at least 50 plants


Recovery actions are underway for all 30 targeted plant species under the strategy. The 5-year report notes that hundreds of other listed plant species also have recovery actions underway through a range of government and nongovernment programs and initiatives

Recovery actions are underway for at least 60 threatened ecological communities


Recovery actions are underway for more than 60 threatened ecological communities via programs such as 20 Million Trees (at least 54 sites), Regional Land Partnerships (32 different communities) and bushfire recovery programs (16 priority threatened ecological communities)

Source: Australian Government (2015)

Figure 30 Three species in the Threatened Species Strategy that are in recovery, moving from a trajectory of decline in 2005–15 to a trajectory of increase in 2015–20; clockwise from top left: orange‑bellied parrot; matchstick banksia; numbat

Photos: Parrot – Graeme Chapman; banksia – Western Australian Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions; numbat – Alexander Dudley

A new Threatened Species Strategy 2021–2031 was released in May 2021 that continues work on some of the established priorities from the 2015 strategy, but also broadens the scope, and includes new and emerging challenges. The Threatened Species Strategy Action Plan 2021–2026 now includes reptiles, frogs, insects and fish to add to the priority birds, mammals and plants identified in the first strategy. Furthermore, there is a new focus on ‘priority places’, and a greater focus on landscape-scale actions that are fundamental to the recovery of threatened species.

The estimated cost of recovery of threatened species in Australia is much greater than the amount we actually spend (see Threatened species and environmental restoration funding). Wintle et al. (2019) estimated the required expenditure to be close to $1.69 billion dollars per year; the targeted threatened species spending for 2018–19 by the Australian Government was estimated to be $49.6 million. This spending includes support for activities such as captive breeding of a threatened species or targeted threat management (e.g. fox control) to secure a population of a threatened species. The efforts of the private sector, local government, nongovernment organisations and private citizens make a significant contribution to threatened species recovery and are not included in the estimates in Wintle et al. (2019). There are also many caveats associated with the estimates, in part because clear reporting on expenditure is not available, and the costs of managing pressures are very difficult to estimate. This is borne out in the declining trajectories of many native species, and in the increasing extent and magnitude of threatening processes and pressures.

The protection of terrestrial threatened species within the National Reserve System has improved over the past decade: 92 EPBC Act–listed species attained minimum protection standards (30% of their range) between 2010 and 2020, and 27 species went from being totally unprotected to having some level of protection. However, 129 species still lack any protection, and a further 541 are below halfway to meeting the standard. Critically Endangered species have the lowest levels of attainment of the minimum standard in the National Reserve System, with 42 Critically Endangered species having no protection. Threatened mammals and birds are relatively well protected in the National Reserve System, whereas threatened invertebrates and plants are the least well protected. Overall, marine, migratory and coastal species are better protected in Australia’s protected systems than terrestrial or freshwater species.

Indigenous lands in Australia support a high proportion of threatened species. Approximately three-quarters of Australia’s terrestrial or freshwater vertebrate species that are listed as threatened under the EPBC Act have ranges that overlap Indigenous lands. Twenty-two threatened species have more than 75% of their range on Indigenous land, including 5 species with more than 99% of their range on Indigenous land.

Only 16% (13 of 84) of Australia’s nationally listed threatened ecological communities meet a 30% minimum protection standard in the National Reserve System. Three Critically Endangered communities with small areas of known or likely-to-occur habitat have no protection of their habitat: Hunter Valley Weeping Myall (Acacia pendula) Woodland has only 21 hectares of known or likely habitat; the Elderslie Banksia Scrub Forest in the Sydney Basin Bioregion has only 621 hectares; and the Warkworth Sands Woodland, also in the Sydney Basin Bioregion, has only 800 hectares.

At June 2020, 719 recovery plans were in place for species (for 1,891 listed species), and 27 were in place for ecological communities (for 87 listed ecological communities). An approved conservation advice was in place for 1,431 species and 71 ecological communities (DAWE 2020h), but many of these plans are out of date, have expired or will sunset in the near future. Recovery plans and conservation advices are critical national planning processes to facilitate national action on threatened species and ecological communities, to engage communities, to monitor progress, and to report on outcomes and conservation success. There have been many reported conservation success stories in Australia where appropriately resourced and implemented recovery programs, supported by dedicated people, have led to improved conservation outcomes (Latch 2018). But there is no requirement to implement or fund a recovery plan or conservation advice, or report on progress and the outcomes achieved.

The lack of requirement to implement recovery plan actions, and the lack of monitoring of recovery actions, are major impediments to understanding the effectiveness of recovery programs. The recent review of the EPBC Act noted that the considerable effort given to the assessment and listing process is not matched by attention and resources dedicated to effective recovery (Samuel 2020). Experts have forecast that another 7 Australian mammals and 10 Australian birds will be extinct within 20 years unless management is greatly improved (Geyle et al. 2018).

There are 13 approved threat abatement plans covering diseases, feral animals, pollution and bycatch (DAWE 2021c). The threat abatement plan for incidental or bycatch of seabirds during oceanic longline fishing operations (2018) stipulates required research and management actions. Australia has formulated a national strategy for the protection of threatened albatross and petrel species. There are some encouraging signs of recovery; however, populations of some species are still decreasing.

Translocations of threatened species are now commonly used to mitigate the impacts of development, and at least 1,000 plant translocations have occurred since 1950. Survival rates are low, however, with only 13% of assessed translocations considered to have sufficient plants surviving to support ongoing recruitment (Silcock et al. 2019). Translocation of threatened animals to islands and fenced areas is increasing, with relatively high success rates: 86% for islands and 70% for fenced areas.

Water resources

Climate change and associated extreme events are revealing deficiencies in areas of environmental management. For example, the driving national framework for water reform has been the National Water Initiative (NWI), which built on previous national reform agreements. The NWI delivered sizeable benefits to the environment, the water sector and water users, including agriculture. However, it is now 17 years since the NWI was negotiated, and severe droughts have exposed vulnerabilities in water resource management and service provision.

Much has been learned about environmental requirements and responses, integrated management, and the importance of regulatory integrity and community confidence. With the challenges of climate change and increasing extreme events, along with growing community expectations for environmental condition and Indigenous inclusion, the current institutional architecture that supported the NWI has been substantially eroded and is no longer fit for the scale of the water challenge facing Australia. The Productivity Commission has called for a renewal of the reform commitment, with greater recognition of climate change in water planning and management, a focus on water service provision, and a framework for major water infrastructure provision (Productivity Commission 2021a). The Productivity Commission highlights the need for renewed action in national water policy that builds confidence in reform effort and supports cooperation between jurisdictions (Productivity Commission 2021a).

Integrated water management

Since 2016, states and territories have made improvements in specifying environmental objectives for inland waters and in linking broader environmental outcomes to water management through new or revised water planning, although objectives for groundwater-dependent ecosystems remain less well specified (Productivity Commission 2021a). There is also improvement in the integration of the management of groundwater and surface water systems – these are often physically linked, and consumptive demand shifts between them in response to climatic and other conditions.

To deliver agreed environment outcomes, it is essential that environmental water is integrated with nonflow waterway management, which is subject to different management arrangements and accountabilities. Weeds, grazing, introduced species, loss of in‑stream habitat and other pressures can work against the long-term aims of environmental watering. Balancing social, economic and environmental outcomes requires further improvements in the delivery of integrated planning that builds on our current system of environmental flows through additional complementary management arrangements.

One of Australia’s most productive regions is the Murray–Darling Basin. Surface water diversions and extensive river regulation, combined with climate change, have resulted in major changes to flow and flood regimes for rivers and wetlands in the Basin. The Commonwealth Water Act 2007 is enacted through the Murray–Darling Basin Plan, which is a tool for returning water to the environment by reducing the amount taken for irrigation and other consumptive uses (MDBA 2012). The environmental objectives of the Basin Plan are to protect and restore flow-, flood- and groundwater-dependent ecosystems, and ensure that they are resilient to climate change and other threats. The Basin-wide Environmental Watering Strategy (MDBA 2019) provides details of how the environmental objectives of the Basin Plan are to be implemented, including expected outcomes for river flows and connectivity, native vegetation, waterbirds and fishes.

Recent reviews into compliance and enforcement in the Murray–Darling Basin found numerous shortcomings around governance, practice and resourcing, resulting in growing mistrust and a lack of confidence in water system management during the drought (Productivity Commission 2021a). These failures, and consequent significant media attention and public dissatisfaction, led to the Murray–Darling Basin Compliance Compact being signed by Basin governments in 2018. The compact seeks to restore public confidence in water resource management in the Basin. The Australian Government has established the new statutory role of the Inspector-General of Water Compliance (IGWC) – independent of the Murray–Darling Basin Authority and taking on its previous compliance and enforcement activities. The IGWC has oversight of water management in the Basin and inquiry powers to investigate implementation of the Water Act, the Basin Plan and intergovernmental agreements, including the Murray–Darling Basin Agreement. Several states also undertook institutional reform to improve the integrity of water management, including establishment of the Natural Resource Access Regulator in New South Wales.

For Indigenous people, water is at the core of their culture and ways of knowing, being and doing. Because Australia is the driest inhabited continent on Earth, Indigenous knowledge of water is essential to the survival of its people. Indigenous cultural and spiritual values for water may relate to a range of uses and issues, including spiritual relationships, language, songlines, stories, sacred places, customary use, the plants and animals associated with water, drinking water, and recreational or commercial activities (DAWE 2018). Water is also strong in lore, song, dance and dreaming, and plays a significant role in the health and wellbeing of Indigenous people (Moggridge & Thompson 2021).

Indigenous people call for greater input into management of water, including cultural or Indigenous flows. Cultural or Indigenous flows (Moggridge et al. 2019) are water entitlements owned by Indigenous nations that sufficiently and adequately allow them to improve the spiritual, cultural, environmental, social and economic conditions of Indigenous people (MLDRIN 2007, NCFRP 2021). The Indigenous Environmental Watering Guidance Project, through the Commonwealth Environmental Water Office, involves the Australian Government working with the Murray–Darling Basin Authority, the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations and the Northern Basin Aboriginal Nations to incorporate Indigenous environmental watering objectives into planning for environmental flows at a Basin scale. 

Alternative water resources

The millennium drought prompted increased investment in less climate-dependent water sources, including desalination and recycling. Most major urban centres, including Perth, Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and the Gold Coast, now have desalination plants integrated into their water services provision. In 2019–20, desalinated water provided 4% of water supply, a substantial increase on the previous year, as urban water utilities sought to manage pressure on their storages from low inflows. Perth built its first desalination plant in 2006, in response to a major reduction in inflows into its storages over several decades. It now relies on groundwater and desalination for the bulk of its urban supply; desalination contributed 47% in 2019–20 (BOM 2021a). Melbourne Water reports that, without the desalinated water ordered since 2017, its water storages would have been around 15% lower at 1 January 2021 (Melbourne Water 2021). Desalination also has a role in mitigating the supply impacts of other extreme events, buffering the water quality impacts of flooding and bushfires.

Australia’s total desalination capacity is about 880 gigalitres (GL) per year from 270 desalination plants, of which the major urban plants account for 534 GL. The balance is supplied by the many small-scale plants that desalinate both sea water and brackish groundwater for remote, regional and industrial supply. Management of potential impacts of desalination plant effluent has generally been good in Australia; published studies indicate small ecological impacts of brine release in offshore environments (Clark et al. 2018, Kelaher et al. 2019). However, further work is required to consider the impact of desalinated brine in flow-restricted freshwater systems.

Recycled water in Australia is mainly used for nondrinking purposes, such as watering of public spaces, industrial use or irrigation. It is also used for groundwater recharge in some areas. Total recycled water used in major urban centres in Australia was 145 GL in 2019–20, more than double the 70 GL used in 2010–11. Recycled water is equivalent to 8% of the total water sourced in major urban centres, and this proportion is expected to grow.

Coastal and marine

One of the most complex areas of management in Australia is the coastal zone, where most of our population lives. It involves local councils, which maintain many coastal reserves; state and territory governments, which are responsible for waters out to 3 nautical miles from shore; and the Australian Government, which manages waters beyond that, as well as Defence lands and several Commonwealth national parks. Coastal management generally lacks Indigenous leadership and contributions.

Overall, the management of Australia’s marine estate is effective and improving at a sectoral level. However, climate change and cumulative impacts are not dealt with adequately, and there is a need for widespread uptake of integrated management approaches (see Integrated management). Since 2016, controls on the introduction and spread of invasive species have improved, and more effective curbs on the run-off or discharge of nutrient pollution into coastal waterways have been implemented. The flow of potentially harmful nutrients into the waters of the Great Barrier Reef also decreased, although it remains a significant threat. In addition, management of threatened coastal species is ineffective and deteriorating. There are inconsistencies in habitat protection, and poorly coordinated management between local councils, and the Australian, state and territory governments.

Most management is specific to the sector. For example, fisheries, oil and gas, mining and environmental protection are all managed under separate legislation and policy frameworks specific to each jurisdiction.

In some areas, Australia is considered to be advanced in sector-specific policies and guidance for broader species management, such as the Commonwealth Policy on Fisheries Bycatch and the Commonwealth Fisheries Harvest Strategy Policy. Australia’s partnership approach to commercial fishing, linking managers, commercial fishers, scientists and other stakeholders, is recognised globally (Marchal et al. 2016) as a best-practice example for fisheries management and natural resource management more broadly. Almost all fisheries management agencies use, or are planning to use, evidence-based processes, such as harvest strategies for commercially important species, to determine sustainable catch levels. However, some jurisdictions are lagging in the adoption of such practices, and further resourcing is required to increase the speed of implementation.

Since 2016, sustainability has been improved by implementation of more harvest strategies and risk assessments of the broader impacts of commercial fishing on marine ecosystems. Improved coordination of research and development, and national best-practice guidelines led to the benchmarking of more stocks against sustainable reference points (Little & Hill 2021). An increasing range of mechanisms and technical tools have also been used to reduce interactions of fishing vessels and gear with seabirds, marine mammals, reptiles and other vulnerable species. A National Fisheries Plan is due to be released in 2021 to provide a strategic framework for a clear and consistent national approach.

Management of Australia’s recreational fisheries is less effective but is also improving. Harvest strategies are increasingly using data collected through recreational fishing surveys, enabling the integration of fisheries management between commercial, recreational and Indigenous fisheries sectors (Ryan et al. 2016). A recent example is a recreational fishing allocation for the Southern Bluefin Tuna Fishery, set at 5% of Australia’s total allowable catch, informed by a national recreational fishing survey (Tracey et al. 2020). Although cooperation and coordination have grown across jurisdictions, there is still only limited alignment of commercial, recreational and Indigenous management policies, strategies and planning.


The long-term protection of Australian heritage is primarily achieved through dedicated heritage or protected area legislation, but protection in some areas is also provided by statutory planning, high-level policy and multilateral government agreements. Australia’s national framework and legislation are failing to adequately protect heritage – not all heritage is protected, not all protected heritage is being adequately managed, and much of the legislation is outdated. These failings are leading to gaps in protections, and confusion about responsibilities and obligations, especially between levels of government.

Overall, national, state and territory legislation requires strengthening to adequately protect heritage. International and national heritage is covered by the EPBC Act, and there are separate pieces of legislation for Indigenous heritage, underwater cultural heritage and movable cultural heritage. The states and territories have separate, standalone Indigenous and historic heritage legislation that also provides protection through listing. Heritage protection has traditionally focused on the smaller, tangible, ‘place-based’ heritage for protection of sites, built heritage and other structures. However, much of the significance of cultural heritage exists at the landscape scale, and many heritage values are best recognised at this level. There is a need to broaden the scope of cultural heritage and types of heritage that are protected. Such an approach provides benefits for cultural heritage conservation that cannot be reproduced by the conservation of individual heritage items.

Significant reform of Indigenous heritage legislation is required. The destruction of the Juukan Gorge rock‑shelter in 2020 highlighted that the range of legislation that relates to Indigenous heritage is either not working effectively (e.g. the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984, the EPBC Act in relation to emergency powers), or not working effectively together (e.g. the Native Title Act 1993 and state-level Indigenous heritage legislation), resulting in devastating loss of Indigenous heritage. In addition, despite having significant connections to heritage sites, and the knowledge, cultural practices and ecological management that come with this, Indigenous Australians have limited control and decision-making power over the management of Indigenous sites across Australia. This demonstrates a disregard for Indigenous people’s right to self-determination over their cultural heritage, as outlined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Two other areas require legislative reform: the need nationally for legislation to specifically protect geological heritage, and the need to significantly strengthen planning laws and statutory planning provisions Australia-wide to provide effective heritage protection.

Heritage protection and management in Australia are supported by national guidelines and international obligations, including the Australian Natural Heritage Charter for the conservation of places of natural heritage significance, the Australia ICOMOS Charter for the Conservation of Places of Cultural Significance (known as the Burra Charter), and Ask first: a guide to respecting Indigenous heritage places and values (AHC 2002). The general management approach for cultural heritage in Australia is to protect heritage by retaining the heritage values (i.e. retaining heritage significance), which is known as ‘values-based management’.

Although Australia has extensive legislative and policy frameworks for heritage protection, governments are proving slow to respond to heritage challenges – in particular, in addressing Indigenous rights issues in relation to heritage and Country, and the need for improved risk avoidance and mitigation in relation to key pressures. Key improvements in future will be to fill gaps in heritage lists and registers, and to implement condition and impact monitoring, strategic planning, statutory planning and the regulatory framework more generally. Although many tools to undertake the necessary management exist, inadequate resourcing and a lack of leadership are preventing an adequate management response.


Australia’s urban areas are managed across 3 levels of government: local, state and territory, and national. Each of these levels has its own policies, strategies and regulations that are increasingly looking to, and aligning with, international benchmarks and goals, including the UN SDGs. Although management of our urban environment is very complex, sustainability and urban resilience are increasingly being adopted as an overarching objective for urban planning and development. Urban sustainability seeks to improve the livability of our urban areas, including their ecological, social and economic components, without further eroding our environmental assets. To address urban challenges, the concept of regenerative and resilient development is increasingly seen as a better approach than the sustainable development method of simply reducing resources and waste. The regenerative approach aims to dramatically reduce environmental impacts and to improve urban outcomes (Newman 2020).

Indigenous knowledge has been embraced in many major cities and larger regional centres. An improved appreciation and understanding of the traditional culture of the area, informed by Traditional Owners and Custodians or by Indigenous residents, has resulted in design of place, space and built form that is mindful of the needs and ‘voice’ of Country and its custodians. Indeed, there is a burgeoning cultural shift in thinking, demonstrated by inclusive planning legislation, policy development and processes.


Australia gives effect to its international obligations arising from the Antarctic Treaty system through domestic law. The 2 primary pieces of Australian legislation are the Antarctic Treaty (Environment Protection) Act 1980 (which gives effect to the 1991 Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, and includes environmental protection principles, including biosecurity, and requirements for all activities in the Antarctic Treaty area) and the Antarctic Marine Living Resources Conservation Act 1981 (which implements the requirements arising from the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources).

Heard Island and McDonald Islands are World Heritage Areas and are managed by the Australian Government because they are located outside the Antarctic Treaty area. The surrounding waters are protected under the EPBC Act as the Heard Island and McDonald Islands Marine Reserve, which is Australia’s most remote Commonwealth reserve. Macquarie Island and nearby islets are part of the state of Tasmania and are managed by the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment. Macquarie Island is also a World Heritage–listed site.