Marine environment

Bill McCormick, Science, Technology, Environment and Resources

Key Issue
The management arrangements for the Commonwealth Marine Reserve Networks have been reviewed. New management plans are due in coming years.
The question remains as to the level of resource exploitation that will be permitted in these reserves.

Australia has the third largest marine jurisdiction in the world, with an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) covering 8.2 million square kilometres (km2). These oceans are home to 11 per cent of the world’s known marine species, and support over 5,000 species of fish, and about 30 per cent of the world’s sharks and rays. The economic and conservation value of these waters is considerable, as they contain valuable oil and gas fields and fisheries, as well as significant environmental assets such as the coral reefs, mangroves, sea grass beds, kelp forests and rocky reefs that are home to a diverse range of marine plants and animals.

It is essential that economic activity in the oceans can proceed while at the same ensuring that important marine ecosystems are protected from potential damage. For this reason, economic activity is regulated to minimise adverse impacts over much of the EEZ. A key regulatory tool is the declaration of marine reserves, which delineate marine areas of high conservation value where certain economic activities may be restricted. Such restrictions on fishing became an issue in the 2013 election. This led to a review of the recently proclaimed marine reserves (the Marine Reserves Review).

Marine reserves

Marine reserves may be declared in coastal waters by the relevant state or the Northern Territory. In Commonwealth marine areas (generally from three to 200 nautical miles from the coast) the Commonwealth may proclaim reserves under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act).

The first Commonwealth marine reserve to be proclaimed was a section of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (GBRMP) in 1979. Other Commonwealth marine reserves have been declared on an ad hoc basis over the years. In 1998, the Commonwealth, state and Northern Territory governments committed to establishing the National Representative System of Marine Protected Areas by 2012 as a comprehensive, adequate and representative system of marine reserves.

The Regional Marine Planning process was used to develop a system of Commonwealth marine reserves. The first plan to be developed was the South-east Regional Marine Plan in 2003, with the South-east Commonwealth Marine Reserves Network established in 2007. Over the next five years Marine Bioregional Plans and associated Commonwealth Marine Reserve Networks were developed for other regions.

After consulting marine and tourism businesses, environmental groups and the community, in November 2012 the Government proclaimed new reserve networks for the North-west, North, Temperate East and South-west Marine Regions, as well as the Coral Sea Commonwealth Marine Reserve (see Figure 1). Most existing marine reserves were incorporated into these networks. There are now 58 reserves in these networks, covering 2,745 million km2, plus the 344,400 km2 GBRMP and the 71,200 km2 Heard Island and McDonald Islands Marine Reserve.

Commonwealth marine reserves are assigned one or more zones:

  • Sanctuary zone
  • Marine National Park zone
  • Habitat Protection zone
  • Recreational Use zone
  • Conservation Park zone
  • Special Purpose zone and
  • Multiple Use zone.

These zones must be managed in accordance with the Australian IUCN [International Union for the Conservation of Nature] management principles. Management plans outline what activities are permitted in each of the zones in the reserve.

For example, the South-east Commonwealth Marine Reserves Network Management Plan came into operation on 1 July 2013. Under the plan, petroleum exploration and production are only permitted in certain zones (Special Purpose and Multiple Use) and then only with a permit from the Director of National Parks. Fishing using bottom-trawling methods is not permitted in the marine reserves. However, other types of commercial fishing may proceed in Habitat Protection and Multiple Use zones if permitted by the Director of National Parks. Recreational fishing is permitted in all zones except for the Sanctuary and Marine National Park zones.

Management plans for the other networks and the Coral Sea reserve were scheduled to come into effect in July 2014. However, in response to concerns by commercial and recreational fishing groups about the loss of access to significant areas of the oceans, the incoming Coalition Government implemented its 2013 fisheries policy to suspend and review the management plans for the reserves. The management plans for the other networks and the Coral Sea Commonwealth Marine Reserve were invalidated when these marine reserves were revoked and ‘reproclaimed’ in December 2013. The marine reserves are still in place, but with no management plans in place for these reserves, the previous management arrangements were continued, pending the outcomes of the Marine Reserves Review.

Input to the review involved 13,124 submissions, 1,859 responses to an online survey and over 260 meetings and forums around Australia. Proposals were reportedly put forward by the review panel to allow commercial fishing in areas of the reserves where fishing had been banned under the suspended management plans.

The report of the review was given to the Minister for the Environment in December 2015, but has not yet been made public. The Government response to the report will be released later in 2016 and new management plans will then be prepared.


The value of Australian fisheries and aquaculture production in 2013–14 was $2.5 billion, of which $1.5 billion came from the wild-catch sector of state, territory and Commonwealth fisheries. In that year, 3,594 people were employed in fishing enterprises and 5,111 in aquaculture. Recreational fishing is also significant, with 3.5 million people fishing annually. Eighty per cent of the recreational catch comes from estuaries, off beaches and in the ocean.

Under the Offshore Constitutional Settlement, coastal waters are managed by state and Northern Territory fisheries agencies. The Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) manages Commonwealth fisheries that include deepwater or migratory species within the Australian Fishing Zone. These fisheries bodies set harvest strategies to maintain fish stocks at ecologically sustainable levels and aim to reduce bycatch to minimise impacts on the marine environment. For example, from 1 May 2017, all vessels in the South East Trawl sector and the Great Australian Bight Trawl sector will have to use seabird mitigation devices such as a ‘bird baffler’ to deter seabirds from foraging around the fishing vessels.

Figure 1: Commonwealth Marine Reserves Networks

Commonwealth Marine Reserves Networks

Source: Parliamentary Library

All export and all Commonwealth fisheries must be assessed and approved under the EPBC Act to ensure that these fisheries are managed in an ecologically sustainable manner and export approval can be granted. When fish products sourced from specific Commonwealth, state and territory fisheries are destined for export, these fisheries need to be assessed for their environmental performance before export approval can be granted under the EPBC Act. Over 140 fisheries have been approved for export.

The impact on the fishing industry of the new management arrangements for the marine reserves, as declared in 2012, resulted in a proposed Fisheries Adjustment Assistance Package worth around $100 million. After the Marine Reserves Review and the introduction of the revised management plans, it appears there will be a far smaller impact on the commercial fishing industry than under the management plans that were set aside. The Commonwealth has allocated less than half this amount for fisheries adjustment assistance over the next four years.

Offshore petroleum

Significant offshore petroleum production started in Australia after ESSO/BHP Billiton discovered the first offshore gas and oil fields in Bass Strait in the 1960s. At present, production is occurring in waters off Victoria and Western Australia. As well as production licences, there are retention leases and exploration permits in waters off every state and the Northern Territory.

The National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority regulates all offshore petroleum facilities in Commonwealth waters in relation to health and safety, structural integrity and environmental management.

Unlike with commercial fisheries, petroleum licences that already exist at the time a marine reserve is declared, continue in operation irrespective of the zoning and management plans.

Since the management plans for the new marine reserves have been invalidated, the Commonwealth has issued petroleum exploration permits in some of these reserves with the approval of the Director of National Parks. In addition to permits granted in Multiple Use and Special Purpose zones, one permit was granted that overlaps the Habitat Protection Zone of the Gascoyne and Carnarvon Commonwealth Marine Reserves. Such a permit could not have been granted if the proposed management plan had been in place.

Public concerns about the potential impacts of petroleum exploration in the Great Australian Bight (GAB) on critical marine habitat due to seismic activity and deep water drilling led to the establishment in February 2016 of the Senate Standing Committee on Environment and Communications Inquiry into Oil or Gas Production in the Great Australian Bight. The inquiry lapsed with the dissolution of the Senate on 9 May 2016. There are 11 petroleum titles that have been granted in the GAB which overlap Multiple Use and Special Purpose zones of the GAB and the Western Eyre marine reserves.

Climate change and marine reserves

Marine reserves are essential to protect ecosystems, but are not always able to prevent habitat loss due to issues that cannot be directly managed, such as climate change. For example, recent research indicates that the range of the kelp forests of Western Australia has contracted south by 100 km due to several years of heatwaves which started in 2011. This will potentially adversely affect the important lobster and abalone fisheries along the coast.

Further reading

National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA), ‘Activities within Commonwealth Marine Reserves’, 26 November 2015.

Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA), ‘Ecological risk management strategies for Commonwealth commercial fisheries’, AFMA website.


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